Memphis. July 17. A Friday. Carefree black boys call it a night. Darrius Stewart is just around the corner from his mama’s house when blue light hits the rearview mirror of the Chevy Malibu. A routine traffic stop. A simple thing. One week ago, Sandra Bland was stopped in Texas for a simple thing.
A white cop emerges from the blue light. The cop demands identification from the carload of black teenagers, from both driver and passengers. Seated in the backseat, Darrius pats his pockets. He wasn’t driving that night. He left his license at home.
The police database conjures out-of-state juvenile warrants for a child that may or may not be this unverified passenger, this teenage civilian without papers, this Darrius Stewart on his way home. The cop detains Darrius in the back of the police Charger and drives a mile away. The Charger comes to a stop outside a church, holy ground no less sacred than Canfield Drive, Cudell Park, the Beavercreek Walmart, or the Waller County Jail.
He shoots Darrius three times. Later, Officer Connor Schilling tells investigators that he tried to handcuff the teen and the teen fought back. Darrius kicked and cussed and swung and ran toward green grass, toward home, toward life. The cop chased Darrius, tackled him, and fatally shot him as he kneeled in a bed of plump Delta grass.
Eyewitness cellphone footage ends before the cop reaches his gun. Autoplay to the next scene: blue soaked footage, a street covered with Chargers, a soundtrack of threats hurled at Darrius’s family. “Take your ass that way,” a cop hollers at Mary Stewart. “Get the fuck out of here,” the cop screams again at a mother who wants to know if that’s her boy dying in the field.
I don’t usually watch these playlists of black death on work release from corporate servers, these commodities collecting adsense dollars. Did Darrius hide from these lynching postcards of our gigabit age too? Or had he clicked and watched and shared videos of routine stops, routine confrontations, routine final seconds? Did he mourn—crying into his phone, his laptop keyboard?
Did these scenes haunt Darrius as he cruised past Chargers lurking in parking lots? As he walked past the omnipresent Blue Crush SkyCop surveillance towers stalking his middle school, high school, McDonald’s, his mall? As he Hit the Quan? Could blue light kill this black boy’s carefree?
Feeling himself in that loud, loose-fitting prom tux, that Wooddale High School regalia, did Darrius Stewart caption his respectable-Negro selfies #iftheygunnedmedown? Did he punctuate hungry ambitions and swole-headed prophesies, love notes to kin and baes, and necessary love notes to himself #ifidieinpolicecustody?
One year to the day after Eric Garner was choked to death gasping for life, three months after Walter Scott was shot in the back while running to save his life, four days after Sandra Bland died in a jail cell after fighting to save her life, one week before Ralkina Jones begged police for life—“I don’t want to die in your cell”—and died of poisoning two days later, I wonder if an old song groaned from holy ground as the blue light engulfed that Chevy, as Darrius sat trapped in the back of that Charger, as Darrius kicked and ran for life and tomorrow on that lawn.
If we must die—let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die—oh, let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe;
Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
“We heard two shots…” a voice cries from the shaky, low-res darkness of the cellphone video, interrupted by lens flares of blue, and Mary Stewart’s apocalyptic screams.
Another voice breaks, sobbing: “They shot him. He was on his knees when they shot him, mama.”
Memphis has a black police chief with the name of a superhero. After that grand jury failed to indict Darren Wilson last November, protestors paid the city to stage a protest at a busy intersection, steps away from a popular strip mall. The city of Memphis requires a permit for any public gathering of more than 25 people. A slave code. Negroes with passes.
The city’s top cop was out shaking hands, grinning, giving speeches to the cameras. We got good Negroes here in Memphis, the police chief said to jittery civilians at home, anti-black white folk and anti-black black folk, idolaters of the gun, tough-on-crime disciples of safety and law-n-order.
The police chief applauded protestors for acting “in a peaceful manner.” Our Negroes aren’t “disruptive to our city,” the police chief said. None of this shut it down, take the interstate stuff. “We are a nation of laws,” he continued. “We depend on a system to reach these decisions. Now is the time for healing.”
