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Hands Up, Don’t Shoot

Hands Up, Don’t Shoot

Editor's Note: If you are following the disturbing story of the shooting of an unarmed therapist trying to help his autistic client by a Miami police officer, there has been an update over the weekend in which the officer has confessed that the bullet was actually intended for the man with autism sitting in the road with his toy truck.

I woke up one recent July morning, and I wept. As per my usual habit, I checked the news shortly after getting up. The first story I landed on was about a Miami police officer shooting the caretaker of a young autistic man who had wandered away from his center, and whom the caretaker had gone after to bring back. There’s no mystery here about the circumstances of the shooting, no reason to parse the police version of the story vs. the victim’s story. There’s just this: a black man lying on his back, his empty hands up behind his head, and his autistic charge sitting nearby, playing with his toy truck. If you don’t believe me, here it is:

I was completely rattled by this story.

I have cried over other stories of civilians shot by police, and I’ve cried over the targeted slayings of police. But this particular incident hit home in the most personal of ways. I have a son just a few years younger than the young autistic man in Miami. I can too easily imagine an encounter with the police in which my son is asked something and responds, perhaps in an overly loud or agitated manner, “I don’t like telling the truth!” which the cops then take as a provocation. It then escalates to the point where the officers try to physically restrain my son and he resists. We KNOW how this story ends.

As a society, it increasingly appears that we’ve lost our collective mind(s). We are angry, agitated, and anxious. But more than that, we are armed to the teeth. A 15-year-old boy is dead because he aggressively knocked on the wrong door of a house in Chicopee, Massachusetts, and the owner shot him. Whatever happened to just yelling, “Hey punk, get lost. You’ve got the wrong house.”

I cannot for the life of me figure out how people whose lives clearly are NOT in danger resort to deadly force. What has died inside a human being to see other human beings as threats when they are not? What possible threat could a man lying on the ground with his hands up pose to armed police officers? And if the argument is that one officer’s gun accidentally discharged, my question would be,“Why on earth was he pointing his gun at an unarmed man lying on the ground to begin with???”

My son can neither defend nor explain himself. Just a few weeks ago, he was going on and on about wanting to hit his sister in the head with a hammer. Imagine if someone overheard him saying that out in the street and decided to call 911. The police would come and my son would still go on and on about wanting to hit his sister in the head with a hammer, getting more and more agitated. I can well imagine the headline in the news article to follow:

Autistic Man Shot Dead By Cop Who Says Victim Threatened Him With A Hammer.

My only hope would be that someone recorded that killing with his camera, and that it proved the headline a lie. But what real difference would that make? My son would just be one more casualty of a culture where even efforts to understand are barely made. What good would it do if I were yelling from the sidelines, “My son won’t hurt you. He doesn’t have a hammer. Please put down your guns.” All I’d have is my words. There is no force field of love that can stop bullets. Only police holstering their guns and using them as weapons of last resort will make any difference. The only question is whether that difference comes too late to matter.

Nina Mogilnik's professional career has encompassed work in the philanthropic, nonprofit and government sectors. Nina is presently consulting to a select group of nonprofit and foundation clients. She also serves on the boards of Birch Family Services, and the Good People Fund. Nina is also an avocational writer, and has had a number of essays about her experiences dealing with her father's Alzheimer's and her son's autism published in Haddasah Magazine and in The Jewish Week. Nina's proudest accomplishment — and hardest job by far — has been as a mother. Nina has degrees in philosophy from Union College (B.A.) and from the University of Chicago (M.Phil). She lives with her husband and kids outside New York City.

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