JUNE 17, 2020
LARB presents an excerpt from William D. Lopez’s book, Separated: Family and Community in the Aftermath of an Immigration Raid.
It is my first ride along with a police department that patrols the streets of our mid-sized Michigan county. I am studying the impact of an immigration home raid on “Santiago’s” apartment and automobile workshop on a Thursday in November of 2013, a raid whose impacts rippled throughout my community, leaving mothers depressed and suicidal, families broken and homeless, and a community terrified of the institutions designed to keep them healthy. I planned to spend time around law enforcement officers to better understand how those in blue enforced immigration law. Unlike southern border states such as my native Texas, most of the interior of the United States is not patrolled by those in green, affectionately referred to as la migra. While it is true that everyone deported passes through DHS offices, many end up there because of the actions of local police on our everyday Midwestern roads who arrest them, book them in the county jail, and then hold them for ICE to pick up.
But when I decided to observe law enforcement, Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black boy, had not yet been shot in the stomach by white police officer Timothy Loehmann. And Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old Black woman, had not been pulled over and jailed after refusing to put out her cigarette, only to be found dead in her cell three days later. The deaths of Rice and Bland followed closely after those of other extra-judicial killings by police officers, including Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Laquan McDonald. The recordings of many of these killings—whether from cell phone videos or dashboard, body, and sunglass cameras—circulated widely, adding fuel to the firestorm of protests taking place in cities where Black individuals had been killed by officers, such as Baltimore, Maryland, or Ferguson, Missouri. The protests also continued to push the advocacy and organizing of the Black Lives Matter movement, founded after the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman the same year Santiago’s apartment was raided, into mainstream discussion.
So when I stepped into police officers’ cars, they didn’t really talk that much about deportation. Instead, they talked about the Black Lives Matter movement, whether they called it that or not.
I am assigned to ride with Officer Robert Lee. Not long after my arrival at the station, I walk outside with Officer Lee and step into the passenger side of his car. He is stoic, and seems much more interested in talking at me than engaging in any sort of back-and-forth. He’s probably a little older than me, so I imagine him to be a man who learned how to be an officer before the influx of social media and community policing. I sense he would rather be in the car alone and that he is simply following orders to let me ride with him.
Lee wastes no time sharing his thoughts on many of the killings of Black men that formed the crux of the Black Lives Matter movement. He begins by talking to me about the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, by white officer Darren Wilson. In August of 2014, Wilson pulled up next to Brown, who was walking in the street instead of the sidewalk. Seeing that Brown fit the description of someone who had robbed a convenience store, Officer Wilson confronted him. Wilson reported that Brown reached into the window of Wilson’s cruiser, where the pair struggled to gain control of Wilson’s gun.
This is where witness testimonies differ, with some saying that Brown’s hands were in the air when he was shot, and others, including Wilson, saying that Brown turned around and ran toward him. Ultimately, Wilson fired twelve shots at Brown, hitting him in the arm, hand, forehead, and top of his head. Brown died on the scene. After a grand jury did not agree to indict Wilson, protests erupted; the governor called in the National Guard, who fired rubber bullets and tear gas at protestors, and chants of “hands up, don’t shoot,” which were meant to call to mind the way in which Brown had allegedly been shot, spread throughout the United States, even landing famously on the shirt of Lebron James.
Officer Lee reminds me that Officer Wilson — who killed Michael Brown — was found innocent of wrongdoing by not one but two juries (technically Wilson was “not indicted” twice, but this is functionally the same). Without making eye contact with me, Officer Lee laments that Wilson’s “life is ruined” because he had a run-in with Brown, who he described as “not a good person.” Darren Wilson lost his job, Robert tells me, “basically for just being a cop.”
Officer Lee then begins to comment on Freddie Gray Jr.’s death, saying that we still don’t know what happened in the back of the van in which Gray’s spine was severed in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray, a Black man, was 25 years old when, in violation of police policy, he was put into the back of a van without a restraint. It is notable to hear it argued that we don’t know what happened in the back of a van, as if Gray could possibly have decided to sever his own spine.
