When Black Lives Didn't Matter

David Smith was killed before public attention, and emotion, was focused on the deaths of young black men.

David Smith was killed before public attention, and emotion, was focused on the deaths of young black men.

In his last hour, David Smith was trying to be someone's big brother. While shooting hoops at a Minneapolis YMCA, Smith approached an adolescent boy and asked him where he went to school, how long he'd been playing.

It was a deeply human instinct. But on this day, Sept. 9, 2010, something was off: Smith. The 28-year-old suffered from schizoaffective disorder, and his odd manner was noticed first by the kid, then a Y staffer, who called police.

Smith didn't like being confronted. He tried to evade the cops, then fought back. The cops overpowered him, pinning him on his stomach. Officer Timothy Gorman put both knees and all his weight on Smith's upper back.

The only other person in the gym, a young white guy, kept on dribbling and throwing up jump shots.

"You going to talk to us now?" asked officer Timothy Callahan, Gorman's partner. "What's wrong with you?"

What was wrong was that he was dead. The cops hadn't recognized the haunting, wheezing sounds he'd made moments earlier. The death rattle. Gorman's weight had suffocated him.

In their suit against the city, Smith's family cited a record of unpunished violence by the Minneapolis police force. Without change, they argued, police would believe they could "continue to operate with impunity."

Those words ought to haunt us today, same as the smaller and smaller sound of Smith's breaths. The city later settled for $3 million. But a grand jury didn't see the need to punish the cops. Neither did police officials. The two cops weren't even disciplined. They're still on the beat.

Almost all of a cop's street work is mundane. Pull over bad drivers. Pick up homeless drunks. Ask college kids to turn the music down for the sake of the neighbors.

But a cop finds out who he is when life and death — maybe his, more likely someone else's — is in the balance. Eyes flash and pulses flare, and snap judgments last a lifetime. Or bring one to its eternal end.

A culture finds out who it is in the public reaction that follows. If there is one. There were no marches for David Smith. There were no cries for justice. He died before Black Lives Matter, before an angry movement made household names of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Walter Scott.

And Jamar Clark.

Not long ago, the death of a black man at the hands of police would've been a private tragedy and a public statistic. Now everyone's paying attention, and nothing goes unnoticed. It's a good thing, this newfound awareness, even if I'm a bit uneasy in making a cult hero out of Clark, who reportedly spent his last hours fighting his girlfriend, and then paramedics.

But we don't get to pick our test cases. We have to examine the deaths we get. The world is watching Minneapolis now, and we're watching each other. Scrutiny of Clark's death is running a dual-track course, with official investigations moving quietly beneath a loud, fast-paced legal thriller that's being heard in the court of public opinion.

Interest, even skepticism, is healthy. But emotion always gets in the way, rushing us to judgment. In the Clark case, it looks like people are just picking sides so far, based on how they feel about cops — or young black men — and hoping the facts fall their way.

Real "justice," regardless of whatever facts come out, looks like a long shot. Bob Bennett, an attorney who worked on Smith's case, has been practicing in Minnesota for four decades. He can't recall a single grand jury indictment of an on-duty cop who killed someone.

Until very recently, we could justify or forget just about anything, so long as we were convinced that police work is hard and dangerous, and that we should just be grateful they're out there protecting us. That's still true. But cops can be criminals too, and they're the only people we give license to find someone guilty and deliver a death sentence on street corners.

Maybe we've changed the way we look at cops. Or maybe it's just that some of us are finally looking.

Five years ago, I could've been that white guy in the YMCA gym, undisturbed by David Smith dying on the floor. I would've kept on dribbling, working on my shot, occasionally glancing at a couple cops holding some guy down. He must've done something, I'd think. The cops wouldn't be doing that without reason.

Now my eyes are open, pried apart by too many suspicious deaths under the sanction of a badge.

We owe it to ourselves to keep a wary eye on confrontations between police and civilians. We owe it to the cops, too. And to David Smith.

If, as the cops claim, Clark stole someone's gun, even the activists will have to say his killing was fair. Sad, sure, but justified. If Clark wasn't reaching for a gun, or was in handcuffs, as witnesses claim, then the cops should be indicted for murder.

That it took so long for people to care about cases like this is an indictment of us all.