Transcript, Web links and Credits below.
It’s Tuesday, April 16th and if you are listening to this without listening to yesterday’s episode, I’d encourage you to stop now, and begin with yesterday’s episode on Tennessee v. Garner.
Because today is second part of a three part series where I am explaining why the most brutal, most egregious police officers continue to get away with their brutality. And in order for today’s episode to really hit home, I need you to learn the lessons from yesterday first, OK? So if you haven’t heard yesterday’s episode, stop now, and go back.
For those of you who heard the episode on Tennssee v. Garner, let’s continue. Today I am going to unpack what may be the most important Supreme Court case that is protecting brutal police officers from being ever held accountable. It’s Graham v Connor. Stick with me, I need you to understand these laws, because tomorrow I am going to tell you how we hope to address them together.
This is Shaun King and you are listening to (THE BREAKDOWN)
If Tennessee v. Garner provided the modern framework for how police could literally get away with murder, Graham v. Connor pumped it with steroids — and has done more to protect brutal police than perhaps any other case law in the country. Don’t take my word for it. Police Magazine, in an article entitled “Understanding Graham v. Connor,” wrote: “A quarter-century ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a case that determines the legality of every law enforcement use-of-force incident.”
And police departments all over the country are teaching Tennessee v. Garner and Graham v. Connor to their officers to ensure that they will basically beat almost any and every case thrown their way.
Tennessee v. Garner is bad, but Graham v. Connor is actually far worse. Let me tell you a story for a moment.
(Some type of musical interlude)
In 1984, a middle aged Black man who worked for the North Carolina Department of Transportation named Dethorne Graham, noticed that he was light-headed. He had experienced this exact feeling before. He was a diabetic on the verge of an insulin attack. But this time he wasn’t at home. He was riding in the car with his friend and co-worker, William Berry, and Graham knew that if William didn’t stop somewhere to get him some orange juice to balance out his blood-sugar levels, Graham knew that he was going to pass out. So William pulled the car over at a random gas station in Charlotte to get Graham some orange juice. Graham got out of the car, walked into the gas station, grabbed a small bottle of orange juice, prepared to purchase it, then noticed that the line was long.
So instead of purchasing the orange juice, Graham sat it on the top of a shelf there in the gas station, ran back out to the car, and asked his buddy to just hurry up and take him home instead. As you may have noticed, no crime was committed. Nobody was harmed. At this point, we have a friend trying to help a friend through a medical emergency. But this is America.
And in the parking lot of that gas station was a Charlotte Police Officer…Connor. Remember the Supreme Court case is Graham v. Connor. And Officer Connor, who was white, didn’t think that what he saw was harmless at all. When he saw a Black man go into the store and come back out without anything in his hands, he was convinced that he had just witnessed an armed robbery. Graham didn’t have gun. He didn’t have a bag of cash. He was just black and Connor didn’t like the way Graham walked in and out of the store.
So Graham got in passenger side seat of the car, asked his friend to leave, and they pulled off. To be clear, they didn’t peel out their tires or break the speed limit. William Berry just backed his car out of the parking lot and began driving Graham home. But Officer Connor, convinced that he just witnessed two black men rob a gas station, followed them in his squad car, turned on his flashing police lights, and proceeded to pull them over.
And they pulled over. When Connor got to the driver’s side window, William Berry calmly told him that his friend Dethorne Graham was about to pass out because of his diabetes and that he desperately needs some orange juice. Unconvinced that Black people even have medical emergencies, Officer Connor decides that it’s actually he who is in grave danger, so he goes back to his car and calls for emergency backup. And guess what happens, Graham literally gets out of the car and passes out right there on the road.
Desperate, wondering if his friend might die, William Berry begs Connor and the new cops who arrived on the scene to simply give him some OJ, some sugar, anything to help him. Instead, with Graham fully unconscious, and all of this is in the Supreme Court records, the officers instead tightly handcuff his hands behind his back and literally throw him onto the hood of his friend’s car. The others then proceed to laugh and insist that Graham is faking. Another officer insisted that Graham didn’t have diabetes, but was drunk. Furious, another officer literally slammed Graham’s head onto the hood of the car – which momentarily brought Graham backed to consciousness. Graham then begged the officers to simply look in his back pocket where he kept a medical card stating that he had diabetes.
The officers refused. Instead, with his arms cuffed behind his back, the officers roughly threw Graham into the back of the police car head first and slammed the door on him. A bystander offered Graham orange juice but the officers refused to give it to him.
Finally, one of the cops decides to go back to the gas station to ask the staff about the robbery that just took place. And, of course, the gas station attendant was confused. The line was still long – and no type of robbery had ever taken place. And guess what was right there on the shelf? Graham’s orange juice.
