The North Star has dropped its paywall during this COVID-19 crisis so that pertinent information and analysis is available to everyone during this time. This is only possible because of the generous support of our members. We rely on these funds to pay our staff to continue to provide high-quality content. If you are able to support, we invite you to do so here.
When someone is shot and killed by police in this country, I normally know about it instantly. Not because I have a sixth sense, of course, but the whole world immediately tags me, texts me, DM’s me, emails me, and comments on every piece of content I have in an attempt to get my attention. It’s been this way for nearly six years now. I have accepted it as a part of my calling in life to not only bear witness to such atrocities but to join families across the country in their fight for justice. I’ve worked with hundreds of families now and each time I work with a family, I have a basic test that I run of the situation. It’s crude, but it helps me really work through the levels of bias, racism, and discrimination at play in each case.
This weekend it was 33-year-old Steve Taylor, a beloved father and son, who was murdered by police at a Walmart in San Leandro, California. Of course, Steve was Black. Generally speaking, white people aren't killed by police at Walmart — for shoplifting or anything else. In spite of early false reports, police have already publicly admitted that Steve stole nothing and was not there for a robbery.
He was having a mental health emergency. On Saturday, in the hours after he was shot and killed, and all day on Sunday, I spoke to family and friends of Steve who knew him well. They said he was not only clinically depressed but struggled with schizophrenia. When he wandered into the Walmart, multiple people tried to speak to him, but could not get really get through to him. He needed an ambulance. He needed a doctor. He needed medicine and treatment.
And in almost every single developed country in the world outside of the United States, Steve Taylor would’ve gotten treatment. It’s a rare, unheard of experience for most of the world for a mentally ill person, particularly if they do not have a gun, to ever be shot and killed. Other nations have systems and practices to slowly and safely surround and disarm such a person. What we know is that American police are regularly willing and able to take their time with violent white men, even if they are fully armed with guns and have just killed scores of people, until they wait that white man out and take him safely into custody.
What we know is that police don’t lack the training to wait out tough, complex situations, they do it all the time — they just repeatedly lack the will to use that training with Black men. In fact, no single person in America is more likely to be shot and killed by police than a young Black man struggling with a mental illness.
That’s when I run the Taylor Swift test. I literally ask myself if Taylor Swift, the blonde haired, blue eyed superstar, was in the exact same position — in a Walmart, incoherent and unresponsive, clumsily holding a baseball bat — would she be shot and killed?
I chose Taylor Swift for many reasons, but you can feel free to replace her with anyone you want after I tell you why I chose her. I’ve studied thousands upon thousands of cases of police violence and have learned that so many factors go into who is shot and who isn’t, who is given time, deference and medical attention and who isn’t, who is treated worse than an animal and who isn’t.
If you are white, you are at a lower risk.
If you are rich, you are at a lower risk.
If you are in a privileged zip code, you are at a lower risk.
If you are famous, you are at a lower risk.
A white, rich, privileged, famous person has almost a zero percent chance of ever being killed by police. Period. Steve Taylor had none of those things going for him.
If Taylor Swift had done exactly what Steve Taylor did, police would’ve taken all the time in the world to save her life. It could’ve taken hours or even days, and they would not have shot and killed her if she did what Steve Taylor did.
Maybe you think that’s because Taylor Swift is small or a woman — then replace her with Prince Harry. Replace her with Barron Trump. Replace her with any white, wealthy, privileged, famous man or boy. Do you think police would’ve done to them what they did to Steve Taylor? Would they have shot Ryan Seacrest like that, then tasered him again after they shot him, then handcuffed him while he was bleeding out and dying on the floor?
Name your favorite white man and try to convince me that police at that Walmart in San Leandro, or police anywhere in this country would’ve done that to John Mayer or Joe Biden or Robert Downey Jr.
Of course, they wouldn’t have. If any of them meandered into a store in the midst of a mental health breakdown, the police would be all over TV right now being celebrated for their skillful and patient heroism at disarming them and getting them to safety. We’d be learning about how hospitals handle such mental health episodes and people would be posting prayers for those white men and sending them well-wishes.
And don’t get me wrong, that’s how it should be. I’d be glad if any of those rich, famous, privileged white men or women made it safely through an encounter with America’s police.
We just want Steve Taylor to get that type of treatment. It just seems to me that police suddenly don’t have time for waiting, don’t have time for experts to arrive on the scene, and don’t have time to disarm young Black men who need help. And that’s not because it wasn’t possible, it damn sure was. It’s because in this country, as it has always been, some people are treated with grace, dignity, and just a basic level of humanity that others simply never receive. It just so happens that those decisions are made right down racial lines.