Officer Friendly Encounters That Old Black Magic

By Tamika Middleton May 11, 2015

Georgia State Senator Vincent Fort and members of Atlanta activist groups gathered in front of Atlanta police headquarters last Monday, May 4, to call for transparency in the fatal police shooting of Alexia Christian.

According to an Atlanta Police Department (APD) account, officers Jeffery Cook and Omar Thyme found Christian, a black 25-year-old mother of two, sitting in a truck that was reported stolen on April 30. The police, both black, arrested her. Then Christian—who was sitting in the back of their squad car wearing handcuffs behind her—somehow fired two shots at the officers up front. Cook and Thyme, who were not wounded, got out of the car and fatally shot Christian. 

“There are at least two surveillance videos that should have captured what happened,” state senator Fort said at the press conference. “Those tapes belong to the people of Atlanta.” A reporter asked Fort if there was some reason that he did not believe the APD’s official statement. He replied by repeating his call for transparency in the department’s investigation.

It is not hard to see why community members would be skeptical. Deaths at the hands of police officers have been receiving heightened levels of attention and scrutiny in recent years.  In many of those deaths, police reports present fantastical tales of victims performing extraordinary feats that causing their own deaths. These reports seem to defy logic, but some media treat them as fact. Their stories in the become a part of the official narrative justifying police violence.

Take Christian. Allegedly, after being arrested, she not only managed to get a gun into the patrol car, but she got out of her handcuffs, retrieved the gun and thought it wise to shoot at the officers in the front seat. The APD’s response to skepticism was to tell media that she had a history of slipping out of handcuffs. Media sources then reported that Christian had been arrested multiple times for crimes such as peddling marijuana, shoplifting and driving without a valid driver’s license. 

The story is frighteningly similar to a number of other deadly police shootings of black and brown people in the South.

Last September Charles Smith was arrested for outstanding warrants and fatally shot while handcuffed in the back of a patrol car by police in Savannah,  Georgia. Officers reported that Smith moved his hands to the front of his body, kicked out a window and displayed a gun.

Last March, in New Iberia, Louisiana, state police claimed that 22-year-old Victor White III shot himself while he was handcuffed behind his back in a patrol car. The police and Iberia Parish coroner maintain that this is what happened despite a final autopsy report that indicates that White was shot in the chest.

Chavis Carter’s 2012 death was ruled a suicide after Jonesboro, Arkansas, officials said he shot himself in the head while handcuffed in the back of patrol car. He’d been searched twice for weapons. Carter, who was with a couple of white friends, was the only one detained.

In 2013, 17-year-old Jesus Huerta was fatally shot in a police patrol car in Durham, North Carolina. Like White and Carter, police officials claimed that a handcuffed Huerta, who had already been searched, shot himself.

The extraordinary lengths to which black and brown people go to kill themselves in police custody are not limited to shooting themselves with magically appearing weapons while handcuffed. We know all to well how officers in Baltimore claimed that Freddie Gray, 25, severed his own spine by thrashing about in the back of a police van.

In the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, police did not claim he killed himself. Rather, Ferguson, Missouri, officer Darren Wilson testified that as he shot at Brown, “He was almost bulking up to run through the shots.” 

Wilson’s account of Brown’s behavior in particular is reminiscent of reports on “Negro cocaine fiends.” The media reported stories of cocaine-crazed black men who killed innocent people after imagining that they’d been taunted. According to author Charles Hart, the myth led to the passage of the first drug laws in the early 1900s. 

Interestingly, this stands in direct contrast to the trope of the magical Negro embodied by such characters as Bagger Vance in the "The Legend of Bagger Vance" or John Coffey in "The Green Mile." The magical Negro exists solely for the benefit of a white protagonist. Their lives, histories and very existence aren’t valuable beyond their labor and their allegiance to a white person.

In the real world, where black lives are disposable, the magical Negro trope supports a narrative that supports police. The benign magical Negro from the movies becomes dangerous and, because their lives lack value, few question the logic of the narrative.

“In the post-Ferguson era, the public demands transparency,” Fort, the Georgia state senator, declared at last week’s press conference.

Here in Atlanta, transparency begins with police releasing surveillance video of Alexia Christian’s final moments.


Center for Community Change Writing Fellow Tamika Middleton is an activist, birthworker and mother.