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“America is on Trial”: Historian Ibram X. Kendi on the Failure to Convict Cops Who Kill Black People

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As three Chicago police officers face charges for covering up the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, we will look at the cases of Philando Castile, Sam DuBose and Sylville Smith—three black men killed by police officers. In recent weeks, two of the officers were acquitted; one had a mistrial. Our first guest writes, “[I]t is not just police officers who are on trial. America is on trial. Either these deaths are justified, and therefore America is just, or these deaths are unjustified, and America is unjust.” We speak with historian Ibram X. Kendi. His recent book, “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” is the recipient of the 2016 National Book Award.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Three current and former Chicago police officers were indicted Tuesday on felony charges for conspiring to cover up the 2014 police shooting death of Laquan McDonald, the 17-year-old African-American teenager. Special prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes announced the charges.

PATRICIA BROWN HOLMES: I’m here to announce the indictment by a special grand jury of three current or former Chicago police officers. Officers Joseph Walsh and Thomas Gaffney and Detective David March have been charged with obstruction of justice, official misconduct, and conspiracy to commit both of these offenses. These charges are brought in connection with the police-involved shooting of Laquan McDonald in October of 2014. Investigating and charging police officers with crimes relating to their duties is a sobering responsibility. While they are sworn to serve and protect, as well as uphold the law, they are not above the law. …

This indictment alleges that these defendants lied about what occurred during a police-involved shooting in order to prevent independent criminal investigators from learning the truth. The indictment makes clear that it is unacceptable to obey an unofficial code of silence.

AMY GOODMAN: The officers face up to five years in prison, if convicted. The officer who shot Laquan McDonald, Jason Van Dyke, is awaiting trial on six counts of first-degree murder. The killing of Laquan McDonald was captured on a police dash cam video, released under court order, which clearly contradicted police claims about the shooting. The video shows the teenager posing no threat and walking away from the officers before Van Dyke opens fire.

The news from Chicago comes on the heels of major developments in a series of other police shooting cases. In Ohio, a second mistrial was recently declared in the murder case of former University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing, who shot African American Samuel DuBose in the head after pulling him over for having a missing front license plate in 2015. The officer, Tensing, was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a Confederate battle flag under his uniform when he killed DuBose. Meanwhile, in Minnesota, police officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of manslaughter for killing African-American motorist Philando Castile during a traffic stop. And in Milwaukee, police officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown was acquitted of charges of reckless homicide for shooting and killing 23-year-old African American Sylville Smith.

The recent cases highlight how rare it is for police officers to be convicted for on-duty shootings. According to Bowling Green State University professor Philip Stinson, about 900 to 1,000 people are fatally shot by police officers in the United States every year. But since 2005, just 29 local law enforcement officers have been convicted in on-duty shootings.

We’re joined right now by historian Ibram X. Kendi, a professor of history and international relations and founding director of the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University. He’s the author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which is winner of the 2016 National Book Award. Professor Kendi recently wrote a piece for The New York Times headlined “Sacrificing Black Lives for the American Lie.”

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Kendi. Can you start off by responding to the latest indictment for the cover-up of the death of Laquan McDonald, three Chicago police officers? And then we’ll talk about the acquittals and the mistrial.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Well, first of all, I think it’s a good development for Chicago. It’s a good development for people who are seeking justice for McDonald’s death. But I think it’s indicative of a larger cover-up, and, I think, of a cover-up of the racism that’s persisting among these policing forces within the criminal justice system. So, what these officers did, I think, was not surprising to many people. What’s actually surprising is that they were charged for it. And so, what I’m hoping, as I’m sure many people are, is that this will become a new pattern, in which police officers can no longer cover up their mistakes, their lethal mistakes that end in black death.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, this latest indictment of the three Chicago police officers comes after weeks of acquittals and mistrials, three in all—two acquittals of police officers and one mistrial of a police officer—in very high-profile cases—for example, the case of Philando Castile. And I wanted to turn to video of the 4-year-old daughter of Diamond Reynolds consoling her heartbroken mother, who is handcuffed in the back of a police squad car minutes after St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed her boyfriend, Philando Castile. This has been just a shocking case. The video from last July shows Reynolds mourning Castile’s death and cursing, before her daughter, Dae’Anne, begs her to stop, saying, “I don’t want you to get shooted.”

DAE’ANNE REYNOLDS: Mom, please stop saying cusses and screaming, 'cause I don't want you to get shooted.

DIAMOND REYNOLDS: OK. Give me a kiss. My phone just died. That’s all.

DAE’ANNE REYNOLDS: I can keep you safe.

DIAMOND REYNOLDS: It’s OK. I got it, OK? Come here. I can’t believe they just did that.

AMY GOODMAN: The release of the footage came a day after police dash cam video was made public for the first time, after the trial, showing Officer Yanez firing his gun seven times within moments of approaching Philando Castile’s car over a broken taillight. Let’s go to the clip of that video.

PHILANDO CASTILE: Sir, I have to tell you, I do have a—


PHILANDO CASTILE: —firearm on me.

JERONIMO YANEZ: OK. Don’t reach for it then.


JERONIMO YANEZ: Don’t pull it out.

PHILANDO CASTILE: I’m not pulling it out.

JERONIMO YANEZ: Don’t pull it out!


DIAMOND REYNOLDS: You just killed my boyfriend!

PHILANDO CASTILE: I wasn’t reaching!

DIAMOND REYNOLDS: He wasn’t reaching.

JERONIMO YANEZ: Don’t pull it out!


JERONIMO YANEZ: Don’t move! [bleep]




JERONIMO YANEZ: Don’t move! Don’t move!

DIAMOND REYNOLDS: Oh, my god. I’m shaking.


DIAMOND REYNOLDS: Don’t move, baby.

JERONIMO YANEZ: Code 3! Get the baby girl out of here!

AMY GOODMAN: Officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of manslaughter in that case. Ibram X. Kendi, can you respond to what’s happened over the last few weeks?

IBRAM X. KENDI: Well, I think that’s what I attempted to do in The New York Times piece. And, you know, I try to sort of think about how is it that jurors, how is it that their defenders, could look at the facts of the Castile case, could look at the facts of some of these other cases, and still acquit these police officers and still make the case that these police officers did nothing wrong, and still make the case that these black people who died did everything wrong.

And, you know, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that in—basically, in making the case that these police officers were racist, the Americans would have to make the case that their nation is racist. And as you know, I mean, there’s been so many Americans who fell in love with this idea that their nation is post-racial, and they’re doing everything in their power to sort of defend that idea. And it’s—and the way they end up defending it is by constantly blaming black people for these incidents with police.

And it’s just—I mean, it’s just really heartbreaking that Americans, that people, that police officers, that jurors, that judges cannot really look at the facts of this case. And it leads me to believe that, really, the opposite of “black lives matter,” you know, is not “black lives do not matter,” it’s that black death matters, and that activists have been trying to eliminate this normality of black death mattering for the life of America’s post-racial idea.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, and when we come back, I want to talk to you more about your book, an astonishing book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, and the people you profile in this, from President Thomas Jefferson to W.E.B. Du Bois, from Angela Davis to Cotton Mather. You go back through history and look at the future. We’re talking to historian Ibram X. Kendi, professor of history and international relations and founding director of the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University. His book won the National Book Award. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: “Black Man” by the jazz pianist and educator Geri Allen. She died on Tuesday at the age of 60.

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