The bulk of the video of Kajieme Powell is striking not for its violence, but for its lightness. It shows a community reacting to a low stress incident when it suddenly becomes something else entirely. Whatever fear or urgency there came with the responding officers.
Kajieme Powell was shot by police in St. Louis on August 19, 2014. He was 25. Within 48 hours, (trigger warning) cell phone footage was circulating the Internet, showing him pacing back and forth on the sidewalk in front of a convenience store until police arrive. The video shows the squad car pulling up and the officers emerging, shooting him within seconds. Powell’s death came ten days after Michael Brown’s shooting, a month after Eric Garner died in a police choke-hold on Long Island and three months before Tamir Rice was killed on a Cleveland playground for brandishing a toy pistol. It would be eight months to the day until Freddie Gray’s death from spinal injuries, received in police custody in Baltimore. On the one year anniversary of Powell’s death, St. Louis police shot and killed Mansur Ball-Bey.
Powell’s death in particular symbolizes what can only be called the “normalization” of police executions of black men. Something that should never happen at all instead becomes just another in a long string of outrages. Moreover, the way in which it was captured on video by a member of Powell’s own community underscores the way that we have to resist becoming inured to such deaths. The minutes leading up to Powell’s sudden death are filmed like an absurd street play. It comes with a live narration that starts with a sense of near-normalcy and culminates with “not again.”
The cell phone footage of Powell’s death is roughly six minutes long and the actual shooting takes about three seconds. The video generally comes with warnings that it is graphic. It is very graphic in the sense that you are watching a man die, and you know it, but it is not at all gory. It is, however, shocking and heartbreaking. The narration is unfiltered and colloquial. The bulk of the video is striking not for its violence, but for its lightness. It shows a community reacting to a low stress incident when it suddenly becomes something else entirely. Whatever fear or urgency there came with the responding officers.
The man taking the video announces that his friend, Kajieme, just told him he stole from the store. The narrator is clearly enjoying a show. He sounds gleeful as two officers arrive and draw their guns. Right until the shooting begins the narrator treats the whole thing as a splendid joke. Then you hear his stunned reaction as the police shoot multiple times, turn the dead or dying man over and cuff him. He continues to film as multiple additional officers come to the scene and tape it off, aggressively pushing back all the witnesses. The video shows many spectators throughout, wandering in and out of the view. Like the narrator, they are first just a curious audience to Powell’s behavior, treating his behavior as questionable, but not threatening.
The media commentary after the killing suggested that Powell was in some sort of mental or emotional distress. The reaction in his community supports that view. People gave him plenty of space as he set his stolen beverage cans on the curb and walked around in circles until the police arrived. Up until then he had little interaction with those around him. As the police leap out of their car he began taunting them and telling them to shoot him.
Kajieme Powell died on a public sidewalk, in his own neighborhood. He probably wasn’t far from where he grew up. The callous abruptness of his death in front of his friends and neighbors is difficult to describe.
Like a lot of people, I watched Cops in the ’90s and ’00s. I watch A&E police reality procedurals from time to time. These shows generally featured middle-aged (mostly male) police officers and detectives. Clearly the producers wanted to paint law enforcement favorably and depict diverse officers, but they were by and large white. Such shows are justifiably criticized for reinforcing negative stereotypes of low-income urban people of color, particularly men. But they did show a number of ways in which police respond to aggressive, mentally disturbed, and even just disorderly people. And there were certainly depictions of police responding to a situation like Powell’s: a man in his own neighborhood, surrounded by members of his community, acting inappropriately in broad daylight on the public right of way. (In Powell’s case the sun was shining and he appeared to be on a concrete plaza next to a bus stop).
In the video, the police are on the scene mere seconds before they shoot, so there is no way to guess what they saw or felt. They could have been concerned that Powell was on a violent rampage, but it is clear that they did not take the time to find out, or acquaint themselves with the scene. There is no “park the car down the block and approach with your hand on your gun,” no canvassing of the numerous people in the vicinity and asking “what do we have here?” I can’t be certain what “correct” police procedure is for such a situation, but I assume when the police consent to be filmed it is usually “done right.” I’m even prepared to believe a lot of the time police work is more like reality TV, where the producers are clearly trying to extract every possible moment of drama by careful editing, and a lot of the time it’s still boring. Maybe Kajieme Powell’s acquaintance with a cell phone thought it would be boring too, but he doesn’t sound bored.
When the police car speeds up with lights and sirens going, the police leap out and suddenly the scene escalates. They bring the urgency with them. There is none of the ponderous, calm but tense remonstration and negotiation you see in front of TV cameras. Powell becomes agitated, climbs onto a raised lawn and hops off in front of the officers. Then they fire multiple times and the man filming starts to swear and say “not again,” as Powell falls to the ground. The narrator wails, “They killed him.”
In the year since Powell’s death, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has gained momentum and considerable influence, but police shootings of people of color continue and the deaths of African-American women and men in police custody have made the news many times over. In St. Louis the local authorities are still “reviewing the evidence” in the investigation into Powell’s death and his family has filed a civil suit. On August 19, 2015 there was a demonstration in downtown St. Louis, in Powell’s memory. That same afternoon and police fatally shot an eighteen-year-old during the execution of a search warrant, not far from where Powell died.
The video of Powell’s death was widely circulated, but Powell himself received far less individual press than Michael Brown, Eric Garner or Tamir Rice. Or Sandra Bland or Michael Scott, shot in the back running from an officer after a traffic stop in North Carolina, eight months later. There was no #ICan’tBreathe or #HandsUpDon’tShoot slogan galvanizing people in his memory. But when #BlackLivesMatter activists stress the urgency energizing the movement: “We are dying in the streets!” I think of Kajieme Powell.
Kajieme Powell died on a public sidewalk, in his own neighborhood. He probably wasn’t far from where he grew up. The callous abruptness of his death in front of his friends and neighbors is difficult to describe. Although the narrative about the incident suggests he was in mental distress, no emergency personnel (or indeed anyone) tried to help him. In contrast to the stoic patience law enforcement shows open carry activists, the police made absolutely no attempt to figure out why he was acting strangely. He was shot as quickly as if he had been a rabid raccoon, and apparently with as little thought. This is not the way any country should treat its own citizens. And if police feel it is acceptable to do that to one, or one hundred, black men, it does not speak well for how everyone else might eventually fare.
So when people ask why #BlackLivesMatter activists boil over with rage and grief, remember Kajieme Powell, whose death was so visible, so brutal and yet almost unremarked upon.
Elleanor Chin is a writer and litigation consultant living in Portland, Oregon. Her writing appears in BlueOregon, SecondNexus.com, Feministing and other places. She blogs about culture and creativity at www.ragecreationjoy.wordpress.com. She graduated from Bryn Mawr College and the University of Michigan. When not preoccupied with the infamous work/family balance she enjoys reading biographies and baking yeast bread.
Photo via Wikipedia.