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OPINION

Driving — and dying — while Black

Disproportionately pulled over for minor traffic violations, Black people are too often subjected to fatal police violence.

Officers stand in riot gear as demonstrators gather outside Akron City Hall on July 3 to protest the killing of Jayland Walker, shot by police in Akron days earlier.MATTHEW HATCHER/AFP via Getty Images

A young white man was named as “a person of interest” in a mass shooting Monday at a July 4 parade in Highland Park, Ill., that killed at least seven and left dozens wounded. When spotted hours later, he led police on a brief chase. Though considered “armed and dangerous,” the young white man was arrested “without incident.”

Days earlier, a young Black man was pulled over by police for unspecified traffic and equipment violations in Akron, Ohio. He sped off with police in pursuit, ditched his car, then ran on foot. Eight police officers shot him 60 times.

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If mass shootings are a uniquely American horror, so, too, are minor traffic stops that end with Black people killed by police. What happened to Jayland Walker, 25 and unarmed when he was shot, isn’t an anomaly. It’s a pernicious fact of Black life, and death, in America.

Walter Scott was reportedly stopped for a non-functioning brake light in South Carolina in 2015. That same year, Samuel DuBose was pulled over in Ohio for a missing front license plate. In 2016, Terence Crutcher was walking near his stalled car on an Oklahoma roadway. Marquintan Sandlin and Kisha Michael were unconscious in their car in California. In a Minnesota suburb, Philando Castile was stopped by police looking for a robbery suspect.

As Derek Chauvin was being tried in 2021 for the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Daunte Wright was pulled over in a nearby suburb for an expired registration tab on his license plate and having air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror. In April, Patrick Lyoya was stopped for improper vehicle registration in Michigan.

Every one of them was ultimately killed by police. Black people aren’t issued tickets. They get death notices. All that changes is the location, the number of shots fired, and how much time activists will have to catch their breath before the next Black motorist dies in a hail of police gunfire.

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The point isn’t that the person of interest in the parade shooting was arrested without incident. We’ve seen that before with white mass shooting suspects in Buffalo, El Paso, and Pittsburgh and convicted murderers in Parkland, Fla., Aurora, Colo., Charleston, S.C., and Atlanta. More often than not, when a mass shooter dies it’s by suicide, not police.

The point is that too many cops regard Black people as inherently dangerous, which serves as tacit permission to treat us without humanity. In Farmington Hills, Mich., its police chief recently apologized after someone posted photos taken during a Boy Scout visit in April showing that the department’s shooting practice targets — oversized photos of Black men wearing hoodies, backward baseball caps or knit caps, and pointing guns.

When that’s how some police are indoctrinated to perceive and neutralize a threat, it’s no wonder that Walker never made it home. Akron police fired 90 rounds at him and unless he was running backward, their guns were pointed at his retreating back.

During the Jan. 6 insurrection, only one shot was fired as the US Capitol was breached by Donald Trump’s armed mob. A report issued by the Government Accountability Office later found that officers said they “felt discouraged or hesitant to use force” against insurrectionists though law enforcement was being assaulted with a variety of weapons from flagpoles to bear spray. If they feared for their lives, their actions certainly didn’t show it.

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The police who arrested their “person of interest” in the Highland Park shooting had every reason to believe he could be armed, but officers opted for deescalation. While the suspect was still in his car, police officer in North Chicago used a bullhorn to tell him, “Do me a favor, get on your knees, get on your knees, lay down flat on your stomach.”

That’s how their encounter ended, with an officer asking an alleged mass shooter for “a favor.” For Walker, it ended with police handcuffing his bullet-riddled, presumably dead body.

Each year, more than 20 million people are pulled over by police for traffic stops. Black people, especially men, are disproportionately targeted. In Suffolk County, which includes Boston, Black drivers are stopped 1.6 times as often as white motorists. That disparity jumps to 2.4 percent for minor traffic offenses, according to a new study by the Vera Institute of Justice.

This isn’t just a Boston or Suffolk County problem. It’s a national disgrace fostered by a general belief that, given the demands of the job, police tactics even when they constitute misconduct must not be challenged. If Black lives mattered to police, Walker would be as alive today as the 22-year-old white man suspected in a mass killing.

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At a recent press conference, Akron Police Chief Stephen Mylett said the officers who killed Walker “need to be held to account” but added, “I am reserving any sort of judgment until we hear from them.”

Walker, another Black man judged and killed by police violence, wasn’t afforded the same courtesy.


Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.