The racism that put a target on Sam DuBose

August 4, 2015

Tim Joseph reports on the University of Cincinnati police killing of Samuel DuBose and what's next after the murder indictment.

WHEN UNIVERSITY of Cincinnati Police Department (UCPD) officer Ray Tensing used the pretext of a missing front license plate to pull over Samuel DuBose, a 43-year-old African American man driving in a neighborhood near the university campus, he was following a long-standing police practice of using minor traffic violations to detain, harass and arrest Black motorists.

Indeed, this wasn't the first time that Tensing himself had utilized this practice. A cell phone recording of a traffic stop from May 2014, which has now become viral, shows Tensing pulling over two young Black men for having a "loose bumper" and refusing to let them go or explain why he was detaining them. He only released them after a police supervisor arrived to "de-escalate" the situation.

When he stopped Samuel DuBose, however, there was no "de-escalation." Only two minutes after Tensing approached DuBose's car, DuBose was dead--shot in the head in cold blood. After viewing video of the shooting retrieved from Tensing's body camera, a grand jury announced on July 29 its decision to charge the officer with murder.

Cincinnati gathers to demand justice for Samuel DuBose
Cincinnati gathers to demand justice for Samuel DuBose (Taylor M. Meredith)

Ray Tensing murdered Samuel DuBose for driving without a license plate on July 19, just six days after Sandra Bland was found dead in a Texas jail cell following her arrest and brutal assault by an officer after not using her turn signal while changing lanes. DuBose was one of at least 120 people killed by U.S. police in the month of July, according to the Guardian.

Tensing stated in his official account that "he was attempting a traffic stop...when, at some point, he began to be dragged by [DuBose]," who the officer claimed had begun driving away from the scene. Tensing stated that he fired a shot in self-defense. The footage captured by his body camera, however, tells a completely different story.

The horrifying recording clearly shows that Tensing abruptly grabbed and shot DuBose without provocation. Tensing's claim that DuBose had started to drive off and drag him down the road was shown to be completely false. Nevertheless, two fellow officers on the scene supported his story and continued to do so even after it was refuted. None of them will face charges for providing false information.

The footage recorded by Tensing's body camera only became public as a result of protests by DuBose's family and local activists. Days after the shooting, family members and UC students gathered on campus to demand that the video be released. "Why can't I see the video?" asked Dubose's 9-year-old son. "People are losing their lives over not having a license plate," UC student Cierra Carter told the Cincinnati Enquirer. "Those are not offenses worth dying for."

Even before the video was released, however, the city admitted that they could not justify the death of Samuel Dubose. "It's not a good situation," City Manager Harry Black told reporters after viewing the video. "It's a tragic situation, someone has died that did not necessarily need to die."

The footage was finally released during a press conference called by Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, who called the shooting both "senseless" and "unnecessary," and announced that Tensing would be indicted immediately for murder, making Tensing the first officer in Cincinnati's history to be charged for killing someone on duty.

SOME COMMENTATORS consider the indictment to be further evidence that requiring police to wear body cameras is a solution to police brutality. It would be wrong, however, to conclude that Tensing was charged with murder solely on the basis of that the recorded footage contradicted his story.

While it's certainly true that the footage was decisive in refuting the false account given by police, a host of examples--from the brutalization of Rodney King to the murder of Eric Garner--show that video evidence of racist police violence is not sufficient to secure an indictment, let alone a conviction.

Tensing was indicted because of local protests and the strength of the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement, which has created a real shift in public consciousness regarding racism and police brutality over the just last year. Protests in the wake of police murders in cities across the U.S. have helped focus public attention on the epidemic of racist police violence and put pressure on city officials to take responsibility for their police.

It's also worth pointing out that it was local protest and public outrage that put pressure on the UCPD and city officials to publically release Tensing's body camera video in the first place.

Tensing's indictment also reflects the impact of the rebellion against police murder that took place in Cincinnati in 2001 following the murder of unarmed teenager Timothy Thomas by Cincinnati Police Department (CPD) officer Stephen Roach. As a result of anger at the 19-year-old's murder and systematic police abuse that had had been building up for years, Black residents, provoked by the police, rebelled and clashed with the police for four nights. Roach was indicted on negligent homicide but later acquitted.

After the 2001 rebellion, the CPD embarked on a series of "problem-oriented" reforms. Many of these reforms--such as "racial sensitivity" training--have been mostly window-dressing, but other changes have had some substantive effects. According to the Atlantic, there has been a 69 percent reduction in documented police use-of-force incidents and a 56 percent reduction in citizen injuries during police encounters. The CPD now postures as a "progressive" police force--although the racist violence has not stopped.

It was the fear of renewed rebellion in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement and the desire to maintain a progressive facade that prompted the Hamilton County Prosecutor and the CPD to move swiftly against Tensing and the UCPD. University of Cincinnati administrators were also afraid of rebellion: they announced that the campus would be closed to all non-essential personnel two hours before the press conference in which the findings of the grand jury investigation would be released out of fear of "riots." Ohio Highway Patrol set up patrols on the main entrances to campus.

ALTHOUGH THEY referred to the shooting as a "tragedy," the statements made by the Hamilton County Prosecutor and the CPD were focused less on winning justice for DuBose and his family than they were on shifting public focus from police brutality in general to the UCPD's lack of "professionalism."

During his press conference, Deters called for the UC police to be disbanded, arguing that "Being a police officer shouldn't be the role of this university." Similarly, Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell absurdly stated that the university police force does not have the "same philosophy of fairness and cultural competency" displayed by the Cincinnati police.

This supposed concern over the presence of armed police at UC is hypocritical, seeing that the city enthusiastically signed an agreement giving the 72 UCPD officers jurisdiction over surrounding neighborhoods just six years ago.

The University of Cincinnati isn't alone is having an armed police force. On the contrary, it's a practice followed by the vast majority of universities in the U.S. According to the New York Times, 92 percent of public universities and 38 percent of private campuses have their own armed police forces distinct from campus security guards.

DuBose is the third Black man who has died after an interaction with UC police since 2010. Kelly Brinson, a 45-year-old psychiatric patient, and Everette Howard, an 18-year-old student, died in 2010 and 2011 after campus police fired their Taser stun guns at them, according to lawsuits filed by their families.

University administrators justify the presence of police forces on university campuses and the surrounding neighborhoods by appealing to fears of crime and student safety. Such claims ignore the fact that it's police that often pose the greatest threat to the safety of Black and Brown students, as demonstrated earlier this year by the horrific brutalization of University of Virginia student Martese Johnson, to give only one example.

Attempts by university administrators to stoke fears of crime also rely upon racist stereotypes that criminalize poor, predominately Black people to divert attention from the real motivation underlying the militarization of university campuses: expanding police control over poor neighborhoods to seize them for university-led gentrification and crack down on growing protest movements on-and-off campuses.

This strategy is now "coming into vogue" as universities expand into poorer neighborhoods, International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators President William Taylor told the Times.

The new focus on university police forces in the wake of DuBose's murder provides an important opportunity for anti-racist activists to build connections between campuses and off-campus communities. Several protests and vigils followed the release of the body camera footage, including a vigil and march of some 200 people on July 31 chanting "I am Sam DuBose" through the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood and downtown, in which at least six protesters being arrested.

Tensing's indictment is a real victory and the result of protest against police racism in the streets and on UC's campus. It will take further organizing and protest to ensure that this case results in a conviction.

Rooney Hassan contributed to this article.

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