By Eugene Robinson [March 18, 2021]
“He was pretty much fed up and kind of at the end of his rope, and yesterday was a really bad day for him, and this is what he did.” Remember those words from a Georgia police official whenever anyone tries to tell you that policing in this country is colorblind. And if you doubt that those words matter, remember who law enforcement officials are supposed to serve and protect.
The “he” in question is Robert Aaron Long, a 21-year-old White man, and authorities say that “what he did” on Tuesday was to kill eight victims — including six Asian women — in three Atlanta-area spas. The “really bad day” account of the alleged rampage was how Capt. Jay Baker, the spokesman for the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, summarized investigators’ description of their early interviews with Long.
Like Long, Baker is a White man. But you probably guessed that.
Journalists subsequently discovered a post on Baker’s Facebook page with photos of a T-shirt describing covid-19 as an “IMPORTED VIRUS FROM CHY-NA,” the kind of language many experts blame for a sharp increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans.
For all I know, in terms of the performance of his duties, Baker may be a decent cop. But take that post, and add it to what Baker said about Long and the way he said it, and the question is obvious: Whose side is he on? And how are the Asian and Asian American victims and families Baker is supposed to protect supposed to trust him?
Let me put this another way. When have you ever heard a White police officer, prosecutor or judge speak of a Black defendant — or any suspect of color — with such understanding, such apparent sympathy?
“He was pretty much fed up and kind of at the end of his rope” might have described George Floyd’s attitude when Minneapolis police officers started manhandling him over an allegation that he passed a counterfeit $20 bill. It might have been the way Rayshard Brooks felt when Atlanta police found him asleep in his car at a Wendy’s drive-through and took him into custody rather than let him walk to his sister’s house.
Floyd and Brooks were both Black. And their encounters with police — over piddling, nonviolent offenses — ended in their deaths.
Long, by contrast, had allegedly killed eight people in cold blood. He fled by car and was known to be armed and extremely dangerous — Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said that when he was apprehended, Long was allegedly headed to Florida, possibly with the intent of carrying out additional shootings. Yet police managed to arrest him “without incident,” leaving him alive, well and able to tell investigators about his “really bad day.”
Or take Dylann Roof, who was 21 when he killed nine Black worshipers at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C. Roof, too, fled by car. He was also known to be armed and extremely dangerous. He, too, was taken into custody alive and uninjured. And when Roof told officers he was hungry, police bought him food from Burger King.
It is right for police to do everything they can to arrest suspects without injuring or killing them. But it is intolerably wrong for this standard to apply to White suspects but not to African Americans or other people of color. And there is a difference between getting a suspect to talk by treating him with dignity and appearing to sympathize with an alleged criminal’s self-justification.
It was striking that Baker was quick to report, and seemingly endorse, Long’s claim that the alleged killings were “not racially motivated” but instead had to do with some kind of purported “sex addiction.” My guess is that Baker probably doesn’t think his own Facebook post about covid-19 was racist, either. Perhaps Baker intended to show the public that Long was speaking to the police in revealing terms. Instead, he sent a disturbing message about who the investigators of this terrible crime really sympathize with.
Four of the victims in Long’s first alleged mass shooting, at Young’s Asian Massage in Cherokee County, were identified as Daoyou Feng, 44; Xiaojie Tan, 49; Delaina Yuan, 33; and Paul Andre Michels, 54. At this writing, the four individuals killed in the shootings at Aromatherapy Spa and Gold Spa in Atlanta have not been publicly identified pending notification of next of kin. Their deaths are a terrible cost. The damage done to everyone who knew and loved the victims is incalculable.
In Baker’s bloodless description, “This is what he did.”
Diversity, sensitivity and empathy in policing are not ethereal concepts. To people of color in this country, these abstractions are literally matters of life and death. Until attitudes like Baker’s change, the cry of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests must, and will, continue to ring out, and on behalf of Asian Americans, too: No justice, no peace.
Eugene Robinson is a columnist for the Washington Post focusing on politics and culture.