I often have difficulty pinpointing when a racist act begins. Lately, I have been giving some thought about the day-to-day effects of racism and how they might affect someone under duress.
The case of Rashad Owens gave me a lot of pause when I began reading about it in the news. In case you haven’t read about the (now) three deaths caused by this man, here is a short synopsis.
Rashad Owens Killed 3 During SXSW
Last week during South By Southwest (SXSW) a man drunkenly plowed down the wrong way of a one-way street in downtown Austin while being pursued by a policeman for a traffic stop. Owens was reportedly driving without his headlights on. (Other outlets are now reporting that he was being stopped in a sobriety checkpoint. But the original reports stated he was stopped for driving without his headlights. I think it is an important distinction that there are two reasons reported as to why he was being stopped.)
During this incident, two people were killed on the spot and as of this posting, another woman has died from her injuries. There were also 22 others injured. That man was Rashad Owens, a 21-year-old rapper from Killeen, Texas. His BAC was .114.
He was pulled over at a gas station near Interstate 35 and downtown. This is normally a congested area, so given that it was SXSW, the traffic must have been crawling. The officer initially thought Owens was stopping, but then Owens pulled through an alley and proceeded the wrong way down a one-way street where the street was blocked off and many SXSW partiers were standing in the streets.
One might wonder exactly what was it that made him choose this course of action, rather than just submitting to the police in pursuit. If it were me, I’d probably stop and take my licks. But you can bet I’d be pretty damn scared. But I’m a white woman without a sketchy past.
Upon hearing this news of the incident, I was mortified and saddened for the victims. But I have to admit, I was bothered by Police Chief Art Acevdeo’s pronunciation — even before the suspect’s name was released– that this act was “intentional.”
Rashad Owens never had a chance. It was clear from the start that the police were going to vilify Owens. And even though I am in no way absolving him of his actions, I do think that racism was involved in his behavior. And it will affect how he is viewed in the media, in the trial and in his sentencing.
Owens is already being tried in the court of social media and has been pronounced a scumbag with no regard for human life.
Some of the very first comments I saw attached to articles on this incident said things like, “Let’s string him up” and another called him a “beast.” These comments are reminiscent of stereotypes associated with slavery and Jim Crow laws.
Given that this is an internationally high profile festival and one of the people killed was from the Netherlands, making it news on the other side of the world, Owens likely to be given a pretty harsh sentence once he’s convicted, which I’m certain he will be. He faces two charges of capital murder and 23 counts of aggravated assault. (These numbers may change given that a third person has died.)
Rashad Owens clearly made some bad choices that night. I’m not disputing that. And let me be clear, I’m sickened by the results of his poor choices.
However, I want to look at this from an unbiased view about what I think of his actions that led to three deaths and 22 terribly injured people. Let’s look at this through the lens of a racist society.
The facts: Rashad Charjuan Owens is a 21-year-old black man from Killeen, Texas. He reportedly has six children. He has two more prior incidents in Alaska, a minor in possession (MIP) charge and criminal mischief charge. In one incident the charge was dismissed and the second case remains open, which he skipped out on. He also has been charged with kidnapping his own child during a custody dispute.
None of this looks good on paper. A lot of people will write him off immediately after hearing these things. But what I’m more curious about is how a person can get to be only 21 years old and already have that kind of laundry list of bad life choices.
At this point, I can only speculate about his motives on that night. But it’s not hard to speculate that this dude was running scared. He knows the facts of his life and when he saw those police lights behind him, I’m guessing he stopped thinking about anything else other than getting the hell out of there.
And you know why.
He knew without an unequivocal doubt that he was going to go to jail for a long ass time if he was caught. He knows this because he’s a black man in the United States and he’s already made several poor life choices. But does that make him a scumbag with no regard for human life? Or does it just make him a human being who is trying to survive?
Would he have been better off if he’d just stopped? Probably not. And here’s why.