Don’t disrupt unjust laws, the police chief warned. “Healing” must not disrupt the system that consumes you. “I think we have an opportunity here to do something to set an example for the nation,” he said about Memphis, the city where Dr. King was murdered after thirteen years defying unjust laws.
A redneck in a Jeep Wrangler drove by, lips pressed to the microphone of a PA system, the kind of loudspeaker a cop car would have. “If you don’t break the law, you won’t get shot,” the redneck hollered through the speaker.
An old white cop chuckled. “You hear that?” the cop hee-hawed to other cops—black and white cops—wanna-be Judge Dredds: judge, jury, executioner. “If you don’t break the law, you won’t get shot.”
According to the local newspaper, Memphis police have shot and killed 24 people in the last five years. The District Attorney’s Office decided that all 22 closed cases were instances of “justifiable” murder, including the case of an unarmed man shot in the back as he was running away, eight other killings of unarmed suspects, and cases where officers clearly lied.
This census leaves out state murder by other means. The Memphis Black Autonomy Federation documented 23 killings by Memphis police from February 2012 to October 2013. During that period, Memphis cops fatally shot fourteen people. Nine other victims died after beatings and blasts of pepper-spray to eyes, nose and throat, after speeding Chargers collided with civilian cars and motorcycles, after suffocating—as Aaron Dumas suffocated—surrounded by fire, pyrotechnic gas, and chemical white smoke, huddled in a bathtub, face covered with a towel, 9mm Ruger in his lap.
Since 2000, approximately 100 Memphis cops have been arrested for all manner of crimes other than murder: kidnapping, domestic violence, DUIs, robbery drug trafficking, assault. More than 20 police officers have been arrested in the past year alone. Many of their crimes are acts of violence against black women and girls: sexual battery, sex trafficking, sexual exploitation of a minor, rape and statutory rape. One cop lured a 14-year-old girl into his police Charger and sexually assaulted her there, another rapist searched a police database to locate his victim’s home, another Memphis cop raped a woman after responding to a domestic violence dispute—Just a few more questions, Ma’am; Do you mind if I come in? The city waited fourteen years to test the rape kit.
In July 2013, Officer Schilling slammed a young black woman’s head against her car during a routine traffic stop. In July 2014, off duty and tanked, Schilling was arrested for a DUI as he stalked a woman home from a party. He couldn’t take no for an answer. In July 2015, Schilling killed Darrius Stewart.
These are the stories we know, the data from police reports, the news that’s fit to print. We don’t know what we don’t know.
POLICE CHIEF: A Caucasian police officer shoots and kills an African-American male. We all know of the examples that have occurred in the last year from Ferguson to Baltimore, and the climate that we now live in must be taken into account. We are going to be transparent. And to get to the bottom of what happened and why it happened.
The police chief hands the investigation over the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI). Investigations by TBI are anything but transparent. TBI records are not open to the public. In 2013, the TBI investigated the murder of Justin Thompson, a 15-year-old shot and killed by Memphis cop Terrance Shaw. District Attorney Amy Weirich refused to indict the police officer. The investigation remains sealed.
TBI will investigate all police shootings going forward, the Police Chief says. There is no such protocol for investigations of civilian killings of police. No pretense to a “fair and impartial investigation.” Local police investigate killings of local police, of friends, of coworkers, of brothers in blue.
Fifteen days after a black boy was killed on holy ground, a blue-domed police Charger pulls in front of an old Mercedes parked the wrong way, against traffic, on a sleepy residential street. The Charger’s spotlight hits the windshield of the Mercedes and two men inside. The driver of the Mercedes sprints into the night. He leaves his friend Tremaine Wilbourn in the passenger seat. Blocks away, the driver hears gunshots. He fears Tremaine is dead.
Only Tremaine Wilbourn knows what happens next. There’s no police body cam footage, no eyewitness cellphone video. The police have refused to share dashcam footage with Tremaine’s lawyers. The police have refused to say for sure whether dashcam footage exists.
On the run, Tremaine calls his sister Callie. He tells Callie that the cop was angry when he got to that passenger-side door, pissed that the driver ran off. The cop snatched him out the car, Tremaine says, locked him in a wrestling hold.
The cop, Sean Bolton, was a champion heavyweight wrestler in high school. He was a combat veteran, a retired Marine, a trained killer. An obsessive gym rat according to friends, Bolton was a brawny powerlifter who could tote 500 lbs. Caught in that meaty vise-grip, Tremaine struggled to move. He struggled to comply. But compliance wasn’t enough. Clinging to life, Tremaine resisted like Sandra resisted, he fought back like Darrius fought.
“He needed to defend himself,” Callie tells reporters days later. “It was kill or be killed,” she says—a police cliché, something killer cops would understand, something killer cops say all the time.
Roused by gunshots, neighbors discover the empty Charger and an officer dying on the driveway. Folk call 911. A young man comforts the cop. He picks up the cop’s radio. “Please hurry up,” the youngster shouts into the radio. “He’s shot.”
Blue, pulsating Chargers clear city streets for the ambulance. Walls of blue light block all exits along the interstate. A Tron grid leads to the hospital where Darrius Stewart died, where Sean Bolton dies.
Late that night, local news interrupts regularly scheduled programming. The black police chief stands outside the hospital, surrounded by microphones and mean mugging reporters exposing all their forehead creases.
POLICE CHIEF: We’ve been here before. Sadly to say we’ve been here before. This is my third time in the fours years that I’ve been the director, and it doesn’t get any easier.
REPORTER: As a community, what can be done about a situation like this?
POLICE CHIEF: As community, we say so often there is a theme that do Black Lives Matter? At the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves…Do All Lives Matter? Regardless of race, creed, color, economic status, what profession that person holds…All Lives Matter.
SECOND REPORTER: One time is too many.
POLICE CHIEF: (nods in agreement) One time is too many. But how do you put a value on somebody’s life? How do you say one life is more important than another?
The police chief goes viral. Conservative websites—Breitbart and Fox News—pick up the story. “BLACK MEMPHIS POLICE DIRECTOR REBUKES BLACK LIVES MATTER.” Media vultures fixate on the number three. Three police have been killed in four years. Three is also the number of civilians shot and killed by Memphis police in eight months.
All Lives Matter, the Police Chief declares.
Sixteen days after a black boy was killed on holy ground, the police chief calls another primetime press conference. He shares a simple story: a routine traffic stop, a drug deal gone wrong. There was a pocket-sized digital scale in the Mercedes, and 1.7 grams of bud, half an eighth.
POLICE CHIEF: To show you how senseless this is, we’re talking about less than two grams of marijuana. You’re talking about a misdemeanor citation.
The Police Chief holds up a mugshot of the suspect: Tremaine Wilbourn. He is black. His long hair is plaited, goatee lineup razor-sharp. His gaze is direct. Chin up. Defiant.
POLICE CHIEF: When you look at this individual, you’re looking at a coward. He’s a coward. You gun down, you murder a police officer for literally less than two grams of marijuana. You literally destroy a family. Look at the impact this has had on this department, this community, this city, for less than two grams of marijuana.
To the police chief, to audiences polishing their guns at home, it’s “senseless” how someone could kill a cop over an amount of weed that could fill two slender blunts. The motive is senseless because it doesn’t make sense. The motive is the creation of storytellers who have a record of inventing senseless narratives, a department with a record of senseless killing, of routine killing, of killing for no reason at all.
The police chief doesn’t mention the destruction wrought on the city, on communities, on the integrity of his department by 24 people killed by cops, 24 funerals, 24 families, 24 communities terrorized, disemboweled in five years.
It’s election season. Everybody is tough on crime. Everybody calls for more cops. Only one politician, a city councilman running for mayor, calls for an FBI investigation into the killing of Darrius Stewart. On local TV, the image of Officer Sean Bolton, “Fallen Hero,” appears at every commercial break. The Fallen Hero is a mascot, a campaign slogan for an opportunistic city council, a white-haired mayoral incumbent, and the black police union president running to replace him.
The only white candidate for mayor is running a campaign of zero tolerance Jim Crow revivals: more police in schools, stronger truancy laws and curfew laws to propel black children into prison at warp speed. The white mayoral candidate says nothing of poverty except to say that poverty isn’t the most pressing issue; Crime is. Meanwhile Memphis is starving. Nearly half the city’s children live and die in poverty.
Tennessee is friendly to business. This state has the highest percentage of minimum-wage workers in the country. Our petrol-titan governor auctions off this “low cost labor force” to corporations. Our billionaire king also plans to outsource management of all public facilities, including jails and prisons. Legislators from both parties, all districts, are on the payroll of Corrections Corporation of America, headquartered in Nashville, the state capital. Poverty and prison are revenue-generators for the governor and his cronies. The police act as overseers.
Seventeen days after a black boy was killed on holy ground, the black cop and mayoral candidate appears on Fox & Friends during a segment about the Fallen Hero. “All Lives Matter,” he says, parroting his boss.
Fox & Friends: Would you say that in the last year, since we have seen all the protests across the country, do you think the officers not only in Memphis but across the country are more hesitant to do their job?
Translation: Are they more hesitant to kill?
Civilians have become “more aggressive,” he explains. Cops are more likely “to back up a little bit” because they are “under more scrutiny.”
Six months earlier, in February 2015, a police officer snatched a fistful of a motorist’s hair, dragged the woman out of her vehicle, pressed her to the ground, and beat her up. “Stop,” she screams repeatedly on the YouTube video, shackled on the ground, a knee in her back. “What did I do?”
In response to public outcry about the incident, in response to public scrutiny, the black cop who is running for mayor told reporters: “Understand that if you do not comply with the commands of the officer, if he has a valid reason for detaining you, then it’s going to be by force. That’s the nature of our jobs.”
More scrutiny didn’t convince Officer Connor Schilling to “back up.” Schilling chased Darrius, tackled him to the ground, and pulled that trigger three times into the teenager’s kneeling body. That’s the job. The job of force. The job of violence, of last breaths.
Tremaine Wilbourn was 19, Darrius Stewart’s age, when he helped his uncle rob Friendship Bank in Covington, Tennessee. The getaway car wouldn’t start, so they ran off on foot, shedding several thousands of dollars during a brief escape. Uncle and nephew had $2,000 on them when the police took them in.
Tremaine begged the court to see him as something other than a bank robber, a thug, a nigger. He offered the only evidence white folk accept as evidence of a black kid’s humanity: Tremaine said that he was headed to college, applying for scholarships, talking to athletic recruiters. His lawyer tried to get him a plea deal. Tremaine was a youngster, the lawyer said. He could turn his life around.
Tremaine was sentenced to 120 months at the low security federal penitentiary in Forrest City, Arkansas, a town named in honor of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Tremaine spent nine years at the prison in Forrest City, nearly a third of his life, almost all of his adult life, before he was paroled in January 2014.
Tremaine’s sister Callie says that prison wounded her brother, broke him. This is what prison does. “If you are a real human being,” she told the Associated Press, “jail is not for you.” A profound, simple truth. Felon, noncitizen, Tremaine was ineligible for most jobs in our starvation-wage state. Like most people I know, Tremaine smoked weed to ease his wounded mind, to sleep, to laugh, to get carefree, to stop him from putting a bullet in his own head. After one year of supervised release, he failed a drug test and was ordered to see a psychiatrist. He started therapy. That was one month before Officer Sean Bolton approached the passenger side door of that Mercedes.