As we drive down a hill on a two-lane road, it begins to drizzle, and Lee pauses to look behind him. He asks me if I noticed whatever it is that he so clearly noticed. I didn’t. He tells me there is a turtle on the side of the road. Lee turns the car around and we park on the grass next to the road. The turtle is on the other side, so there are two lanes of traffic between the turtle and us.
At this point, the many cars that see his patrol car parked on the grass begin to slow down. Drivers are very clearly unsure of whether or how to proceed. The drizzling continues.
Robert opens the door, crosses the two lanes of street, and approaches the turtle. I follow behind him. He picks up the turtle, and we walk it over to this little pond where he plans to set the turtle free.
He puts the turtle in the pond, and we get back in the car and drive on.
I wondered about his motivation: why was he willing to turn his car around, drive the other way, stop two lanes of traffic, and pick up the turtle, and walk it back to the pond? I ask him.
He tells me he hates to see them “die unnecessarily.”
I sit, flustered, stunned, and shocked that he doesn’t see the irony in the whole situation.
Of course, at face value, these words — I hate to see them die unnecessarily — make sense. Who wouldn’t want to rescue the helpless turtle from unnecessary death? But it made me physically sick to hear these words uttered directly following the remorseless conclusions that Brown had brought about his own killing and that Gray’s death in the back of a police van was still some sort of inexplicable mystery. Clearly, Officer Lee’s moral system had this category for unnecessary death. Why, then, had it not applied to Michael Brown or Freddie Gray Jr.? If their deaths could not be categorized as “unnecessary,” did this make them necessary? If so, why were they necessary? Would this make the immigration raid on Santiago’s apartment — despite the layers of trauma it caused, the mother who could no longer nurse her child, the fathers whose families went broke paying their lawyers, the organizers who themselves were traumatized as they entered the apartment with ICE still present — also categorically necessary?
Extensive research argues that, Officer Lee’s discussion of the innocence of the turtle and the warranted killing of Michael Brown and the mysterious death of Freddie Gray Jr. fit well with the typical officer organization of the world into good and evil, order and chaos, the heroes who rescue, the innocent who need rescuing, and the villains who put the innocent in need of rescue. Throughout my field work, officers had referenced many prototypical examples of helpless innocence, including stray dogs, elderly veterans, and children hit by cars. The turtle, unable to cross two lanes of traffic to get back to the safety of its pond,was a victim of a force outside of its control that would do it harm. The officer, then, was clearly the hero, the one whose profession was rooted in the rescue of the innocent and would stop lanes of traffic to do exactly that.
But Michael Brown was not a hero, nor could he possibly be an innocent victim. The racial history of the United States made sure of that. The first publicly funded police forces in the South existed largely to preserve the slave economy, and patrols composed of white men began to walk the streets in search of runaway slaves. Even after the end of the Civil War, police units searched for Blacks in the post-antebellum South who had violated Jim Crow regulations and then enforced those regulations, often through violence. For decades, policing institutions saw black skin as a sign of lawbreaking, because, indeed, it literally was a sign of lawbreaking, at least inasmuch as the law allowed white men to own Africans and forced Blacks into separate spaces than whites.
So Brown was “not a good person” — or, as another officer later called him, a “bully” — and had come to embody the villain whose dispatch was necessary to maintain the moral order. Thus, Officer Wilson was just “being a cop” when he shot and killed him.
I finish the rest of the ride along and head over to a bar near the station. I try to write in my fieldwork journal and to shake off the weight of what I was told. Can a country founded on slavery, with both ICE and police departments funded by a robust war on drugs, with presidents who flex their political muscle by deporting undocumented immigrants, ever cast them in any role other than the villains?
Santiago was dangerous, so his apartment had to be raided. Brown was dangerous so he had to be shot. Garner was dangerous so he had to be strangled. And now, seven years after the start of the Black Lives Matter movement, Atatiana Jefferson was dangerous, so she had to be shot through her own bedroom window. Floyd was dangerous, so his neck had to be knelt on for nine minutes, including three minutes in which he was dead. The roles are simple, and attempts at de-escalation, simply unnecessary.
William D. Lopez is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health and the faculty director of public scholarship at the National Center for Institutional Diversity.