Now, who knows if Rashad Charjuan Owens knows these exact statistics I’m about to share with you, but I’m guessing he knows that his odds are not good.
Approximately 12-13 percent of the U.S. population is African American. However, 40 percent of the prison population are black males.
In 2010, black males were six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males. And here’s something for those of you who think that the Civil Rights Movement eradicated racism. This statistic is actually UP from 1960 when black men were only five times more likely to be in prison than whites. These numbers are actually down from the 1990s, when they rose even higher than 1960s numbers.
If I were a person with those kinds of statistics and that background, I think that my incentive for running from cops would be raised significantly. As a white person, I mostly am not afraid of cops. Even when I’m in the wrong, I can count on my race and my gender to significantly decrease my chances of being punished too harshly. Rashad Owens can not. And he knew that when he was running for his life.
Let me again, say that I am not trying to absolve him of his actions. Only trying to understand them.
Rashad Owens’ Punishment Will Be More Severe Because He is Black
Now, given all these facts, you may still likely believe that Rashad Owens deserves a long jail sentence. After all, he did some pretty horrible things and whether or not he’s black, he is clearly a criminal who deserves no leniency. I might have agreed with that statement 10 or more years ago.
I do not, though, today. Not if you look at other similar cases.
Two cases to examine.
Ethan Couch is a white boy from Ft. Worth, who killed four people during a drunken driving spree in June 2013. He was 16 at the time. His BAC was .24 and he also tested positive for Valium. May I point out that he was not running away from anyone at the time. He was simply out for a joyride with seven of his friends in his truck, none of whom were wearing seat belts. They were wasted, he lost control of his truck and killed four people, a woman with car trouble and three good Samaritans who had stopped to help her. One of Ethan’s friends, Sergio Molina, was riding in the back and is now crippled and must be cared for around the clock by his family. Ethan Couch was given 10 years of probation and time in a cushy rehabilitation facility that would cost his parents approximately $500,000 per year. The victims’ families are pretty pissed. And yes, there has been outcry. But nonetheless, Ethan Couch isn’t doing any real time.
Oh, but you say, Couch didn’t have a string of priors!
But actually, he did. Just earlier that year, in February 2013 he had been cited for minor in possession and was sentenced to probation and community service.
If you’re white, like me, that sounds pretty reasonable for kid. But Rashad Owens’ criminal background were also rooted in MIPs. He was also charged with criminal mischief (criminal mischief is typically destroying someone else’s property) along with being a minor in possession.
Now, let’s look at Gabrielle Nestande. Nestande was a 24-year-old white Capitol staffer who drunkenly ran over a pedestrian, then went home, leaving the woman to die in the street. The next day, Nestande got up and went to work as if nothing had happened. Nestande received a sentence of six months in jail and 10 years of probation.
Ethan Couch comes from a family whose annual income is reportedly around $15 million. Gabrielle Nestande comes from a political family. Her father is Bruce Nestande, a powerful member of the GOP, who served as special assistant to Ronald Reagan. He also has a DUI/hit and run on his record for which he, too, served only six months in jail, along with probation.
Clearly, these issues are not just about race, but also about class. The same judge who gave Couch his cushy sentence has been criticized for giving harsher sentences for similar crimes and similarly aged young men, both white and black.
If you ask me, of all these three young adults, the one who sounds like he had good reason to run the most is Rashad Owens. He was literally running for his life.
If People Are All Really Equal, Then Rashad Owens Deserves Leniency Too
After looking at all of this, I think Rashad Owens deserves some leniency for his actions. I’m saddened over the deaths and injuries, but from this perspective, it seems to me that perhaps if we didn’t live in a racist country, then maybe those 25 people would still be alive/unhurt today. Perhaps Rashad Owens would have not been so worried for his life. Perhaps he would have stopped and gotten his slap on the wrist just like any white person would have gotten in his situation.
What do you say about this? Many will say no! He killed innocents! He ruined our beloved festival. He stained our upstanding community. Yes, he did. But we have to start somewhere.