No robbery had taken place. No crime. No mischief. Nothing. Where police could’ve actually helped a desperate man through a medical emergency, they instead imagined a series of crimes, and brutalized a man who could’ve really, really used their help. At that point, it would’ve made a lot of sense for those officers to take Dethorne Graham directly to the hospital. He was now completely unconscious in the back of their car. But instead of taking him to the hospital, they literally took him home and dumped his listless body in the front yard. When Graham woke up, completely confused and battered, his foot was completely broken, his rotator cuff torn, cuts were all over his wrists from the cuffs, and his forehead was badly bruised from being slammed onto the cop car. Police had literally just racially profiled a Black man for a crime he didn’t commit, ignored his medical emergency, brutally beat him, then dumped him in his own front yard instead of taking him to the hospital – presumably because they would’ve had to explain to doctors and nurses how Graham got so injured. So their bright idea was to dump his battered body off in his own front yard and just leave him there.
So, of course Dethorne Graham sued the city, sued the police department, and sued the officers who did this to him. Of course he demanded that the officers who brutalized him be fired, but North Carolina fought back, locally, then in district courts, until the case eventually went all the way to the Supreme Court. And that Supreme Court decision, Graham v. Connor, which took place 30 years ago, has absolutely everything to do with why it is nearly impossible to hold brutal police responsible for police brutality today.
Let me break down the decision.
(Break it down – DJ scratches)
I believe Graham v. Connor is one of the worst decisions in the modern history of the Supreme Court of the United States. What Dethorne Graham experienced was so brutal, so racist, so unreasonable and excessive – the idea that any court could look at what happened to him, and decide that it was legal, is unjust.
The Supreme Court, in Graham v. Connor, determined that “reasonable use of force” by an officer must be viewed from the perspective of what appeared reasonable in the moment of its application — not from 20/20 hindsight. And so the Supreme Court ruled that all of the ways that cops brutalized Dethorne Graham, an unarmed, non-violent middle aged Black man, who broke no laws and was in need of medical attention, the Supreme Court ruled that cops cannot be held responsible for truths that they did not know in the moment. In other words, because the cops believed that Dethorne Graham had just committed a violent armed robbery, because another cop believed he was drunk and lying to them – even though those things were completely false – cops can’t be held responsible for the actual truth – they can only be held responsible for what they believed in the moment – and the judges ruled that the cops, believing Grahm to be a violent, drunk, non-cooperative felon, had the right to brutalize him. In other words, even though those Charlotte cops were absolutely wrong to do what they did based on the actual facts of the case, because all of those facts were not available to them when they assaulted Graham and deprived him of medical attention, or even a bottle of juice, they can’t be held liable for their actions. Officers, therefore, are fully empowered to act in the moment, even if just a little bit of restraint would’ve proven those actions to be completely egregious. It’s crazy, I know. But for 30 years, Graham v. Connor has given even the worst cops in the world protection from prosecution.
I said all of that to show that America’s juries are not given the luxury of deciding the guilt or innocence of an officer apart from Tennessee v. Garner or Graham v. Connor. They are consistently instructed that law enforcement officers are allowed to use lethal force based on what they believed to be happening in that moment. These same rights are not afforded to everyday citizens, but are special privileges given to police. These privileges are not optional. They are guaranteed. No new local policies can supersede them. No protests alone can change them.
And as long as Tennessee v. Garner and Graham v. Connor stand as law, police brutality will be protected. That’s the bottom line. I previously wrote a 25-part series on over two dozen policy changes that I believed would cut instances of police brutality down by over 50%. I still stand by that, but even with all of those policy changes, as long as these two landmark cases stand, police violence is going to be protected.
It’s what protected the officer who shot and killed Philando Castile – who claimed that he thought Philando, who was actually a harmless cafeteria supervisor, and a beloved man at the elementary school where he worked and memorized every single child’s name and food allergies – because the officer who pulled him over claimed that he thought when he saw Philando drive by, that Philando Castile’s nose resembled the nose of a man wanted in an armed robbery, because the officer claimed he thought Philando was a violent armed robber, he was allowed, by law, to shoot and kill Philando, because officers are not held responsible for the truth, only what they believe in the moment. Now ask yourself, how well could this officer have seen a man’s nose driving by, and how clearly must he have memorized the nose on a video, to see a nose drive by and think it belongs to an armed robbery. It was just classic racial profiling – but it was all allowed – and I spoke to a member of that jury – who said that every person on that jury believed that what happened to Philando Castile was unjust, but that the jury was given instructions on what cops were allowed to do, and they felt forced to find him not-guilty as a result. It’s outrageous. And until we address these case laws, justice will be exceedingly rare.
Tomorrow I will conclude this special 3 part series with how I think we should respond.
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Produced by Willis Polk II
Additional Production by Ryan Wisler
Additional Instrumentation by: Christian Idris “Idrys” Shannon, Lance “Lance Fury” Powlis, Markeith Black & Smok Tageous
Additional Engineering by Amond “AJ” Jackson for Salem Psalms Library
Additional Vocals by Garnett “Natti” Bush & Jason Coffey
Scratches by Kenny “DJ FlipFlop” Vanderberg
Contains elements from:
“Black Diamonds” by Natti