In a statement released by Salt Lake District Attorney Sim Gill’s office, it says that the officer who shot Patrick Harmon on Aug. 13 thought “that in ten years of law enforcement and two military deployments, it was the scariest situation he had ever been in.”
Take a second to conjure up a scenario that is scarier than war. Take a moment to imagine a monster scarier than an IED or an enemy soldier with an assault rifle. Suppose that there was a threat greater than bombs or drones just right in our very city, roaming our very streets. What does this idea bring to your mind?
For Officer Fox, it was a black man. The scariest situation he has ever been in was chasing a black man who was running for his life. Officer Fox had his gun drawn, all of his training at hand. Patrick Harmon allegedly had a small knife. Harmon turned around frantically, stumbling, and Officer Fox yelled out, “I’ll f***ing shoot you!”
And he did. He shot Patrick Harmon multiple times. Because he was “scared.” This white fear of black people is so intrinsically intertwined in our history of slavery and white supremacy that it is not even questioned anymore.
And he was still scared as he approached the totally motionless body. You can watch the video. His gun remains drawn. Another officer cuffs him as he’s lying on his stomach. He is cuffed behind the back, bleeding to death, and the officers begin searching his pockets. Watch it, if you can. The scariest moment of Officer Fox’s life.
I ask you: Which is more offensive, that the shooting of a man is justified because of his “fear,” or that the fear is there in the first place? Black people holding signs, black people kneeling on the sidelines, black people running away from white men with guns. Any perceived resistance to white dominance is an existential threat. There is no safe way for a black person to situate herself in this society. Especially around the cops.
The slew of justifications will arrive on time, as veracious and confident as ever. The police are trained to determine when there is a threat, they will say. Look at the picture of the knife, they will add. But these excuses only make matters more absurd. Yes, they are trained, and so how does this still happen? How does one officer draw a taser, while another draws his pistol? How could such a small knife be considered a threat to three officers with guns who are trained in de-escalation and self-defense?
How many mental gymnastics must we do to avoid the clearly stated truth: Officer Fox thought that a black man running away from him (even as he had his gun drawn) was scarier than anything he experienced in his military deployment.
Even a trial for Officer Fox wouldn’t bring Patrick Harmon back. But maybe a little bit of justice would change things going forward. Maybe officers would learn to fear killing black people more than they fear letting them live.
Maybe if officers thought that their body-cam footage, which was supposed to keep this kind of thing from happening, would be released to a civilian review board that had the power to fire them or indict them, they would think a little bit differently about their actions. Maybe officer Fox would have yelled, “I’ll f***ing taze you,” instead.
We have become so inundated with these killings, these videos, that many are fatigued. Fatigued from outrage, from the years of unheeded cries for justice. For black lives to matter. What’s amazing, in fact, is not the response to police killings, but the lack of response. The restraint. Riots don’t surprise us. The lack of riots surprise us. Because when we watch Patrick Harmon being shot, and read the statement clearing him, we want the system that allows such injustice to fall apart too. By any means necessary.
What’s most frustrating is that it doesn’t have to be this way. We could disarm the police, like they have in England. We can appoint independent prosecutors in these cases. It would be hard, but it wouldn’t be harder than watching another black person be shot down by a panicked white officer. Making black lives not matter requires a lot of work. Maybe we could redirect just a little bit of that work towards justice, reconciliation, towards a world where all lives really do matter.
Rebecca Hall, JD, Ph.D., is a legal historian and community organizer with Black Lives Matter in Salt Lake City. Easton Smith is a writer and community organizer with Showing Up for Racial Justice in Salt Lake City.