When Baton Rouge activist Gary Chambers Jr. posted a cell phone video on his Facebook page of a police officer kneeling on what appeared to be a Black teenager’s neck, Louisiana’s state capital braced for the worst.
Many in the United States are still healing from the collective distress endured while watching white Minneapolis police officer Derrick Chauvin press his knee into George Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, rendering him unresponsive.
In Baton Rouge, imagery of 17-year-old Dillion Cannon laying on the pavement under an officer’s knee threatened to once again peel back the barely formed scab on a wound that keeps reopening with every police encounter that results in a lifeless Black body.
“A cop doing this after George Floyd knows exactly what they are doing,” Chambers wrote in the text accompanying the video.
In a post-George Floyd world, Cannon’s arrest has brought with it new questions about how police arrest people, and what legally constitutes use of force versus what the public may consider excessive.
In Cannon’s case, the teen was a passenger riding alongside his older cousin Kimani Smith, 22. Officers attempted a routine traffic stop, but Smith kept driving and officers gave chase. When Smith eventually pulled over, Cannon exited the car’s front passenger door and immediately knelt down on the pavement, raising his arms above his head. The Baton Rouge Police Department released body camera footage that shows an officer aiming a firearm at Cannon for more than 20 seconds before — along with two other officers coming from different directions — approaching him and pushing him to the ground. The other officers then pull Cannon’s arms behind his back and one of them places a knee on his upper back for roughly 10 seconds to hold him down while he is being handcuffed.
One major debate has been whether the officer’s knee ended up on Cannon’s neck. Neck restraints are banned under BRPD’s use-of-force policy.
Days after Chambers posted the cell phone video (which he was alerted to by another community leader), Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome told NPR’s Here and Now that “the optics don’t look good,” adding, “An officer putting a knee on the neck of any citizen as a tactic is not accepted. It is unacceptable here and it will not be tolerated.”
Since then BRPD released a still image from body camera footage showing the officer’s knee on the teen’s back, which Chief of Police Murphy Paul Jr. said complies with the department’s arrest policy.
Cannon’s lawyer Ron Haley, known for representing plaintiffs in a number of police use of force cases, maintained that the officer “puts his knee at first on [Cannon’s] back and then transitions it to his neck.”
Where exactly the officer’s knee was placed makes little difference to Chambers, who believes it did make contact with Cannon’s neck.
“I don’t care if you were directly on his neck, if you were on the tip of his neck, get off of him because there was no need to even slam him to the ground because he had already surrendered,” he said.… Treat him with the dignity that you would if he were white.”