The Barrel

I am a writer. On my bookshelves are hundreds of works celebrating, examining and dissecting blackness and the condition it imposes in this country. The second largest genre of book on my shelves are dictionaries. French, Italian, Chinuk Wawa, the Oxford English Dictionary.

I care about words. And I’m ready to jettison some of them.

Sad can go. Sadness is rooted in disappointment. Disappointment is rooted in expectations unmet. One week after George Floyd pleaded for his life beneath the knee of an indifferent Minneapolis Police officer, I am not sad. I wasn’t sad after the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, or the execution by choking of Eric Garner in Staten Island, or the death of Aaron Campbell, fatally shot in the back by a Portland Police officer wielding an AR-15 rifle in Northeast Portland.

I came of age to N.W.A. lyrics protest police violence and racial profiling in 1988. My family hails from St. Louis (of which Ferguson is a suburb), a city with one of the highest rates of police shooting civilians per capita in the United States. Black, brown and Indigenous people have been dying at the hands of police there and elsewhere at rates far in excess to their populations. Last year alone, there were more than 1,000 deaths by police shooting. On Friday, Barack Obama tweeted that for millions of black Americans, being treated differently by the criminal justice system on account of race is “tragically, painfully, maddeningly ‘normal.’ ” Mr. Obama called on the police and the public to create a “new normal,” in which bigotry no longer “infects our institutions and our hearts.”

President Obama is right: these killings reflect a broken policing system.

Time after time, with few consequences or consequences that fail to stick, well-armed U.S. police take the lives of unarmed black people. That’s another term on the list of words I won’t truck with anymore.

“Unarmed black male” presupposes that black men are armed by default. Or that their blackness is a threat as much as a handgun would be. It’s a trash phrase and I implore my former colleagues in newsrooms across the country to abandon it altogether.

They can also shelve “police brutality.”

Those 15 letters aren’t nearly fulsome enough to encapsulate the actions of officers who kill extrajudicially. It doesn’t begin to fit the actions of Derek Chauvin, the now-former officer charged with 3rd degree murder for nonchalantly kneeling on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. It doesn’t fit the death of murder of Laquan McDonald by Chicago police, or the cover up by officers who lied about the shooting for a year before a court ordered the release of a police dash cam video showing him walking away from police when he was shot. It doesn’t capture the violence of officers in communities where outrage has forced people out of their homes and onto the streets amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the demonstrators dressed in cloth face masks, lines of police dressed head to toe in paramilitary fashion, complete with kevlar gloves, ballistic shields, riot duty helmets and body armor.

One final phrase before I wade back into the day: bad apple. Apples are a big crop in the Pacific Northwest. We know our fruit (Cosmic Crisp is a homegrown treat) and we understand bad apples. Those tales of “one bad apple” cop on the street insidiously misuse the proverb, which says “one bad apple spoils the whole barrel.” The whole barrel.

At this moment in history, millions of Americans are protesting that entire barrel. It is the right thing to do.

— Kimberly A.C. Wilson