Ta-Nehisi Coates opens the second section of Between the World and Me with the death of Prince Jones, his fellow student at Howard University. Jones was killed on September 1, 2000, in Fairfax County (Virginia) by a Prince George’s County (Maryland) police officer (coincidentally named Carlton Jones) working undercover. Jones was 25 at the time.
A Washington Post account of the incident fills in a few of the sorry details: “After following 25-year-old Prince C. Jones Jr. from Chillum to Fairfax on Sept. 1, 2000, Cpl. Carlton B. Jones, sitting in an unmarked SUV, fired 16 shots at the student in his Jeep, hitting him eight times. Five of the shots hit Prince Jones (no relation) in the back.” Coates notes that Jones had been driving to see his fiancée at the time of his death
Authorities in Maryland and Virginia declined to press charges against the officer, yet Jones’s family won a civil case against the officer. The jury in the civil case concluded that the officer acted negligently and with force that the officer could not reasonably have believed to be legal. The jury also found that Jones contributed to his death by his actions during the fatal encounter. The jury awarded $3.7 million in damages to Jones’s daughter and parents.
Coates treats the case as one count in his indictment of the United States for subjugation of the black man. It certainly involves the breaking of a black body, Coates’s incessantly repeated theme in the book. Yet here’s the thing about the lonesome death of Prince Jones, as framed in the Washington City Paper article on the case: “Black victim, black cop, black county.” The victim, the officer, and the authorities in Prince George’s County were all black.
I take it that Prince Jones was killed by a bad cop acting badly. Although it is unclear precisely what happened, I have no problem with the proposition that Jones’s death was a tragedy and an outrage. The jury’s verdict seems eminently reasonable.
Ta-Nehesi Coates’s verdict, by contrast, seems eminently unreasonable. This is Coates’s verdict, expressing dissent from expressions of forgiveness of the officer at the Howard University memorial service for Jones’s death before all the facts were known: “[I]n some inchoate form, I knew that Prince was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth.” Coates then launches this exposition (addressed, as the whole book is, to his son):
At this moment the phrase “police reform” has come into vogue, and the actions of our publicly appointed guardians have attracted attention presidential and pedestrian. You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training and body cameras. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them. The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies–the sprawling car carcereal state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects–are the product of democratic will.
It is a shame that we cannot interrupt Coates to ask him what the hell he is talking about. If I could tell you I would let you know. He continues (employing motifs I discussed in part 2):
And so to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who send them into the ghettos armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people who think they are white to flee the cities and into the Dream. The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.
To say the least, the tragic case of Prince Jones is less than a slender reed on which to hang this indictment of “the people who think they are white.” Indeed, Coates’s indictment in this context seems like a bad joke. Coates has more to say about the case as the facts come to light after Jones’s death, but nothing to make his indictment here more reasonable.
Let us pause over Coates’s use of the phrase “majoritarian pigs.” His use of the phrase harks back to the unloveliest elements of the unlovely sixties. Coates seems to include the belief in majority rule as one count in his indictment of “the people who think they are white.” What does Coates think? To redeem our sins shall we make Ta-Nehesi king?