“I think you have an individual who went above and beyond to demonstrate that he’s a violent individual,” the police chief said about Tremaine. Tremaine: an individual on early release from a minimum security prison, on early release into poverty, on early release into a city that hates and hunts black people like him, poor people like him, felons like him. I am reminded of a friend’s words: Thugs need love, need saving, need protecting, need listening too.
The Fallen Hero volunteered for a violent life. According to the family’s official statement, “Sean was the first to run towards danger, regardless of his personal safety.” Sean Bolton ran towards danger, towards combat. Bolton volunteered for the Marines, volunteered for the Memphis Police Department, volunteered for jobs of force and violence. War “kinda messed him up a little bit,” a family friend says. This is what war does.
The encounter that August night was between two troubled, messed up, wounded individuals. Two individuals traumatized by a violent police state converged on a dark residential street. One was a veteran of an unending imperialist race war abroad and a willing foot soldier in the unending war against the poor at home. The other was a civilian, a felon, a noncitizen, an enemy combatant.
Tremaine Wilbourn doesn’t want Memphis Police to kick in his door Hollywood style and shoot him up while he’s cooking dinner. He doesn’t want to die as a hot pan sizzles on the stove, like they did Anthony Bess. He doesn’t want Memphis Police to empty 22 rounds in his car as he slept, like they did Steven Askew. He doesn’t want Memphis Police to shoot him in his back from 20 yards like they did Hernandez Dowdy, shoot him point blank in the grass like they did Darrius Stewart. He doesn’t want to die in police custody, his body maimed and mangled, like they did Lorenzo Davis and William Howlett. He doesn’t want to die choking on tear gas and smoke bombs like they did Aaron Dumas. If we must die let it not be by TACT raid, let it not be another justifiable homicide.
On Monday, August 3, seventeen days after a black boy was killed on holy ground, Tremaine Wilbourn, accompanied by clergy and kin, surrenders himself to the U.S. Marshals. “I’m not a cold-blooded killer,” Tremaine tells the Police Chief. “I am not a coward.” If we must die, let it not be as the fiction the MPD, Fox News, and the others have made him out to be.
“In this country you’re innocent until proven guilty,” the black cop mayoral candidate told local news six days after Schilling killed Darrius Stewart. “We’ve already crucified him, hung him up on the cross,” he said about Schilling. “And we’re ready to bury him, simply because he’s a white officer and that was a black youth.”
The cowardly pack refuses to “entertain” Tremaine Wilbourn’s innocence. As soon as they knew his name, the police chief, the City Council, and the press declared Tremaine Wilbourn guilty of first degree murder.
On Wednesday, Tremaine Wilbourn appears in court via video stream. Framed by the computer monitor, Tremaine doesn’t appear shattered and swollen like others, like Duanna Johnson, called “he-she” and “faggot” as a police fist wrapped in handcuffs pummeled her face in the county jail. Johnson refused to comply when police called her out her name. Johnson refused to surrender after they tortured her and pepper sprayed her wounds. Johnson condemned state violence and trans-hate in a city where police routinely harass and detain and bludgeon transgender women just for walking in public. Nine months later, Johnson was executed, assassinated in a Memphis street. The murder of Duanna Johnson was the third murder of a transgender person in Memphis in three years. Another unsolved crime. Another uninvestigated murder. Another justifiable homicide. Another unmattering life.
Tremaine enters no plea. He has no lawyer. He has no money. The judge sets the bond at $10 million.
That night, after the arraignment, hundreds of Chargers and light cycles parade the streets, washing the city in a sea of blue. The police collect overtime in honor of the Fallen Hero, in honor of themselves. The parade stalks the neighborhood where Tremaine Wilbourn shot Sean Bolton. The procession is totalitarian tantrum, an illuminated memorial to their authority, the sovereignty of white and blue lives, heroes and martyrs and killers, a reminder of their power, their unity, and—above all—their capacity for retaliation. The Sea of Blue is a dazzling threat to civilians standing on the sidewalks, civilians at home, watching behind windows and television screens, a reminder that All Lives Matter, all voices matter, all testimony matters—except for yours.
