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.
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.
There’s no question that blacks are killed by police in highly disproportionate numbers compared to all other races in the United States. Blacks comprise just 11 percent of the U.S. population yet 24 percent of police shooting death victims were black in 2019. Blacks are 2.5 times more likely to be shot by police than whites. That’s why Black Lives Matter exists—the numbers are so disproportionate it’s clear that black lives don’t matter.
Nevertheless, about half of the people killed by police every year are white, and for those who are opposed to all violence perpetrated by the police, not just violence against blacks, it’s tempting to say, “All lives matter.” But to say that today is to invite instant ridicule from BLM supporters, which is understandable but unfortunate in my view, since it divides factions that would otherwise be allies.
It was while pondering this division that the cold reality of police brutality in America dawned on me: Black lives don’t matter. White lives don’t matter. Latinx lives don’t matter. No lives matter if you’re wearing a badge and a gun and you’re granted qualified immunity.
“Ordinary people—whether they’re doctors, lawyers, or construction workers—are expected to follow the law,” explain legal writers Amir H. Ali and Emily Clark in The Appeal. “Under the doctrine of qualified immunity, public officials are held to a much lower standard. … This standard shields law enforcement, in particular, from innumerable constitutional violations each year.”
In short, with qualified immunity, law enforcement officers have a license to kill with virtual impunity. Chances are when they use it, no one will protest, at least not here in Shasta County and similar mostly white enclaves.
Indeed, last 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.
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.
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.
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!”
Notice Baugh doesn’t mention that a deputy has just shot and killed one of the supervisor’s own constituents. 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.
Yet here we are, talking about Robert Lyon.
At the time I read Baugh’s post last Tuesday, I was on Facebook following the grassroots build-up to that evening’s George Floyd protest on Court Street in Redding. Baugh’s post linked to a KRCR-TV story on the shooting incident and that’s how I learned Shasta County law enforcement had killed yet another person, Robert Lyon, 65, the 39th death caused by law enforcement actions since 2000.
The 39 deaths are an estimate. There were 35 deaths caused by local law enforcement as of last April, when ANC published my short history of fatal encounters with Shasta County law enforcement. Since then Ethan George Purdy, Jesse Donnelly Adams, Thomas Barbosa and now Robert Lyon have been killed by law enforcement actions in Shasta County. It’s possible that I’ve missed a death or two.
According to data compiled from the Fatal Encounters database, Shasta County still ranks 2nd in the state in police shootings per capita.
Coming as it did right in the middle of the George Floyd protests, Robert Lyon’s death at the hands of the Shasta County law enforcement and Baugh’s cavalier attitude toward Lyon’s death on social media caught my attention.
Is this how Baugh plans to deal with all “problem residents” in his district? Should a public official be high-fiving the sheriff after a deputy killed one of his constituents? To discover the answers, I fired off a series of questions to Baugh’s supervisorial email address:
1. [Mr. Baugh] you describe Robert Lyon’s home as a “problem residence” and imply that he lives in your neighborhood. Did you know Mr. Lyon, or know of him, prior to his death at the hands of local law enforcement?
2. As a supervisor, is it appropriate for you to publicly taint Mr. Lyon–who I believe is also your 5th District constituent– as a “problem” before the investigation into his death has even begun?
3. Do you consider Mr. Lyon’s death at the hands of local law enforcement a successful outcome?
4. Should we encourage people to commit suicide by cop?
5. To me, your post says, “This is what you’re gonna get if you’re a problem in Shasta County.” Is that the message you’re trying to send?
In turn, Baugh trolled me by posting my questions (sent through an official public channel) to his Facebook page and asking his followers for their comments on them. I thought it was hilarious and called him a few choice names that I later deleted.
I enjoyed sparring with Baugh’s sycophantic fans, but I wasn’t interested in their answers to the questions. I wanted Baugh’s answers, since he’s a subject in this story.
A few commenters asked if Baugh was going to answer the questions, and the answer is no, he’s not. Baugh blithely blew off my deadline. So, I thought I’d fill in the blanks by explaining why I asked the questions in the first place.
I asked Baugh if he knew or was aware of Robert Lyon because he seems to be familiar with the decedent. In a public Facebook post immediately following Lyon’s death the supervisor describes Lyon’s home as a “problem residence,” and the “entire neighborhood” as grateful that the problem has been solved—by Lyon’s death, presumably.
I asked Baugh about smearing Lyon’s reputation in a public Facebook post because, as the supervisor is well aware, the shooting incident is being investigated by the Redding Police Department Investigations Division with help from the Shasta County District Attorney’s Office and the Shasta County Sheriff’s Major Crimes Unit. The investigation is ongoing, and Baugh, as a public official, is supposed to refrain from publicly commenting on it.
I asked Baugh if he thought Lyon’s death was a successful outcome because judging from the tone of his Facebook post, he apparently thinks the 65-year-old’s demise was a happy ending. “You all rock!” he proclaims. Psychiatrists call this inappropriate affect. A man has just been killed by a so-called peace officer. Now is the time for finding out why he was killed and how to prevent such deaths in the future. Cheerleading is uncalled for.
I asked Baugh if we should encourage people to commit suicide by cop because I suspect that’s what may have happened in the Robert Lyon case. It’s not hard to imagine an angry and depressed 65-year-old man losing it on a 100-degree day and choosing to check out of this cruel world the easy way, by arming himself and standing in front of a policeman. It happens all the time in America.
I asked Baugh what message he was trying to convey to the public because the message I received lacked any empathy for or even recognition that Robert Lyon had just been killed by a Sheriff’s deputy. “Just can’t find enough words to express how grateful we are for your actions today,” Baugh gushes. I, for one, am not grateful that a Shasta County law enforcement officer has killed yet another person in an incident where it appears that outcome could have been avoided.
As I write this, hundreds of people are preparing to take to the streets of Redding for the fifth night in a row to protest the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. The cell-phone video of the police officer placing his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes as Floyd died is a brutal testament to what qualified immunity for law enforcement officers has wrought.
Rush Limbaugh is mostly wrong that people wouldn’t be upset if George Floyd happened to be a white man. What happened to Floyd was extremely violent, and demonstrative of the way black and white suspects are treated differently by police. If that happened to a white guy, it would definitely make the news, because that sort of treatment doesn’t happen to white suspects as often.
But Rush is a little bit right when it comes to white people being killed by the police in general. It’s highly doubtful that Robert Lyon’s name will be on protestors’ lips tonight. I’m sure a large percentage of Shasta County residents aware of Lyon’s death figure he had it coming. We’ve heard the story so often—police confront angry old guy with a gun, police kill angry old guy—that we’ve become accustomed to it.
But if ever there was a moment to change the present status quo, where no lives matter and qualified immunity shields law enforcement officers from being held accountable for wrongfully killing people of all colors, creeds and ages, it’s now.
George Floyd’s gruesome death at the hands of law enforcement has awakened the nation, people are mad as hell from coast to coast and protestors are marching in the streets of Redding!
Change is coming, if we can just make it to November.