A White Man Swinging an Axe

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Chris Thinnes 

“There was a better way of handling it
than putting 25 bullets in my baby.”
– Gwen Woods

A year ago, the day before the start of the 2014 NAIS People of Color Conference in Indianapolis, a Staten Island grand jury announced that it refused to seek the criminal indictment of Officer Daniel Pantaleo for killing Mr. Eric Garner. By that point we had all seen, with our own eyes, the video footage documenting Mr. Garner’s death in Officer Pantaleo’s protracted chokehold; we had all heard, with our own ears, Mr. Garner’s haunting incantation of three simple words forever etched in our nation’s memory: I can’t breathe…

Last week, the day before the start of the 2015 People of Color Conference in Tampa, three videos were released documenting the hideous execution of Mr. Mario Woods by officers of the San Francisco Police Department. The news of this homicide was, to a great degree, drowned out by national coverage of the hideous acts of unspeakable violence in San Bernadino. As Sean King confirmed in his recent piece, these videos of Mr. Woods’s death – documenting an act of violence no less unspeakable — dispelled a variety of preliminary insinuations by the San Francisco Police Department and the media:

Mario Woods did not lunge at the police. He did not lift a weapon at them or make a sudden movement. He did not yell that he was going to kill anybody. None of that. The police, it appears, were just ready to get it all over with.

Sean King reminds us of repeated instances of police officers managing to subdue violent white gunmen without injury: “In fact, the list of white mass murderers who have been taken alive by police is a long one.” This includes, most recently, the Planned Parenthood shooter who was known to have slaughtered innocents: “Police, though, found a way to take him into custody alive.” Mario Woods, of course, had not committed a comparable act of violence, whether he was suspected in a recent stabbing or not; he was not carrying a gun, whether he was purported to have been carrying a knife or not; and he was known to have struggled with mental health issues, whether the police took this under consideration or not. Mario Woods, however, was Black.

Sean King’s piece reminded me of a story. Months ago, I was waiting for a cup of coffee at a crowded local Starbucks, when several sheriffs’ cruisers screeched into the parking lot, sirens blaring. A deputy lunged from his car with a shotgun in his hand, and slammed through the doors and into the Starbucks. Visibly agitated, he shouted out, “Has anybody seen a white man swinging an axe?!”

At that moment I turned and looked around the Starbucks, then peered out through the windows across the street. And in the wide-open doorway of the liquor store across the street – the same liquor store in which a white man held a gun to my head in an armed robbery a few years back — I saw Sam, a local man who lives in the ravine up the street, standing there and doing a strange, gyrating dance, swinging his hips from side to side and waving his arms above his head. Having spoken to Sam on a variety of occasions and recognizing that he struggled with mental illness, I was grateful that I didn’t see an axe. Sam fit the description of a “white man,” but he didn’t fit the description of a “white man swinging an axe.” So I just waited, for a moment, for the officer to leave the Starbucks.

Then as I peered back over across the street, Sam — still dancing — lowered one of his waving arms from above his head, reached behind his back, and drew an axe out from his waistband. Now Sam was doing the dance of a white man swinging an axe. And there were customers behind him in the liquor store, visibly freaked out.

Reluctantly and quietly, I motioned to the sheriff’s deputy, and raised my hand to point to Sam. It was a moot point by now: several more sheriff’s cars were now screeching to a halt in the intersection, and those officers were already drawing their weapons on Sam, only to be joined by those who immediately ran over from the Starbucks, with their weapons drawn.

By now there were no less than 12 sheriff’s deputies, guns drawn and pointed at Sam, forming a half circle around him as he danced, swinging his axe, out of the doorway and directly towards the officers. The officers responded not by shooting, but by closing the semicircle tighter still, which caused Sam to move out of doorway and towards the outside wall of the liquor store. The officers shouted at Sam to drop the axe, but he didn’t drop it — at which point I muttered out loud, mostly to myself, “Drop the axe, Sam. Drop the axe, Sam, or you’re going to get killed.”

The standoff continued past the moment when I was sure Sam was going to be shot. Sam continued to hold the axe aloft longer than I imagined possible. But the officers held their fire, and continued slowly to close in on him. Moments later, Sam leaned forward and lowered the axe to the ground. Most of the officers immediately holstered their weapons, as two deputies approached Sam, grabbed his arms, and cuffed him without throwing him to the ground. Sam was placed in the back of a sheriff’s cruiser, and the scene ended without incident.

I have spoken with Sam on a number of occasions since.

I thought of this story when, two weeks ago, I watched the video of Chicago police officers firing 16 shots into the body of Laquan McDonald. I thought of this story when, last week, I watched the videos of these San Francisco police officers forming a semicircle around Mario Woods, and waiting just a few moments to fire 25 shots into him. I think of this story every time police officers take the life of a Black man in America — or, at least, those times we hear about it — in circumstances that, time and time again, lead me, and my wife, and my son, and my friends, only towards a single overwhelming conclusion.

Each time I hear about another police killing of a Black citizen I think to myself, reasonably by this point, that the police have decided that Black lives do not matter. And I wish each time – I know it’s strange, but it’s true – that the victim was merely guilty of having been a white man swinging an axe.


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You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes.