Who Do You Believe?
There's plenty, of course, that disturbs, saddens and angers all of us about the shooting death of 7-year-old Aiyana Jones, a little girl killed on the eastside of Detroit early Sunday when a police officer's gun went off during a raid of her home. Already, there's debate about the details of the raid, about flashbang devices and overbearing police tactics and what not.
But for me, it's not the details, but the discrepancies that are most chilling.
After throwing a concussion grenade through a window, police charged into the home and an officer's weapon fired after there reportedly was some sort of contact between the officer and Aiyana Jones' grandmother, Mertilla Jones, 46. Mertilla Jones has denied there was any sort of contact between her and police.
At a press conference in front of the home Sunday evening, Mertilla Jones said there was no struggle: "I hit the floor when I heard them hit the window.
"They blew my granddaughter's brains out. They killed her right before my eyes. I watched the light go out of her eyes. I seen it."
When I read this, I remember being struck instantly by one question: Who do you believe?
See, I've watched this kind of divergence before, this split in the narrative between what gets officially reported and what really goes down in violent interactions between poor black people and the police. And I've seen how the truth gets minced into so much worthless confetti.
The inclination, at least by many of us, is to always embrace the official version of events. Cops raided home looking for suspected murder, tussled with belligerent grandmother, gun went off, child died. And yes, that could very well be what happened.
But who do you believe?
The question persists because I also know those stories that so rarely make it into the official report, the ones about being detained for "looking suspicious," being arrested for "fitting the description," being assaulted for "talking back and having a bad attitude." Some of them are my own stories.
The question persist because this city's police department has paid millions in brutality cases, is still being overseen by a federal monitor and has long held a reputation for heavy-handed tactics. The question persists because I've already heard those close to the family offer another version of the story, how the flashbang grenade landed on the child while she slept on the couch, how the family had no clue what was happening when the cops came, how there was no tussle before the shooting.
Who do you believe?
Again, there are plenty of us who are inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the cops in instances like this. To most who think like this, the police can only be the good guys, the brave men who rush to your home moments after you report a crime, the friendly civil servants who smile readily and hold open doors for the elderly, the lenient lawmen who let you off traffic stops with only a warning.
And this isn't completely wrong. There are officers who do live up to that ideal, everyday men and women trying to do the best they can to keep the streets clean before making it back home to their families each night.
And nobody in this city would say we don't need them. I was pissed about the death of a Detroit police officer weeks ago precisely because he was doing the job we need him to do, and he shouldn't have died because of it. Hell yes, Detroit needs its cops. And when the city loses one, the least we can offer is our tears, our collective anger.
But what now do we owe this dead child, whose family was saying as recently as Monday that they've yet to be visited by police administrators or Detroit city officials in the aftermath of this tragedy?
Can it really be so easy to just accept what we're told in the face of such a gravely serious discrepancy? Clearly, something's very wrong here: Either the grandmother's at least partly to blame or she isn't. Either there was a tussle, there was "contact," or there wasn't. Either Mertilla Jones helped precipitate this horrific incident or a police officer, acting on his own, accidentally gunned down Aiyana and now someone is wrongly smearing the child's blood on her grandmother's hands.
Who do you believe?
Obviously, I don't know for sure. But I was raised in that community. I'm as familiar with the good cop patrolling the eastside as I am with the bad. I can believe the officers, who went to arrest a man suspected of murdering a 17-year-old Detroit boy days before and blocks away, had the right intentions.
But I can also believe 46-year-old Mertilla Jones when she says her grandchild was shot to death without anyone ever having gotten up off that floor.