written by Valerie Morales
Someone shouted at the Mayor of South Bend, Indiana “Do black lives matter?” It was a question about character rather than an accusation about values. Seconds later was the exact moment when Pete Buttigieg was no longer a 37 year old millennial but just an everyday white politician. He responded as if challenged politically but the question was not about politics, and it was not about black lives mattering in a macro construct, and it really wasn’t about cops and black communities. Rather, the question asked of Buttigieg was one of humanity: does my black life matter individually? Does my flesh? Am I important on my own accord? Do I have agency as a human being? As a black person, and not a voter, do I matter to you, or am I disposable? Are others favored over me? In your understanding of justice, are needs met before mine? But Buttigieg was particularly redundant and clueless, similar to other city mayors who think less is more, and who don’t understand, at its core, what black lives matter really means. They are being asked to explain their morality.
The way America is structured, white schools, white neighborhoods, white love, preference is given. Black people have settled this into their minds as systemic. You fight. And then you don’t. You fight. And then you don’t. Structures and institutions reverberate racial cruelty, none more so than the policing of minority communities. A police shooting then triggers a response of inequality and you hate me. I don’t matter.
Pete Buttigieg is often thoughtful, or (calculating according to his critics). He said sheepishly “I’m not asking for your vote”. It wasn’t a bold faced lie but it wasn’t the truth either. He may not have been asking for her singular vote in that intense moment but he is asking for black people’s vote. He is asking for black people to not remember this crises in his city when a cop killed a black man on Father’s Day. He is asking black people to put the death of Eric Logan in the category of tragedy or mistake and then forget about it in a month because Democrats are more liberal, tolerant and racially sensitive than Republicans. They are forgiving. But here’s the not news. White men are white men. Gay or not gay. Liberal or not liberal. Thoughtful or coarse. They support systems of racial cruelty, even when it blows up in their face.
In the primary cycle, Pete Buttigieg has taken many by surprise. Buttigieg has raised more money than was expected from a mayor of a city of 100,000. But if he never announced his intention to run for president, and a black man was still shot in his city, shot by a cop who has been accused of racism, Buttigieg would still be in the middle of an imperfect storm.
A black man named Eric Logan was shot to death by the South Bend Police. The police say what they always say when pressed to be accountable. The victim was armed and didn’t follow commands to put the weapon down. In the case of Eric Logan, the weapon was a knife. But the body camera of Ryan O’Neill was off. So was the dashcam. Without an independent review of the facts, it’s historical. Mistrust, anger and Buttigieg doing what politicians do in crises rules the day.
Community anger has been building in South Bend ever since Buttigieg took office and demoted the very popular black police chief. Wounds have been touched over and again. People are tired. They want leadership from Buttigieg. They want empathy from him. And they want action.
Buttigieg is trying to cooperate and emanate thoughtfulness but he is missing the mark because he is reacting as someone with a lot to lose and not responding as someone who has suffered a loss. He told one citizen at the Town Hall that when he (Buttigieg) sees evidence of racism from a police officer he will fire that officer. It fell flat in the room, as if he was implying racism is a cat that darts over the meadow. When he sees it, he will catch it. But racism is magnified in the eye of the beholder. And it is marginalized in the eye of the accused. The black victim is considered emotional and overreacting. The white perpetrator is flawed and needs forgiveness. What Buttigieg should have said is that overt acts of racism will not be tolerated. Ever. Instead, his placid response gave the impression, false or not, that racism without evidence is an annoying hassle that took him off the campaign trail. It made him have to deal with this mess. The irony is that both types of racism, with and without evidence, have been oxygenated under Buttigieg’s leadership.
In the case of dead Eric Logan, the evidence that Buttigieg says he needs is not forthcoming because cops know how the game is being played now. They make sure the evidence on their end, the bodycam, the dashcam, will never implicate them. They are further oxygenated by a union that is financially incentivized to manage the crises by disparaging the communities they are sworn to serve but instead are terrorizing.
We have seen this movie before in city after city. I saw it when Eula Love was shot in her doorway over a $35 dollar gas bill. She was holding a knife like Eric Logan was holding a knife. The officers who killed her said it was self defense. She was 39 years old. I was a high school student in Los Angeles and through connections worked my way in to see the District Attorney whose name was John Van de Kamp. (He would eventually become California’s Attorney General). I just had to know how cops, one black and one white, could shoot a woman in her doorway and charges are not filed. I supposed I amused the D.A., my attachment to justice, my seeing my mother in Eula Love even though she and my mother had nothing in common. But although he didn’t pander to me, he didn’t elicit any remorse as he gave me the usual runaround about the law says this and the officers felt that. I was overwhelmed by what he was not saying, what I so needed to hear. Eula Love’s life mattered. Or, I’m sorry. Those two sentiments interlock.
