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Charles M. Blow: White troopers policing Black bodies in Louisiana

The feeling Black people get from the Louisiana State Police is not one of safety.

Family members of Ronald Greene listen to speakers as demonstrators gather for the March on Washington, Friday Aug. 28, 2020, in Washington, on the 57th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. (Michael M. Santiago/Pool via AP)

Interstate 20 in Louisiana links so many of the places that formed me.

It runs through Shreveport, where I was born and the place where I met my ex-wife and we had our wedding.

About 30 miles east, it runs along the southern edge of Minden, where my mother took us to buy school clothes each year — the same city where one of my brothers now lives and where he teaches at the high school.

Approximately 15 miles east of Minden, I-20 passes about a mile north of the flyspeck town where I grew up, Gibsland, named after an enslaver named Gibbs. Much of the land had been his plantation. Literally, Gibbs’ land.

Eight miles east of Gibsland, the highway scrapes across the top of Arcadia. It was our parish seat, the place with the closest library, the place where I saw my first movie and the place where I acquired my driver’s license.

Fifteen miles east of Arcadia, I-20 passes through the northern edge of Grambling, home to Grambling State University, where I went to college, studied mass communications and became co-editor of the Gramblinite, the school’s newspaper.

About 35 miles east of Grambling, the highway bisects the city of Monroe, where my friends and I often went to parties while we were in college and where my nephew lived with his mother.

All these cities and towns are majority Black and their administration, including policing, reflect that to some degree. These spaces always felt special to me, at least in the relationship between municipal power and the people.

But between those safe spaces, along I-20, the Louisiana State Police reigned. We called the officers state troopers. The feeling they gave, at least to me, was not one of safety.

All of this is why the killing of Ronald Greene in 2019 — and the recently released video from a trooper’s body camera footage of the arrest, obtained by The Associated Press, that is discordant with the official police report of the incident — has been so resonant for me.

It was in Monroe that Greene, a 49-year-old Black man, encountered the troopers. Greene was a barber, as is one of my brothers.

According to a crash report reviewed by the AP, troopers attempted to pull him over for an unspecified traffic violation, but he “refused to stop” and “a pursuit ensued.”

This is how the AP reported the conclusion of the single-page police report released by the state police, which said the chase ended when Greene crashed his vehicle:

" ‘Greene was taken into custody after resisting arrest and a struggle with troopers,’ the report says, adding that he ‘became unresponsive’ and died on the way to a hospital. The report doesn’t describe any use of force by troopers.” (The state police later claimed that the troopers did use force and that it was justified.)

The video, however, shows the troopers — all white, by the way — jolting Greene with a stun gun, forcing him to the ground, putting him in a chokehold and punching him in the face. On the video, you can also hear Greene saying “I’m sorry” and “I’m scared.”

As the AP reported about the video:

Instead of rendering aid, the troopers leave the heavyset man unattended, facedown and moaning for more than nine minutes, as they use sanitizer wipes to wash blood off their hands and faces. “I hope this guy ain’t got (expletive) AIDS,” one of the troopers can be heard saying. After a several-minute stretch in which Greene is not seen on camera, he appears again, limp, unresponsive and bleeding from his head and face. He is then loaded onto an ambulance gurney, his arm cuffed to the bedrail.

Everything about this case is wrong. It is true that fleeing the police isn’t smart or legal, but it is also true that doing so shouldn’t be a death sentence.

Furthermore, the police report, which would have been the only official accounting of Greene’s death if this video hadn’t come to light, is a damning false accounting of events, one that is in line with other false accountings that have been refuted by video in high-profile police killings.

Black people distrust the police because things like this teach Black people to distrust the police. This is not paranoia; it is practicality.

Others in the policing structure no doubt also saw this footage in the intervening two years since Greene was killed, and no one apparently said anything. You can’t argue that the cops who kill are just a few bad apples when it is the whole tree that is shading the truth.

Part of the problem is a lack of diversity. As The Advocate newspaper reported in 2018, although 32% of Louisiana’s population was Black at the time, only 16% of state troopers were. On Saturday, The Advocate reported about Troop F, the Monroe-based division at the center of the Greene case: “Of the 66 Troop F members, just six are Black, records show. The area they patrol is about 40% African American. The Troop F roster is 86% white and 9% Black.”

The connective tissue between these majority Black cities and towns that dot I-20 in northern Louisiana is being patrolled and policed by an overwhelmingly white force unattached and unresponsive to them.

What could possibly go wrong?

Charles Blow |The New York Times

Charles M. Blow is a columnist for The New York Times.