One month and some days after Darrius Stewart was killed on holy ground, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation hands over their report. It’s District Attorney Amy Weirich’s decision whether Schilling will be charged for a crime. She hasn’t decided, she says. She doesn’t say when she will decide.
REPORTER: You’ve had to handle cases before where officers have used deadly force.
DISTRICT ATTORNEY: [nods] Um-hum (19 cases. 17 justifiable homicides. 2 pending.)
REPORTER: Can you explain what the law is a little bit about officers using deadly force and what you have to look at as a prosecutor in these cases?
DISTRICT ATTORNEY: It’s not the law of officers using force. It’s the law in the state of Tennessee that every citizen is protected by. And it’s called self-defense. And so when there have been situations in the past where a homicide is ruled justifiable, whether it’s someone with a badge and a gun who pulled the trigger, or whether it’s a homeowner or a business owner.
But not a felon. Felons can’t defend themselves.
We know what happens next. After Officer Terrance Shaw killed 15-year-old Justin Thompson in 2013, District Attorney Weirich refused to indict the police officer. “We were left with two individuals, one who claimed one thing and one who was deceased and nothing, nothing in between,” the DA said then. “He was not prosecuted because there was not enough facts.”
In life and death, killer or killed, Blue Lives have words, PR representatives, and audiences to listen. From the grave, Blue Lives have facts invented and spoken for them, in honor of them.
In life and death, killer and killed, Blue Lives are presumed innocent, declared innocent, heroic. In life and death, killer and killed, Black Lives have no honor, no innocence.
Blue Lives get a racing ambulance, a police escort, a tearful news conference interrupting Saturday Night Live and syndicated episodes of Burn Notice. Black Lives bleed out in the grass.
Blue Lives get a taxpayer-funded citywide processional, a Sea of Blue, $20,000 in crowd-sourced funds for live-televised funerals in segregated, white supremacist, gay-bashing, trans-hating mega churches.
Black killers, black self-defenders get round-the-clock manhunts, character assassination, $50,000 dead-or-alive rewards, swift indictments, first degree murder charges, $10 million bonds and public defenders, death sentences and state executions, a Justice that’s both blind and wearing earplugs.
Killer or killed, Black Lives end.
Overseers will never save us. Prosecutors will never save us. Indictments will never save us. Justice will never save us
Over two months has passed since Officer Connor Schilling killed Darrius Stewart on holy ground. Two months of silence from the police and the DA. Two months of paid vacation for a killer.
Meanwhile the Fall Semester has commenced. We’re already at midterm now. I’ve heard that Darrius was planning to attend the University of Memphis, where I teach. I’ve heard that he was planning to major pre-med. I hope that he would have found the time to take a black history class. From the pictures his family has shared, I imagine his grin and laugh when I tell my corny jokes. I imagine us debating and fussing and loving as we marinate in the gifts of Ida B. Wells and Claude McKay.
Near the end of the semester, around the time we discuss Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, my students, angry, crocodile-tears falling down their cheeks, share personal histories of the prisons that have become their middle schools, their high schools, the routine police violence they experienced as schoolchildren, the routine traffic stops once they got that driver’s license, the routine profiling and threats and assaults.
We don’t know what we don’t know until we start trusting, listening, hearing. I hope Darrius would let us listen. I hope that he would bless us with something to share. Nervous at first, he might speak up near the end of class. Aright, lemme play devil’s advocate then, Darrius might say, like students say. He paints the picture of a mid-July night, Friday, just around the corner from home, when blue light surrounds a friend’s Chevy. Something about a taillight. I dunno, maybe I was lucky, Darrius says. It was a small thing, a routine thing. The officer gave us a warning. Directed us to the nearest Autozone. Let us on our way. He wasn’t so bad. Kinda cool, actually. A good cop. Good white folk.
W. Chris Johnson was raised by a retired black cop in Lowndes County, Alabama, where he first learned about Black Power. He teaches at the University of Memphis.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]