Thursday, June 30, 2022

Danny Ray Thomas: On Affording Empathy


In March of 2018, Danny Ray Thomas was killed at a Houston intersection while caught in the middle of a mental health crisis. Shortly after his killing, video emerged online showing Danny Ray Thomas in the final moments of his life: unarmed, hands by his sides, pants around his ankles, visibly hurting and in need of help. You may know his name: it was emblazoned across Washington Post headlines for days, made even more upsetting by the fact that he was killed less than a week after Stephon Clark, another unarmed Black man, was shot by cops in Sacramento. Or maybe the names have started to blur together. The endless waves of death after death wear on us. The headlines—”Unarmed Black Man Shot and Killed in Houston, in St. Louis, in Minneapolis”—start to sound the same, and our fury breaks down under the weight of itself. Rage eventually turns into weariness. Remembering the individual victims becomes so much harder.

That weariness is normal. It’s part of human nature. But for the sake of those who are killed each day—for the sake of Danny Ray Thomas—it’s so important to fight against it.

Danny Ray Thomas was 34 years old. Two years earlier, his wife killed their two children by drowning them and hiding their bodies under a neighbor’s house. Danny struggled with substance abuse. He struggled with mental illness. He struggled with the unimaginable grief that comes with losing your children at the hands of someone you love, and who was supposed to love them, too.

On the day of his killing, Danny Ray Thomas stood at an intersection in intense mental distress. Witnesses say he was talking to himself and hitting passing cars. Cameron Brewer, the deputy who would kill him, approached while Danny was involved in an altercation with the driver of one of those cars. Danny had no weapon. Brewer had a gun and a Taser. Deputies in Harris County had been trained in the use of nonlethal force, in de-escalation in cases of mental health crises.

Danny Ray Thomas needed help. He needed the love and empathy that we expect while caught in the midst of our own suffering. He received none of that—not from Brewer, at least.

Twitter pundits often look for any indication of imperfection—any proof that the victim was “no angel,” that they had it coming. Anything that will uphold their belief that police violence should be a state-sanctioned response to mental illness or suffering, especially for Black men. And for those people, Danny Ray Thomas may indeed be proof positive. He had a criminal background: three years in prison for drug possession. There he was, on camera, pants around his ankles.

These people forget—or ignore—that none of the above is deserving of death. Danny Ray Thomas was a person. He laughed, loved, suffered. He was worthy and deserving of kindness, empathy, respect. He was unarmed. He needed help. He was killed on camera because a police officer decided to instead use a gun.