Bullets From Behind: A Brief History of Black Americans Shot in the Back by Police

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In 2014, I endured the scariest medical procedure in my entire life. While on the journey to being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), I needed a lumbar puncture, commonly known as a spinal tap, to examine the protein levels of my spinal fluid. Every MS patient has had to undergo this procedure to be properly diagnosed and I was scared shitless.

There is always a great deal of risk when doctors administer any type of injection into a patient’s back. If the needle hits the spine at an incorrect angle or if the patient moves as the procedure is taking place, it can result in permanent nerve damage, or worse, paralysis. I still vividly remember the first needle going into my lower back to numb the area and the second needle being injected to extract the spinal fluid. As I laid in a fetal position with my knees tucked into my chest, I took deep breaths and silently prayed to make it out of the procedure with no longstanding damage.

There’s an immediate 30-minute observation that follows a lumbar puncture. Afterwards, you are instructed to lie on your back for 24 hours and sip sodas to manage the slow leak of spinal fluid. The pain of my spinal tap turned out to be not as big as the anxiety I had around it. Within 48 hours, I was back to my full self and awaiting the results of my exam.

And now, at 40 years old, I can still say the scariest shot I ever received came by way of a medical professional. That the very sensitive region of my spinal cord was handled with delicacy and precision. Unfortunately, for far too many Black Americans who have endured lethal injections to the back at the hands of American police, there are hardly any stories of recovery. In the rare instances of survival, the damage done is life-altering and irreversible.

As of this writing, Jacob Blake is fighting for his survival in Kenosha, Wisconsin after being shot in the back seven times. He has undergone surgeries that has removed most of his colon and small intestines. His father, Jacob Blake Sr, had to inform the world that his son will remain paralyzed from the waist down, lest a miracle happens.

The only difference between Jacob’s story and that of several others is that he is still living.

Earlier this summer police in Atlanta shot and killed a fleeing Rayshard Brooks. There was controversy around a video of Brooks tussling with police over a taser, but the fact remains that he was shot in the back while trying to escape them.

Antwon Rose, Walter Scott, De’Von Bailey, and Stephon Clark are but a few Black Americans who encountered police execution by way of shots to the back. There is always an attempt by police departments to justify the killing of Black citizens who are moving in the opposite direction of police.

Somehow, American police always seem to “fear for their life” as if there is imminent danger in someone trying to escape a speeding bullet.

And though I can thankfully say I lived to be 40 years old without ever receiving a gunshot wound, I cannot say that I do not live with the paranoia of being fired upon if I reflexively attempted to evade police.

Black people being human is always the talking point conveniently left out of these events. The “fight or flight” impulse is always willfully ignored when analyzing the reasons that Black folks attempt to escape police in high stress situations.

It is a natural response to try to flee from danger and Black Americans have been largely socialized to view encounters with police as potentially dangerous. And what American police keep proving is whether we remain still with our hands raised or run for our lives, if they want to gun us down, they will.