By Lee A. Daniels
Is Raymond Wilford, a 26-year-old Black Seattle resident, not dead or seriously injured only because the White mall security officer who maced and then arrested him didn’t have a gun?
I’ll come to the deeply suspicious police killings of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri; of Eric Garner, in New York City; and of Ezell Ford, in Los Angeles momentarily. But it’s first worth considering what happened to Raymond Wilford on Saturday, August 9 as he walked to meet a friend at Seattle’s Westlake Mall.
His story reinforces what those three deadly incidents have dramatically illustrated: the potential threat from White men wearing badges of some sort of “authority” Black Americans – especially Black American males – face every day.
According to news reports, which include a video of the incident posted online, as Wilford approached the area of the mall where a peaceful pro-Palestinian rally was underway, he was suddenly accosted by a White man who was shirtless, and, witnesses later said, had been harassing the demonstrators with racist slurs. Much of the brief confrontation between Wilford and the man was captured in pictures and a video taken by a photographer who had been covering the demonstration.
Wilford, taken aback, raised his fists as if prepared to defend himself against the man whom he said was saying “a bunch of racial stuff” to him and had also raised his hands as if to fight. But neither man threw any punches.
That’s when the White mall security guard appeared and, according to Wilford and several witnesses, completely ignored the shirtless White man who was yelling and actually walking toward him, raised the can of pepper spray to Wilford’s face and sprayed him. In the video, witnesses can be heard yelling to the security cop, “You maced the wrong guy!”
The video also shows the security guard grabbing Wilford, now disabled by the pepper spray, by the arm and pulling him into the mall, the both of them followed by witnesses shouting that Wilford had done nothing wrong. A Seattle police officer, who had arrived late to the confrontation, told the witnesses not to interfere. Meanwhile, the White shirtless man, who has not been identified, just walked away.
Wilford told the Seattle Times that in the mall, he was given baby shampoo to wash his face, then after 25 minutes released at the order of a Seattle police officer. Wilford, a father of two who moved to Seattle a from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, said the security guard apologized to him before he was released, but that he’s considering filing a complaint.
For Raymond Wilford the White man with a badge of “authority” he encountered was armed – with a racist imagination, but, fortunately, also only with a can of pepper spray. So, the security guard’s completely mis-perceiving a potentially serious situation did not have serious consequences.
That assessment isn’t meant to diminish the personal anger and humiliation of these kind of encounters we know Blacks and other people of color constantly endure from “Whites with badges” in department and other kinds of stores, airports, schools and college campuses, and so on. It is to underscore the validity of a series of questions:
For example, if that Seattle mall security guard had had a gun, would Raymond Wilford’s name now be on the long list of unarmed Black men, women and children killed by “Whites with badges” in questionable circumstances? Broadening the focus of our questioning, does the desire to “control” Black people – or the fear of black people – that drove the security guard to such rash and wrong action also infect some number of police officers in localities all across America? Is that, at bottom, why Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, and Ezell Ford were killed?
After all, neither Michael Brown nor Ezell Ford was engaged in any wrongdoing when stopped by the police; and neither of them had any history of being a “troublemaker.” Neither did Eric Garner, whom police officials said was known to sell loose cigarettes on the streets of his neighborhood – a minor violation of the state penal code.
So, how is it that in all three of these instances, this one Black teenager and these two Black men ended up being killed by White police officers?
I suspect we already know the answer to that question in both these three specific circumstances and in the longer trail of innocent Black people being killed by White police officers. I think I see both those elements of White racism – fear and the desire to control – on tragic display in the video of Raymond Wilford’s unjustified arrest, which he survived, and in the video of Eric Garner’s unjustified arrest, which he did not.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His essay, “Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Great Provocateur,” appears in Africa’s Peacemakers: Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent (2014), published by Zed Books. His new collection of columns, Race Forward: Facing America’s Racial Divide in 2014, is available at www.amazon.com.