On the evening of July 26, Zachary Hammond pulled into the parking lot of a Hardee’s in Seneca, South Carolina. Seated next to him was a young woman who had arranged to meet someone there to sell a bag of weed. It’s unclear what Hammond knew about the transaction, but neither the 19-year-old nor his passenger had any idea that the buyer was actually an undercover police officer. Moments later, another officer fatally shot Hammond.
What we know about how Hammond ended up dead in a minor marijuana sting depends on whom you believe.
Police say a uniformed officer, on hand to support the undercover cop, was approaching Hammond’s vehicle. There’s disagreement about what happened next. Seneca Police Chief John Covington says Hammond drove the car at the officer, who, fearing for his life, fired twice into the vehicle, shooting a fatal round into Hammond’s upper torso. Eric Bland, a lawyer for Hammond’s family, says that the officer shot Hammond twice from behind and that an autopsy supports this claim. More than a week after the shooting, Oconee County coroner Karl Addis — one of the few people who should know for sure — has still not said publicly which direction the bullets came from.
Wherever the bullets struck Hammond, police say they were fired from near point-blank range through the open driver’s side window. This detail has raised particular concern amid a string of police killings in which the official law enforcement narrative has not always held up.
As in those previous incidents, Hammond’s family is left with painful questions: Was the car headed directly at the officer, or, as Hammond’s father has suggested, did the officer shoot because his son was beginning to flee? Was the officer truly in danger? Or does the fact that he was so close to the vehicle when he fired indicate otherwise? Will the dashcam video, reportedly turned over to state investigators and requested by local news outlets, offer any answers?
These questions sound familiar because they’ve been asked before. Many of us have gotten used to asking them. We’ve gotten used to the confusion and disbelief around a life taken so abruptly, used to the frustration of hearing an officer’s claim that the only choice was to shoot. Police have released minimal information about Hammond’s killing, but with familiar questions have so far come familiar answers.
While aspects of Hammond’s case evoke memories of other police shootings over the past year, one element does not: Hammond was white, as is the still-unidentified officer who shot him.
When so much national focus has recently been on the police killings of black Americans, Hammond’s race is one reason — though not the only reason — you may not have heard his story until now.
Hammond’s whiteness has certainly factored into the response to his death. No public outcry has questioned the media’s use of family photos that appear to show a younger boy, still wearing braces. No wave of Internet denizens has scoured the victim’s social media profiles in search of ways to somehow blame him for his own death. Nobody appears to have called for a discussion of white-on-white crime. No stories have been written about whether Hammond’s parents had criminal records or asked if he was ever in trouble at school. At least not yet.
These points are no consolation to a dead 19-year-old. But they differ from the reality of what black people routinely face in similar situations.
Hammond’s death also highlights a truth many white Americans seem reluctant to face: that police violence can affect anyone — their white friends, cousins, brothers, sisters, even themselves. Though bad policing may take a disproportionate toll on communities of color, the calls for reform now being voiced loudest by people of color would benefit all of us.
Many people in the Black Lives Matter movement have been saying this since the beginning, which is why, in the absence of much mainstream media coverage, black Twitter has taken the most active role in making sure Hammond’s name and story are heard.
There are hundreds of tweets like this. Some simply speak to the tragedy of Hammond’s death. Others find irony in the fact that the only significant response is coming from those who have been accused — largely by white people — of divisiveness in their efforts to call attention to the value of black lives. Their words now stand in stark contrast to what many of their white peers are doing: absolutely nothing.
If the snide retort to #BlackLivesMatter is that #AllLivesMatter — a shallow rejoinder that misses the point entirely – the resounding silence around Hammond’s death exposes these complaints for what they often are: narrow-minded attempts to squelch honest discussions about the black experience. If these people truly believe that all lives matter, they should speak out about Hammond’s death, just as they should have spoken out about the questionable deaths of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Natasha McKenna or Ryan Bolinger, a white man killed by Iowa police in June.
Of the white people who have taken notice of Hammond’s death, some have suggested that his case flies in the face of one of the core tenets of the Black Lives Matter movement. If police misconduct is a racial issue, they ask, how do black activists explain the shooting of a white person?
While advocates for reform do see police violence as reinforcing racial inequality, they also denounce controversial law enforcement tactics that have harmed many white people. Data compiled by The Guardian shows why police killings are both a national issue and a racial issue. Police in the U.S. have killed more white people in the first seven months of 2015 than people of any other race — at least 335 so far. Adjust these numbers by population, and we see that police are killing black people at a rate more than twice that of whites. Beyond these limited death statistics are the broader studies that show police are more likely to subject black suspects to force, abuse and harassment — which, again, doesn’t mean white people don’t also face frequent mistreatment.
Others have argued that the media or black people are actually to blame for Hammond’s case not receiving more coverage — that both parties are interested in covering police misconduct only to drive some sort of racial division. After all, how else can we explain that Hammond’s case has received no national coverage, despite the fact that it looks similar to the July 19 killing of Samuel DuBose, a black man shot in his car by a University of Cincinnati police officer?
One reason is that video has not been released in Hammond’s case, and there’s nothing cable news loves more than a shockingly violent clip to play on loop.
Second, the media certainly are aware of the racial context responsible for propelling police shootings to the forefront of the national debate. News outlets cover stories that highlight such issues of race — often those in which a white officer has killed a black suspect — because they involve legitimate concerns worthy of closer examination, not to create racial tension. The fact that these cases keep emerging with such troubling regularity, even amid heightened scrutiny of law enforcement, has only fueled this narrative.
There is no such racial narrative in Hammond’s case, but there is a third, more basic difference surrounding his death.
White America’s apathetic response to the killing of a young white man is not just evident on Twitter. It also appears to be the prevalent attitude in the mostly white town of Seneca and in surrounding Oconee County, which is almost 90 percent white. The community there has not organized protests or demonstrations. They haven’t held rallies or vigils — or at least any that have been well-attended enough to attract even local news coverage. The national media aren’t likely to parachute into a local story when nobody there, apart from Hammond’s parents, seems to think it is a story.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that white Americans have, for the most part, collectively shrugged at police violence. Polls have repeatedly shown that white people are much more likely to have confidence in the police, suggesting that they’re either more willing to believe that officers are justified in their actions or that the system can be trusted to sort it out if they’re not. As Ebony’s Jamilah Lemieux notes, speaking up about Hammond now would create a conflict for many of those people:
So Hammond’s tragic death may not end up catalyzing white support for police reform. But the people now calling attention to it are proving once again that Black Lives Matter is built on the opposite of racism and a broader belief that every life matters — a concept clearly not supported by the hashtag #AllLivesMatter.
The people shining a spotlight on Zachary Hammond have once again unmasked #AllLivesMatter as an essentially hollow response to a movement that many people somehow still fail to understand.
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