I live in Oklahoma. I teach at a university less than an hour from Tulsa. Much of the trial happened during my finals week, so I made the trip to Tulsa so I could see Betty Shelby in person. I was able to get into the courthouse because I work in ministry in Oklahoma City, but really, I went because something inside me needed to lay eyes on her for myself. What I saw was unimpressive.
She was dressed in a simple business suit and had what appeared to be a bemused grin on her face. She impatiently slumped as she walked to the courtroom—almost as if she had been inconvenienced by the death of this black man. Looking at Shelby, I was reminded of Mark Richert, the police officer who called Terence Crutcher a “bad dude,” and of what Betty Shelby’s husband, David, said on 60 Minutes a few weeks earlier: that there were two victims that night in September.
Somehow, she saw herself as a victim.
Later that week, my iPhone text message alert pinged: “Not Guilty.”
Back in September, Crutcher, an unarmed black man, was walking to his car with his hands up when he was shot by Tulsa Police Officer Betty Shelby. This incident was captured on video by both a police dashboard camera and an aerial video from a police helicopter in which Richert, a fellow officer who was overlooking the scene, profiled Crutcher and called him a bad dude.
Shelby went on 60 Minutes last month to tell her side of the story; she said that Crutcher “caused his own death” by “failing to comply” with her orders. She insisted that race had nothing to do with her shooting and killing an unarmed man. With tears in her eyes, Shelby had the audacity to say that she felt as if a “lynch mob is after her.”
Each time these kinds of cases go before legal authorities, I do something illogical, something I’ve tried very hard to stop: I have hope.
Hope that they will see what I see and rule in a way that aligns with justice. Hope that the families will find a measure of peace despite suffering an incalculable loss. Hope that the vicious legacy of violence against black bodies will come to an end.
I keep expecting the moral arc of the universe to finally start bending toward justice. I want Martin Luther King Jr. to be right in his belief that things will, eventually, get better, but now I am beginning to think that he may have been wrong.
I find it amazing how police officers find a way to reason with and subdue white offenders without killing them, but black men and women in far less confrontational encounters consistently end up dead.
Recently, NPR released a story on its podcast Embedded about a police shooting that could have, and perhaps should have, happened—but did not. That perpetrator was verbally threatening and running toward a police officer with his hands in his pocket, but the police found a way to use restraint. Of course, the suspect was white.
Crutcher had his hands up while walking away from the officers and, as his sister informed us on 60 Minutes, was most likely putting his hands on the car as he had been taught to do by his father when interacting with the police. And yet he was killed … and his killer was found not guilty.
Maya Angelou once said that when people show you who they are, believe them the first time.
The same is true of institutions.
I need to stop putting hope in a system that was never designed to protect people who look like me. This country taught me what to expect in this case by what happened in the cases of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd and Keith Lamont Scott. I should have known that black lives don’t matter in America, and that police officers can kill us on camera and then go home to their families feeling vindicated.
A murderer was found not guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter in the death of Terence Crutcher, and I was a fool to hope for anything resembling justice in this case. Betty Shelby is the physical embodiment of Darth Susan, and what’s worse, she was found innocent because she had a jury of her peers.