When Bystanders Step Between the Police and Black Men
"You’ve seen the videos of deadly encounters. What effect can a witness have?
The video was filmed on the night of Feb. 1, in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. Watch it, and the first words you hear are high-pitched with fear. “What’s going on?” a young Black man asks. He is standing on the sidewalk, wearing a bright yellow hoodie under a black jacket. “I’m so confused.”
The response comes in a booming voice, its source hidden from view by the blinding headlights of a police S.U.V. (Later, the camera will dip behind the lights, revealing three officers, one holding a large rifle, hoisted and aimed.) “We need to make sure you don’t have a gun,” an officer says. “I have no weapon,” the man pleads. “This is a speaker!”
By this point, those of us watching feel our own anxiety begin to spike. We’ve seen videos like this before, far too often. We know exactly how they go, exactly why the man in the yellow hoodie is so afraid. We brace for what’s coming.
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But we’re not the only watchers. The street is crowded: There are cars driving past, people standing around, someone walking a fluffy dog. The bystanders, it starts to become clear, have seen this video before, too. Up and down the street, they begin to repeat the words of the man in the hoodie. “I have nothing on me!” he yells, and other voices chorus after: “He has nothing on him!” We can’t see most of the speakers, but we can hear their dread, their anger. “He has nothing on him!” “He’s holding a phone!”
Like any police encounter, this one was set off by a unique mix of events. The man in the yellow hoodie, a witness later told the Capitol Hill Seattle blog, came onto the street to calm down after an argument: The speaker in his hand was for listening to music; the “gunshot” sound that prompted the call to 911 was reportedly the sound of him slapping a stop sign. But like any police encounter of the present moment, its contours were sharpened and shaped by the history within which it unfolded.
It has been almost a decade since George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman in Florida, was acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old wearing a hoodie and carrying a pack of Skittles — “a real suspicious guy,” according to Zimmerman. Police violence against people of color was nothing new. But Martin’s death was followed by those of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Walter Scott and Philando Castile and an ever-growing list of victims. Over and over, videos emerged, revealing how often police narratives were incommensurable with what actually happened. Where police reported threats worthy of deadly force, viewers saw racist overreaction, often to ordinary or benign or misunderstood situations. They watched as a variety of possible outcomes — the other ways these stories could have gone, if only different decisions were made — dropped away, leaving only the most tragic.
And then came the 911 call from Capitol Hill in February, reporting a sound like gunfire. A young Black man in a hoodie holding something in his hand. Lights flashing and phone cameras recording.
In the video, the police keep telling the man in the hoodie that he should walk toward them, toward the bright glare of lights and the mouth of the rifle. He seems terrified and stays where he is, shouting that he’s unarmed. “The man ignored commands,” is the ominous description the police blotter later provides.
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‘Oh, God,’ a voice somewhere behind the camera breathes, sure that the moment of crisis has arrived.
But the encounter is already beginning to go off script. A voice says, probably too quietly for the police to hear, “He’s not holding a gun — I’m more afraid of you.” Someone else says, more loudly, to the blazing light, “We’re much more scared of the [expletive] police in this situation than this guy.” Soon the cry echoes down the street: “No one has a gun except for you.”
Someone shouts at the police: “Calm down! Calm the [expletive] down!” A bystander in a green coat comes forward, offering to walk alongside the man in the hoodie so he’ll be safer approaching the police, but after agreeing, the man says, shakily, “I’m just getting on the ground” and falls to his knees. The dog walker comes protectively close; Green Coat positions himself between the man and the rifle. “Oh, God,” a voice somewhere behind the camera breathes, sure that the moment of crisis has arrived.
It never comes. On body-cam video released by the Police Department, officers shout repeatedly at the bystanders who crowd the scene: “You with the dog, get out of there!” Finally, one speaks into the radio. “We’re going to go ahead and disengage.” The officer with the gun lowers it, locks it up and begins to drive away.
When the police suddenly leave the scene, it feels bizarre: What is this, a gun-toting emergency or a nonevent? The camera doesn’t capture the aftermath for the man in the hoodie, who, according to a witness quoted by the Capitol Hill blog, was left “terrified and sobbing when it was all over.” The police-blotter version of the incident focuses on the abruptness of the departure: “Based on the number of community members becoming involved and their unwillingness to comply with officers’ commands, it became clear there was no safe means to detain the subject.”
What really stands out in the video is the remarkable power that witnesses can have. The panicked question that opens the video — “What’s going on?” — is the same one that animates so many police encounters, moments of confusion and alarm, met with the assertion of control. Here, though, the bystanders are evaluating all the potential dangers around them, but especially the ones that arrived with flashing lights. What they see is a perilous misunderstanding, a frightening escalation, the possibility of a terrible, and terribly familiar, conclusion — and a responsibility to act.
Contrary to the myth of the bystander effect, passers-by step in to help in a vast majority of public conflicts. But in cases where bystanders have disrupted police actions, even just by videotaping them, they’ve been arrested and charged with obstruction of justice. It’s not hard to imagine the scene playing out quite differently in a majority-Black neighborhood, or one that’s not Seattle’s Capitol Hill. The video was recorded just blocks from the East Precinct, which was abandoned during protests over the murder of George Floyd, and statistical analysis has indicated that police killings of Black and Hispanic people drop after protests against police violence.
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This video didn’t go viral. It wasn’t even covered in The Seattle Times. It is, in a way, a document of nothing happening. Still, the nothing feels significant. For once, we get to see a video with a different ending.
Source photographs: Stocktrek Images/Alamy; Mr. Donni/Shutterstock; Panther Media/Alamy; Zach Louw/EyeEm/Getty Images; Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images."