Black Men Must Be Bionic

[by Kevin L. Reeves]

 Editor’s Note: Warning: This piece contains a link to a video of an officer shooting an unarmed black man.
In any situation, if a white police officer is moved to kill me, he knows he could do so with impunity. He knows this. He’s known it for many years. His socialization in these United States taught him the ways of race relations at an early age. With them, it’s an implicit understanding. He knows if we are engaged in any kind of non-lethal struggle, or if I dared to react in a way that is displeasing to him, he’d be free to take my life without consequence from the law. My innocence doesn’t matter. He understands that, for me, being unarmed doesn’t matter. Standing over my blood-soaked and bullet-riddled body, he’d be justified in his actions. After all, I was black and I was bionic.

When it comes to encounters with white police officers, even under seemingly innocuous circumstances like a traffic stop, our lives are uncertain. Keeping our lives in these situations depends on our willingness to be subservient and our ability to remain calm: extremely calm is best, not a twitch or the slightest hint of anything resembling action. This helps, but how much it helps depends solely on the constitution of the white police officer. Is he a moral man? If so, what is the basis for his morality? It’s unlikely that he sees me as he sees himself, but what matters most is if he believes in the bionic black man. Belief in this ethos is deadly, and with it being so very hard to tell where the officer’s belief lies, it is always best to remain extremely calm, praying that the officer is pleased by his power over such a remarkable being. Unprovoked, you stand a good chance, but under any duress or provocation, it’s very likely you could become a trophy, stuffed and hung up on the wall of the officer’s psyche. 

There are two ways the belief in the bionic black man can be deadly. The first, and less common situation, is when the young and uninitiated white police officer first encounters a black man in a tense situation. Having never been under duress, if the officer believes that man to be bionic, lethal force being applied is nearly a sure thing. When the officer faces the slightest threat (or even, very often, misperceived threat) he’ll use lethal force.

Again, it doesn’t matter that the black man is unarmed. If the officer believes the black man to be bionic, he understands that man will have no trouble swiping the officer’s gun with his superhuman quickness. Bionic black men don’t even have to go after the officer’s gun; they have the power to crush the officer’s skull between their two hands. With these abilities, the officer’s training is nullified. For how can the expert training of the police, prepped to remain poised and schooled in the art of discernment in the face of danger, conditioned and drilled for hand-to-hand combat and tested for marksmanship, contend with a superhuman being?

The second and most common occurrence is more sinister. The seasoned white police officer believes in the bionic man, but not in the same way as the uninitiated. He knows I am not bionic. Certainly not: more than any other, seasoned white police officers have the most physical contact with black men. They know we are fully human and that our limbs bend and our bodies contort like any others under force and heated pressure of conflict. But the seasoned white officer understands his rights in this country and as an officer of the law. He understands the power of perception and myth. In fact, he is himself a myth builder and perpetuator of the myth of the bionic black man. It serves him, as the construct of race continues to serve the wealthy, the powerful, the poor white, and the insecure. He knows that all he has to say is, “I feared for my life.” No matter the circumstances, this phrase absolves him, for he is white and he knows that the greater majority of the country, both white and non-white, believe in some version of the bionic black man.

George Zimmerman, a fake cop, armed and in pursuit, a man over a decade older than the 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, appealed to this belief. His target, a skinny teenaged black boy, didn’t stand a chance; for Zimmerman understood the myth well. He understood that all he had to say was that he feared for his life and that it would activate the collective schema of the bionic black man in the mind of the country. Instantly, the skinny teenaged boy armed only with a bag of Skittles and an iced tea becomes a menacing bionic man of superhuman abilities rather than a scared boy, justly defending himself from an armed pursuer. No, he was a bionic black man leaping out of the bushes and using his clearly unfair advantage to threaten the life of the innocent white man.

I am 35 years old, six feet and two-hundred-thirty-some-odd pounds, and if I ever lost my cool around police officers, it’s quite likely I’d be dead. I am perceived to be bionic, so losing my cool (meaning, exhibiting normal frustration from racial profiling or any other unjust or unnecessary action by the police) could be deadly for me. I know this. I know that I shouldn’t ever show anger or aggression in the presence of white people, certainly not in the presence of a white police officer. Anger and frustration are human emotions. But I am not perceived to be fully human, and I know this and so do officers of the law.

Mike Brown died 150 feet from Officer Wilson’s police car, which was the site of the confrontation and first two gun shots. That is half a football field away. Half a football field away from the initial conflict and the officer’s car. Mike Brown ran. He ran because he feared for his life and his freedom. He made it half a football field away and then something happened. Clearly, Brown must have become bionic, an altered beast, myth becoming a reality. Suddenly, Brown went from running in fear of his life to turning around, an all-powerful being, menacing, threatening, and fearless. And with Mike Brown in his bionic state, it was then Officer Wilson’s turn to be in fear of his life. So he fired at Mike Brown ten more times.

How else do you put down a bionic man?

Kevin L. Reeves is a writer living in Chicago. He is the author of s.m.i.l.e (2011).