Which deaths get discussed?: Within the modern press corps firmament, shooting deaths at the hands of police aren't all created equal.
Some shooting deaths at the hands of police are widely reported and discussed. Other, similar shooting deaths are completely ignored—disappeared.
So it has been with the "execution" of Bijan Ghaisar. So it was with the earlier shooting death of John Geer.
Even widespread coverage of these shooting deaths by the well-known Washington Post couldn't persuade the national press corps to report or discuss them. For background on those shooting deaths, see yesterday's report.
This same principle obtained in 2019, when Dennis Wayne Tuttle and Rhogena Ann Nicholas, ages 59 and 58, a married couple, were shot and killed as they slept in their bed in a bungled no-knock raid in Houston.
When George Floyd was killed by one or four Minneapolis police officers in May of this year, this particular (non-shooting) death at the hands of police occasioned massive coverage.
Given the crazy ugliness of the event, that was completely appropriate. Earlier, though, when Tony Timpa, age 32, died facedown in the street as a group of Dallas policemen mocked him, that particular (non-shooting) death occasioned no national coverage at all.
Within our upper-end press corps firmament, very similar deaths at the hands of police are treated very differently. Recently, we had occasion to read an essay about a recent shooting death in largely rural Shasta County, California, where police officers have shot and killed three people since December of last year.
The shooting death to which we refer occurred on June 2 of this year in little-known Cottonwood, a census-designated place of roughly 3000 souls. The decedent, Robert James Lyon, was a 65-year-old man.
In rural locales like Shasta County, there may be little local media to initiate discussion of a police shooting death. In the matter of Robert Lyon, the Washington Post's Fatal Force site links to this online account by KRCR-TV, the Redding, California ABC affiliate:
KRCR-TV (6/2/20): On Tuesday, at 10:39 a.m., Shasta County Sheriff's Office deputies were dispatched to a home on Adobe Road in Cottonwood regarding a female calling 9-1-1 asking for help.The account continues briefly from there. There is no attempt to explain the manner in which the deputy was "forced" to shoot and kill Lyon, who was refusing to comply with the officers' requests and commands.
When deputies arrived, they contacted the female who reported being threatened with a firearm by Robert Lyon, 65, who also lived in the home.
[Shasta County Sheriff's Office] says they learned Lyon was still inside the home, so they began making announcements from a PA system.
Lyon then left his home holding a shotgun, refusing several commands given by deputies to comply. [Shasta County Sheriff's Office] says a deputy was forced to fire several rounds from his rifle at Lyon, striking him.
Medical aid was immediately provided to Lyon, but he was pronounced dead at the scene.
How did we stumble upon this case? You're asking an excellent question! The answer goes something like this:
According to the Washington Post's mostly invaluable Fatal Force site, 679 people have been shot and killed by police officers so far this year. For the record, we assume that the majority of these incidents, and perhaps the large majority, involve no misconduct by police.
That said, the total is what it is. As of this very day, the numbers break down like this:
Number of people shot and killed by police officers in the current yearAt present, more than 200 of the dead are listed as being of "unknown" race or ethnicity.
Other race or ethnicity: 15
Unknown race or ethnicity: 208
Unknown gender: 0
We decided to see how hard it might be to double-check those determinations. When we did, we stumbled upon the case of Robert James Lyon.
We'd clicked around to see if we could determine Lyon's "race" or ethnicity. In the process, we stumbled upon a long, fascinating essay by R.V. Scheide, who "has been a northern California journalist for more than 20 years."
Scheide had posted a long rumination on this particular shooting death. As journalists go, Scheide has an unusually complex personal history, starting with service as a machinist's mate in the U.S. Navy with other stops to follow.
That may account for the unusually wide range of Scheide's ruminations and assessments, which started this day like this:
SCHEIDE (6/8/20): I rarely find myself in agreement with right-wing conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, but last week he said something interesting during an interview with African American radio host and author Charlamagne Tha God on Charlamagne’s YouTube radio show, “The Breakfast Club,” that warrants attention.Thus spake El Rushbo, as he spoke to Tha God. Also, thus spake Scheide.
George Floyd’s horrific death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers on June 2, and the protests, riots and looting that spread across America as a result, had brought the unlikely pair together. As you might expect, when pressed by Charlamagne on the subject of white privilege, Limbaugh denied that white privilege exists.
Then el Rushbo offered this sad reflection on fatal encounters with the police.
“If what happened to George Floyd had happened to a white man, we probably wouldn’t even have heard about it,” Limbaugh said.
