The Empty Waistband In a biting dissent, Justice Sotomayor takes aim at the lie that lets police officers shoot unarmed men with impunity.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing new about nervous cops, dead black young men and the “Waistband Excuse.”

From my book ’30 Days a Black Man,’ here’s a quote from Ray Sprigle’s nationally syndicated newspaper series about what he saw and felt during his historic 30-day undercover mission into the Jim Crow South in 1948.

Sprigle checked the police files in Atlanta and found three recent cases of black men being shot to death:

There was John Mahone, black, drunk, disorderly and fighting with his wife. The cop shot and killed him. Thought he had a knife. The knife turned out to be a can opener. . . . R. D. Mance, 38, black and insane but unarmed. Cop was called to subdue a demented person. He did—with his gun. . . . Over the De Kalb county line in an Atlanta suburb, a county officer was making a search for illegal whisky. Harris Miller ran. When he refused to halt, County Officer E. C. Dailey killed him.

In the 1940s Atlanta had a special problem that could be lethal to young black men. A 1943 city law deputized streetcar motormen as auxiliary police officers and allowed them to carry guns, which Sprigle said had led to the recent deaths of two young blacks.

Both victims were shot dead at point blank in separate cases after having words with a white motorman. Another black man was shot dead by a civilian, a retired mailman, because he refused to put out the cigar he was smoking on the rear platform of a trolley.

The judges’ rulings for each of the killers was justifiable homicide. One got off by telling the judge “I thought he was going to reach in his pocket,” which Sprigle said was “the standard line of defense in the South” when whites killed blacks.

 

 

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