Because Pete Buttigieg is running for president, he puts a spotlight on police aggression and police abuse that wouldn’t have been there if this was just a summer day in a summer city with a dead black man and a cop who needs to be held accountable. But, also because Pete Buttigieg is running for president, the story is bigger than the story.
As a national piece of news, it puts Buttigieg in the position that none of his fellow candidates have to deal with because none of them are mayors. He has to deal with a crises. He has to deal with a group of oppressed people. He has to listen to their anger and rage and then Buttigieg has to problem solve. He has to come up with a solution so South Bend isn’t one of those summer cities we see burning to the ground. How he handles a city problem will tell us a lot about how he handles a national problem. What kind of leader is Buttigieg?
Rev. Sylvester Williams Jr. says Buttigieg “has an issue with people of color. That is why his campaign is not identifying those people of color. We need him to stick and stay and not run away.” His critics in the city say Buttigieg is the kind of leader that has overseen a police department that has become whiter and whiter while parts of South Bend are blacker and blacker. The six new officers this year are white.
The complaints about his leadership began early. He demoted the city’s first black police chief, a man named Daryl Boykins who was accused of illegally recording phone calls that revealed racist comments. Boykins was being investigated by the FBI. The new replacement was a white man from Massachusetts. His name was Ron Teachman and his leadership was punitive. Advancement under Teachman was nil for men of color. And then there was the incident.
A fight broke out at the MLK Rec Center. Teachman was nearby, as was a precinct lieutenant, David Newton. But when Newton requested backup for the fight, Teachman didn’t respond. He stayed put. It became a thing, so much so the Indiana State Police investigated but the findings were not made public which made the black community even more disgusted and cynical. Once again, cops were being protected. Buttigieg went full throttle politician, calling it a “personnel matter.”
Eventually, Teachman resigned. Another white officer took his place.
When Buttigieg became the mayor, the South Bend Police Department was 10% black. Now it is 5% black in a city that is 26% black.
A 39 year veteran of the South Bend Police Department, Derek Dieter, was wistful. “This has taken a certain turn. Qualified minority officers leave because there is no avenue of advancement or promotions.” Buttigieg’s passivity regarding police matters has incentivized corruption and aggressive policing. What was once little fires everywhere is now a raging burn charring the South Bend earth.
The officer involved in the Logan shooting, Ryan O’Neill, had been previously accused of racism by fellow officers and residents. A July 2008 Internal affairs report on O’Neil included statements that he compared black women to meat and said interracial relationships made him feel “sick”. A fellow officer said on record that O’Neill should be removed from field training because of racist remarks. But Internal Affairs found the assertions “not sustained.”
Accompanying O’Neil during the Eric Logan shooting was Aaron Knepper. He also had a history of abuse. Once, he tricked a mentally disabled man into eating a spoonful of cinnamon in 60 seconds and the man became seriously ill. In another incident, he punched a 17 year old six times and stunned him with a Taser. Buttigieg was pressured to fire Knepper but refused.
It is clear from the raucous town hall that Buttigieg and black residents haven’t had a lot of kumbaya moments. As the crises ferments, boils over, dissipates and then is old news, the anger of black residents will linger in the primary season as the Democratic party fights over black voters, particularly black women. But black womekn are mothers first and black mothers know firsthand about fear. The spend an inordinate amount of time praying it is not their son that a police officer targets. It is not their turn for a Saturday afternoon funeral.
If South Bend is just one more place in America, then Pete Buttigieg is just one more white man running for president. It doesn’t matter one whit that he is gay. That has not given him a sympathy gene that has eluded heterosexual mayors because of biology. It hasn’t given him insight, empathy, or racial kindness. Buttigieg has to defend himself, explain himself, and make a lot black mothers like me trust him again. He has to prove that he doesn’t just care that all lives matter, or even that black lives matter.
He has to convince me that my black life matters to him. Personally. And so does the life of my son.
“If you can’t get along with minority people in your own town, what makes you think you’re going to get along with minorities in the rest of the country.”