by Cate Morrison
An astonishing thing happened in Rhode Island last Thursday morning.
I will piece together the complicated timeline to the best of my ability, mostly on the basis of the Providence Journal reporting.
9:00 am: Donald Morgan is being transported to a court appearance for vehicle theft by a state trooper, when the trooper stops to assist a car crash. While handcuffed but unsecured, Morgan gets into the driver’s seat of the police cruiser and drives away. The cruiser is located by GPS and found abandoned. According to an eyewitness, 40-50 police officers descend on the scene.
(roughly) 10:30 am: A call goes out over police radio to be on the lookout for a “white Ford F150” with “something hanging out the back.” A Cranston police officer assumes the truck must have something to do with Morgan. He then sees a white Ford F250 “driving erratically,” and pulls the driver over. The driver stops, but then drives on. The Cranston officer loses sight of the truck.
At some point, so far unclear, Providence police officers spot the truck entering I-95 north at the Providence Place Mall. What follows is an astonishing show of force.
There are unofficial estimates of 30-40 marked and unmarked vehicles that converge on the truck. Bystanders said the police officers themselves were driving in ways that would endanger the public.
Penned in by police vehicles, the driver attempts to first reverse and then go forward—though from videos, it is unclear if the lurch and drive forward is intentional or if Joseph Santos has already been shot dead with his foot on the pedal. Officers open fire on the truck’s cabin. Driver Joseph Santos is killed. Passenger Christine Demers is critically wounded. At this point, 5 Providence police officers and an unspecified number of state troopers all opened fire at some point at Santos and Demers.
They had nothing to do with Donald Morgan. They were unarmed.
Five officers were involved in the shooting, according to police officials. Estimates from bystander videos suggest 40 rounds fired.
When I first heard the story, my first mordant thought was “how soon will the victims’ arrest records be released?” The answer was a bit over 24 hours. The ProJo online headline announced “Police Identify Two Shot Thursday on Highway On-Ramp.” The identification was solely legal—the lead: “Both Joseph J. Santos, 32 and Christine E. Demers, 37, who remains hospitalized, had extensive involvement with law enforcement and the courts.” The following texts struggles to substantiate the claim. The records were revealed for the sake of shaming the victims, but they told of a far more disturbing pattern of human suffering at the hands of the law—where small infractions, petty arrests and add-on charges snowballed into more and more time, warrants and infractions, and struggles with addiction became criminalized. These were no great dangers to society, and given the number of officers responding, were also not threats to specific members of the public at the time. The chase was officer-initiated, sustained and heightened.
Aristotle, in his account of the emotions, comes to a very uncomfortable conclusion about the connection between individual and social feeling. Some people have rights to emotional responses that others do not. Deprived of a social standing that could be threatened, the slave cannot feel anger. Daniel Gross explains it as an economy of emotion, where social collectives invest concern in some and not others, and a system of not rationality but reason. There are reasons to be hopeful, angry or afraid, and to feel kindness, shame or admiration. Before even the word, emotional response expresses a rough system of judgment. One is worthy of pity, another indignation, some feared, others admired—this tells us about the originating reason of the world before it is laundered into more genial types of justification. My reaction tells me about what I am before I even know what I think. If I’m angry, you cut me down without cause. If I’m afraid, you can, want to and will cause me harm. If I am kind, I want to help you for no benefit to myself when you need it.
There is a caveat. The emotions are social. Some people have the right to feel. Others don’t.
What did Joseph Santos do to die, and Christine Demers to be gravely wounded? At most, Santos drove badly and Demers did nothing. They panicked after an initial stop for driving a white Ford truck, triggered by a fallacious state-wide bulletin. They then had police from several different towns and jurisdictions swoop down on
The enabling conditions of fear are a presumption that a) someone or something has the ability to hurt you, b) that it wants to or is going to hurt you, c) that it is close by and thus can hurt you. Santos and Demers both knew about the ability for the law to hurt them. They knew that they were being pursued with sudden, unexplainable and overwhelming force. They found themselves surrounded by this force without any way to understand why, when even bystanders were astonished. They were right to be afraid, to act in ways that are extreme and unreasonable, but their actions became instead justification for their nearly inevitable deaths once the horrible machinery began moving.
We know that the reaction of fear is deemed generally socially acceptable, because one of the most common responses to officer-involved shooting is that they feared for their lives or for those of members of the public, and thus deviated from standard practice.
Fear, however, is granted to some and not others. Santos and Demers were not allowed to fear. They weren’t given the benefit of the doubt.
What happens to members of public who fear for their lives? Why do they have no right to fear?
When police officer shootings occur, the feeling of fear is processed through its reasoning. The suspect was capable, willing and realistically in that situation able to hurt you. The specific Providence police were wound up and ready to fire on who they believed to be Donald Morgan. But Donald Morgan wasn’t there. It was two people with a history of petty crime, wrung through an uncompromising system, who got scared and tried to run when an unimaginable phalanx of police descended on them. Overwhelming force came down upon two people who had done nothing to deserve such a response.
They panicked. The officers did not. They killed with absolute control.
I thought that the body cameras and bystander films would show a scene of chaos and confusion. They did not. Officers cover the truck and systematically shoot into it, calmly and in formation. The videos show an execution.
We ask—how to process a mass shooting? How do we even comprehend a person shooting 26 in a church or 58 at a concert. We have a far greater vocabulary, though, for a single person shooting dozens of people than we do multiple people shooting 40 times at two unarmed people, whose greatest crime was panicking. What do we say then?
Cate Morrison is senior lecturer and director of debate at the University of Rhode Island.
Photo credit: ABC news, from bodycam footage.