For once, he has a point, sort of.
Scheide went on to offer some assessments with which we'd be inclined to disagree. Eventually, though, he offered his own regionally informed account of this latest shooting death.
Please note! Scheide still knows how to say "alleged." In these days of tribal war and instant judgment, it's a dying practice:
SCHEIDE: [L]ast Tuesday, as hundreds of local residents prepared to take to the streets of Redding to protest the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, yet another shooting death involving Shasta County law enforcement officers was unfolding in rural Cottonwood.Later, Scheide would question the unexplained claim that the deputy had been "forced" to fire his gun, thereby killing Lyon. In our view, he should have used "allegedly" one more time in the passage we've just posted.
According to local news accounts, shortly before 11 a.m., Shasta County Sheriff’s Office deputies responded to a 911 call from a woman who alleged a man had threatened her with a firearm. They met the woman, who lives in a trailer on the property, at the scene.
She informed them that Robert Lyon, 65, was in the house on the property. She alleged that Lyon had verbally threatened her and discharged a shotgun earlier in the morning but hadn’t fired it in her direction. Lyon allegedly started a small fire on the property.
The deputies called Lyon out of the house with their squad car’s PA system. He emerged allegedly carrying the shotgun. The deputies told Lyon to put down the weapon. Lyon allegedly failed to comply.
It has not been stated if Lyon pointed the weapon at the deputies. At any rate, one deputy feared for his safety and shot Lyon five or six times with a rifle. Lyon died at the scene despite receiving immediate medical attention.
Just like that, his life snuffed out.
That said, Scheide had already called attention to a possible irony. Even as local people, perfectly reasonably, ere protesting the killing of Floyd, no one was going to question or protest this local police shooting death.
Indeed, Scheide described one quite different local reaction. He quoted a local official hailing local law enforcement for its wonderful work:
SCHEIDE (continuing directly): We don’t know much about Lyon yet, and perhaps we never will. I’m presuming he was white, but his race hasn’t been released yet. He doesn’t appear to have had a criminal record, at least in Shasta County under that name."Notice Baugh doesn’t mention that a deputy has just shot and killed one of the supervisor’s own constituents," Scheide says s he continues. "To paraphrase Rush Limbaugh, if George Floyd had been a 65-year-old white guy named Robert Lyon, we probably wouldn’t be talking about him."
We don’t know what Lyon’s mental health status was, nor do we know if he abused drugs and/or alcohol. We don’t know how hard deputies worked to diffuse the situation or if they inadvertently escalated it.
Sheriff’s deputies have planted the idea in local media, without offering hard evidence, that drugs may have been involved and that Lyon’s rural neighborhood is a problem area. The latter view is apparently shared by Shasta County 5th District Supervisor Les Baugh, who on Facebook posted his exuberant support for local law enforcement agencies shortly after the killing:
“A huge ‘shout-out’ to our amazing Shasta County Deputies and the massive multi-agency response (LE/Fire) to a problem residence on Adobe Road. Glad you’re all safe. Just can’t find enough words to express how grateful we are for your actions today. On behalf of the entire neighborhood, our most sincere appreciation and deepest respect. You all rock!”
Scheide goes on to describe what happened when he sent a set of questions to Baugh about this instant judgment. A summary would be, not much.
Stating the obvious, the killing of Floyd and the killing of Lyon were very different events. There's no obvious direct comparison between police behavior in these two fatal events.
That said, the shooting death of the late Breonna Taylor was very similar, in obvious ways, to the 2019 shooting deaths of Nicholas and Tuttle. The late George Floyd's horrendous death, lying face down in the street, was remarkably similar to the earlier face down death of the cruelly mocked Tony Timpa.
At this site, we're interested in the journalistic conduct. In the main, we're interested in asking a basic question:
Under current press protocols, black deaths at the hands of police will often be widely reported and widely discussed, as is completely appropriate and perhaps even instructive. But on a national basis, it's clear that the deaths of other "racial" or ethnic groups will, as a matter of pundit law, be wholly disappeared.
It's possible that this is being done from the noblest of motives. It's also possible that this is being done because our reliably unimpressive journalists are involved in performative virtue or in self-referential acts of personal identity formation.
Leave the question of motive to the side! Our basic question is this:
When one group of deaths is widely discussed and all other deaths are disappeared, might this selective behavior perhaps create misperceptions? Might people end up "terrified," perhaps even underinformed?
Tomorrow: What made Ghaisar an "other?"