Like a great many other people, I was shocked and revolted by the execution video that has spread across the internet in the last few days. The footage of the man’s death sparked several questions in my mind: what provoked the killing? How can someone hold another person’s life in such scant regard? Is this evidence of an ideological clash between different cultures that all too often manifests itself in hatred?
But there was one particular question that stood out: why did St Louis police have to kill Kajieme Powell?
In case the name is not familiar, Powell was the 25-year old man shot dead by police in St Louis on 19 August, not far from where Michael Brown was killed by Officer Darren Wilson ten days earlier. Following the Brown killing and the subsequent mass protests, many people have expressed disbelief that police could kill another young African American man in the same area so soon after Brown’s death.
Repeat viewings do not make the film any easier to watch. Powell was walking back and forth outside a convenience store from which he is alleged to have stolen a couple of soft drinks. The passer-by who recorded the footage on his mobile phone is amused at Powell’s behaviour at first. It is when the police arrive that the tone shifts drastically, with Powell repeatedly shouting “shoot me” at the officers. As several gunshots ring out and Powell collapses to the ground, the reaction of witnesses is one of stunned incredulity. “The man is already dead (and) they’re cuffing him,” says the cameraman.
According to police, Powell was holding a knife as he moved towards the officers in the instant before they opened fire. But, as can be clearly heard in the video, several witnesses are asking why he wasn’t tasered or shot in the leg. As if tensions in the area weren’t already at boiling point over the Michael Brown slaying, the second death of a young man in a hail of police bullets threatens to send anger levels into the stratosphere.
Another video of a killing appeared on the web last week. Unlike Powell’s death, however, this film drew an immediate response from the loftiest echelons of society. “The entire world is appalled by the brutal murder of Jim Foley,” said Barack Obama of the photojournalist decapitated by Islamic State. Swearing to hunt down Foley’s killers, President Obama went on to say “we will be vigilant and we will be relentless. When people harm Americans, anywhere, we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done.”
Contrast this with the Powell killing, about which Obama has so far said ... nothing. Yet here is an unarguable case of an American being harmed. On American soil. Like Eric Garner and Ezell Ford. Of those deaths, there has been little comment from official figures, even though it’s known who the killers were. Representatives of United States law enforcement. The police.
The video of James Foley’s death showed the utterly abhorrent killing of a defenceless and innocent man who posed no threat to his captors. He was a civilian hostage who was abducted while working in Syria to document the conflict there and its effects on the population. Nothing can validate the heinous act, regardless of one’s individual view on the US presence in the Middle East.
Neither James Foley nor Kajieme Powell deserved to die.
But was Powell not just as innocent as Foley? If he had a history of mental illness, how can he be held accountable for his actions? As investigations continue into the shooting, it is said Powell was armed with a knife and was moving towards officers when they opened fire. Even if he was holding a knife (and this is not clear in the film) perhaps they were justified in taking him down, but killing him? The reaction of the many witnesses in the video clearly shows they believe police over-reacted. And Powell is dead on the ground because of it.
Then, as always, there is the subject of race. Foley is white and Powell is black. Would the reaction have been the same if their ethnicities were reversed? Would the St. Louis Police have opened fire if Powell had been a white man? This last point is at the crux of the continuing protests in Ferguson: Michael Brown was not killed because of what he did, but because of who he was. So was James Foley. Are the risks similar for Americans in Syria or Iraq as they are for young black men on US city streets?
Or perhaps the real issue here is not the identity of the victims but that of the killers. Foley was murdered by "terrorists" and Powell by the police. The barbarity of jihadist groups fits the political and media narrative of religious zealots hell-bent on our destruction. Public support for military campaigns in far-flung global regions depends on our collective fear of these perceived enemies.
The police, on the other hand, are supposedly here to protect and serve. When they commit serious crimes, it is not in the interest of our governing bodies that we examine and scrutinise their actions. Law enforcement is the key to state control. Once we start to challenge the role of the police, authoritarian power is severely weakened.
Let’s look at the parallels between the Foley and Powell cases. Both deaths were recorded on film, one in a deliberate statement of aggression and the other in the latest example of citizen journalism. In neither case have the killers been identified. And both killings have provoked condemnation of the perpetrators.
As Twitter, Facebook and Youtube have banned the Foley video, closing the accounts of those who share it, police have warned of the criminal consequences of attempting to view it. The footage of Powell’s death is freely available on Youtube and across social media. Of course, the image of a man decapitated at close quarters has a far more graphic nature than seeing a gunshot victim collapse from a distance. And while the Powell footage is a vital piece of evidence in determining the circumstances surrounding his death, there is nothing to be gained by viewing the stomach-churning brutality of Foley’s execution.
I have not watched, nor do I intend to watch, the Foley film. In contrast, the Powell film, while deeply distressing, is important as it involves, and possibly incriminates, the very forces charged with our protection. And, in Powell’s case, the bare minimum that can be said is that they blatantly failed in their duty.
Neither James Foley nor Kajieme Powell deserved to die. The absolute maximum must be done to establish the truth and to ensure justice is fully implemented in both cases. Not just for the two men and their families, but to rebuild the disintegrating public faith in those assigned to watch over us.