Once, for a writing prompt, I was asked to describe how it felt to be white.
I imagined that it feels like freedom. Like how flying feels to a hawk. Even the literal sky is not the limit when one is granted the privilege of being born with wings. A hawk is not an evil thing. A hawk is just a bird. It is a predator. And sometimes, at its whim, a hawk will swoop down out of the sky and pluck an insignificant little thing from the earth and eat it alive.
On Oct. 20, 2017, out of nowhere, a beast plunged from the sky, landed on 44-year-old Armando Frank, and devoured him whole.
The Advocate has obtained police body camera footage of the death of Armando Frank. In the footage, Avoyelles Parish Sherriff’s Deputies confront Frank while he is atop a tractor near the Marksville, La., Walmart and inform him that they have a warrant for his arrest.
The warrant, according to the Sherrif’s office, was for simple criminal trespassing and attempted unauthorized entry into a dwelling. The charges stemmed from a dispute with his neighbors, according to the Advocate.
In the footage, Frank does not attack the officers. He does not make any sudden moves. Instead, he refuses to dismount from the tractor and demands that the deputies, identified as Brandon Spillman and Alexander Daniel, show him a copy of the arrest warrant. The officers tell him that they do not have the warrant in their possession but that he will see it at the Sherriff’s office.
“Step off of the tractor,” one deputy demands, to which Frank replies: “Show me the warrant.”
Deputy Stillman then climbs on the tractor, grabs Frank from behind and places him a chokehold. Daniel tries to use a taser to shock Frank after he manages to free himself from the chokehold but shocks Stillman instead. You can see Frank gagging and hear him gasping for air. After a short struggle, they manage to handcuff Frank when he becomes still.
One officer comments, “He’s dead weighting” (a term used by officers for when suspects intentionally make their bodies go stiff) and another responds, “Where the head goes, the body must follow,” as they drag his limp body to the police vehicle.
Another one of the officers who arrived at the scene says “Get him up ... Is he breathing?”
He was not.
Armando Frank was dead.
“His level of resistance starts out as passive. It doesn’t go to active and aggressive until he’s physically assaulted by these deputies,” said Gregory Gilbertson, director of the criminal justice program at Centralia College in Centralia, Wash.
“He’s not attempting to flee, he’s not assaulting anybody, he’s sitting on a tractor and he’s asking reasonable questions they are refusing to answer,” explained Gilbertson, one of two experts on use-of-force who reviewed the footage for the Advocate.
Gilbertson also explained that the lateral vascular neck restraint, the name of the chokehold used to restrain Frank, is typically a last resort. Because of its potential to restrict airflow, Gilbertson said it is typically used when deadly force is the only option.
Phillip Stinson, another expert from Bowling Green University, said officers are entitled to use as much force as necessary to make an arrest, which according to Stinson’s explanation, negates part of an obscure little document called the Constitution of the United States of America, whose Fourteenth Amendment reads, in part:
... nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.
A grand jury declined to indict the officers for negligent homicide in March and the family of Armando has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the officers involved, reports The Advocate’s Ben Myers.
A forensic pathologist hired by Avoyelles Parish cites manual strangulation as the primary cause of death and ruled it a homicide. The report notes that officers restricted Frank’s breathing for more than six minutes and never made an attempt to resuscitate him, adding that Frank said “let me up” three times, each one more strained than the last.
It was his “last verbal communication” the report says.
If someone were to ask what it feels like being black, I would mention Armando Frank. I would probably write something about walking around every day knowing you could be plucked from the earth. That you could be devoured. That being black is a constant exercise in exorcising that inescapable fact from your mind.
It is being strong and fragile at once. It is the refusal to comply while knowing that it may cost your life. It is knowing that complying may still cost your life. It is the unrelenting, constant decision of choosing between the two.
To be black is to be strangled. To gasp for air. To be handcuffed when you are limp. To be dragged, lifeless and unmoving. To be deprived of life and liberty.
Statistically speaking, it is unlikely that you or I will die like Armando Frank died. But I have known what it is to be black. To know the predator hawks will always fly away. To beg them:
“Let me up.”
“Let me up.”
“Let me up.”