How Does This Happen?

Leila Navidi

We had two police-involved fatal shootings of black men last week followed by the killing of five police officers in Dallas by a lone assailant during a Black Lives Matter protest. I want to return to those two killings last week because as soon as I saw the video of Philando Castile in St. Paul it reminded me of this video from two years ago in South Carolina.

This story at least had not a happy but a not totally horrific outcome. The victim, 35-year-old Levar Jones, recovered and the shooter, 31-year old Sean Groubert, was prosecuted. He eventually pled guilty, just this March, to assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature. He faces up to twenty years in prison.

The video is as fascinating as it is horrific. One thing about it is that it catches everything. There are no ambiguities, no moments when someone's hands aren't in view and might conceivably be doing something that changes the situation. The engagement begins. Groubert tells Jones to show him his license and registration. Jones reaches into his car to get them, as instructed. Groubert freaks out and unloads multiple bullets into Jones' body at relatively close range.

The complete lack of ambiguity is the biggest takeaway from the video. The other thing though is that, if I'm reading the video right, Groubert's freakout seems real. Having just told Jones to reach into his glove compartment and get his registration, seeing him do so in an utterly non-threatening way, Groubert decides ('decide' probably suggests too much rational thought) or jumps to the conclusion that Jones is or might be reaching for a weapon and opens fire. Everybody will react to what they see here differently. But I see no evidence of conscious racial animus. Groubert might be a stone cold racist and hate black people. But he might just as easily be someone with deep, instinctive preconceptions about black people, who doesn't think of himself as a racist at all but instinctively sees black people through a prism of threat and fear. Indeed, the latter seems like a near certainty.

What I see here is a mix of racial profiling/racism which may or may not be conscious or involve animus, immaturity and extremely poor training. Watching the video there's little doubt in my mind that Jones' being black was the major reason that Groubert massively overreacted to an unthreatening situation. That doesn't mean Groubert is 'racist' in the sense we usually use the term. But that doesn't do Jones much good. (Again, Jones made a full recovery from his injuries.) It also shows why, I think, that kind of conscious racism is often beside the point.

Then the video gets what I can only call surreal. The two men start talking to each other, debating what had just happened while Jones is writhing on the ground in pain. "I just got my license. You said get my license," Jones tells Groubert. Then a moment later, "What did I do, Sir?"

Notably, Jones is considerably calmer and has more presence of mind than Groubert. Jones even manages a moment of extreme understatement verging on morbid humor when Groubert asks him "Are you hit?" Laying on the ground with multiple gunshot wounds, Jones says "I think so. I can't feel my leg."

Jones: "Why did you .. why did you shoot me?"

Groubert: "Well, you dove head first back into your car." (emphasis added)

Jones: "I'm sorry."

Groubert: "Then you jumped back out. I'm telling you to get out of your car."

Jones: "I'm sorry I didn't hear too words ... ow!"

We've just watched the video and know that Jones did not dive head first into his car or do anything remotely like that. That simply didn't happen. Even Groubert isn't quite sure what he's even saying in the next sentence. Yes, Jones jumped back out of his car. But that was when Groubert was yelling and opening fire, as Groubert himself seems to concede in the next sentence.

Moments after the encounter, is Groubert concocting his cover story (Jones dove back into the car in a threatening manner...) or giving us an excited utterance in which Groubert is telling us what thinks he saw but we know he didn't? I think it's a mix of both, though I think either one or the other are very reasonable interpretations.

The rest of the video continues the verbal exchange in which Jones is alternative writhing in agony, insisting he was only getting his license, asking with a mix of genuine bewilderment and increasing frustration and anger why he was shot. Meanwhile, Groubert seems increasingly clear he just shot a completely innocent person and repeatedly tells him to keep still and that he's got an ambulance on the way.

Again, this incident, caught on video, seems so important to me because it seems to show what was at some level a misunderstanding but one that is basically inconceivable without Groubert going into the encounter primed to see a black man as a threat and an incident enabled by immaturity, extremely poor training and a general (perhaps trained) pattern of rapid escalation to deadly force.

Again, this is no defense of Groubert. He nearly killed an innocent man for no reason at all. He might well go to Klan rallies on the weekend. My point is simply that I at least see nothing in the video that suggests Groubert went into the confrontation wanting to hurt anyone or that he's a racist in the sense of belonging to the Klan or going around calling people the N-word. More importantly I think it shows why that really doesn't really matter. For whatever reason, Groubert took a totally unthreatening situation and escalated it to the point of almost killing an innocent man. The overwhelmingly standout reason is that Jones is black. Groubert seemed to have an instinctive and deep-seated sense of threat from a black man.

We don't know just what happened to Philandro Castile before his girlfriend turned on the video. But from what she described of the incident, it seems Castile told police he had a licensed weapon in the car (which may have put them on guard rather than been taken as an effort to avoid misunderstanding) and then went to pull out his wallet. My best guess is that something similar to this transpired.

With Groubert, it seems hard to believe that his version of events - Jones diving back into the car - wouldn't have ruled the day if there hadn't been video.

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