Officer Hernandez was struggling to remain conscious. The repeated blows to his face and head had rendered him helpless, and with the pain intensifying, he was quickly becoming weaker. Because he knew his life was in danger, all he could think about was his wife of eleven years and their two young sons.
Now on his knees, the policeman had been driven to the pavement by three men, one black and two white, who took turns viciously punching and kicking him each time he tried to get back on his feet. The onslaught was taking a frightening toll as blood flowed into his eyes and excruciating pain from his broken left shoulder shot through his brain.
Separated from his partner, the officer had lost his gun at the beginning of the attack, leaving him defenseless. Because the beating was occurring at the end of an alley that connected two parallel streets, they were out of sight of the protests erupting just a block away. In the isolation, the pent-up frustration of his assailants exploded as they sought a small measure of revenge for what they considered to be years of unchecked police brutality.
The smaller white man looked down the alley and spotted a large concrete block resting against a wall. Knowing that the officer could no longer protect himself, he decided it would make the perfect weapon.
As the other two men kept up their assault, he calmly walked over and picked up the heavy block. This cop was going to get what every cop deserved. Creeping up from behind, he raised the concrete in the air and slammed it down as hard as he could, crushing the policeman’s skull and sending shards of bone into brain tissue, destroying vital cognitive functions. Officer Hernandez collapsed, as the life he’d been blessed with – his marriage, family, and career – evaporated from his reality.
Because his attackers were intent on inflicting as much punishment as possible, death was now imminent. But just when it seemed certain that another member of law enforcement was going to be lost in the line of duty, a solitary figure appeared at the other end of the short alley. The attacker who’d used the concrete as a weapon turned around and was stunned to see the largest black man he had ever encountered. At 6’6” and 285 pounds, the individual was easily bigger than an NFL linebacker. Startled, the smaller individual froze.
Without hesitating, the huge man began to walk towards them. Intimidated by the sheer size of him, the offender started backing up, yelling, “Let’s go! The cop has had it, anyway.” All three of the assailants took off in a sprint, quickly vanishing around the corner at the end of the street.
The man went to the officer and stared down at him. He’d never seen so much blood. He watched as the policeman groaned in agony and rolled over on his back. Instantly a sickening gurgling sound could be heard as blood from his nose and mouth flowed down his throat. Gagging, the injured man choked out, “Help. Someone help me.” They would be his last words. Although he would survive the beating, the resulting brain damage would ultimately eliminate his ability to speak.
With the unrelenting roar of chanting protesters and police bullhorns ricocheting off the buildings, the large man knelt next to the officer. The visible wounds were awful, and he was afraid that the attackers had beaten their victim to within an inch of his life. The man looked around for someone to help him, but they were alone.
He reached into the back pocket of his pants and pulled out a handkerchief to use in a futile effort to stem the flow of blood that was pouring from a deep gash over the victim’s right eye. It was no use. The handkerchief immediately soaked through. Unsure of what to do, he wanted to stay with the person, but he also knew he needed assistance. He stood up and looked down one more time at the broken body. Suddenly, from the other end of the alley, police officer Mason Daniels turned the corner and came running towards him.
Instantly, a wave of relief sweep over the black man. Help had arrived just in time.
Only twenty-three-years old, Officer Daniels had gone in search of his partner, Miguel Hernandez, after they were separated during a violent exchange with protesters who were pelting the police with rocks and bottles. Daniels, a Caucasian who had graduated from the academy less than six months earlier, was from a small town in the Midwest and while growing up, had limited contact with the black community. At the beginning of the nationwide protests a week ago, he’d felt empathy for the point that people were trying to make – but after endless clashes with individuals who wanted to endanger the police, his attitude had changed. He now believed it was a clear-cut case of us against them, and most of the time law enforcement was hopelessly outnumbered.
Officer Daniels moved closer, but then stopped short. Directly in front of him, approximately twenty feet away, was a huge black man with blood dripping from his fingers towering over his gravely wounded partner.
For a moment, he thought Hernandez was dead, but then he saw his chest rise and fall as the injured man fought to keep breathing. Taking in the scene, the rookie officer realized this giant had severely beaten his partner and was most assuredly still a threat. A lightning bolt of rage began to surge through the young policeman’s nervous system.
The black man turned and stared grim-faced at the officer. Reflexively, Daniels drew his Glock 22, planted his feet, and took double fisted aim at the man’s chest. With raw emotion swelling in his voice, he shouted, “Put your hands behind your head! Now!!”
The expression on the big man’s face did not change, and he did not raise his hands.
“Put your hands behind your head! Do it now!!”
The perpetrator did not respond, and time slowed down to the point that the entire episode seemed surreal. But then suddenly, he did the unthinkable. Ignoring the instruction, the man reached into the pocket of his jacket with his left hand.
Officer Daniels could feel panic overtaking him. Trying to maintain a steady stance with the Glock aimed squarely at the assailant’s heart, he commanded, “Stop and put your hands behind your head where I can see them!!”
The man’s face remained frozen in a forbidding scowl, but slowly, he pulled his hand out.
Because of his complete lack of emotion after having just committed such a violent crime, Officer Daniels suspected the man was under the influence of drugs, most likely meth. That meant there was no way to predict how irrational the individual’s behavior might become.
“Put your hands behind your head!”
With his legs shaking, the young officer waited for the attacker to respond. When he didn’t, Daniels took one step closer. Tragically, that proved to be a fatal mistake. His movement caused the exact reaction he didn’t want. With the policeman advancing, the black man realized what he had to do, and he knew he had to do it now. In one quick motion, he shoved the same hand back into the same pocket.
“Stop!! Jesus Christ, stop!!” Through the thin fabric of the man’s windbreaker, the rookie policeman could see him fumbling for the weapon. Sensing that he was out time, and believing he had no choice but to protect himself and his injured partner, Officer Daniels fired his weapon. The unreal sensation of squeezing the trigger was something he would never forget. The Glock jumped in his hands as the .40 S&W cartridge struck the black man in the heart tearing through the left ventricle and exiting his back through the shoulder blade.
The force of the impact momentarily staggered the huge man, and he stumbled backward – but, incredibly, he did not go down. With the attacker still on his feet, the officer fired two more times, all of the shots grouped in a tight pattern. The resulting destruction of heart muscle stopped the blood flow to other vital organs, and the assailant collapsed, hitting the pavement hard.
With the barrel of the Glock smoking, Daniels cautiously moved towards him, knelt down, and felt for a pulse. There was none.
Holstering his weapon. he quickly moved over to his partner who was now unresponsive. Checking him, he was relieved to find at least a faint pulse. With his brain racing over what had happened in the last 30 seconds, Daniels knew the sound of the shots would bring a quick response, and sure enough, he began to hear sirens heading his direction. He could only pray they arrived in time to save Miguel Hernandez’s life.
He gently took hold of his partner’s hand. “Hang in there, buddy. We’re going to get you out of here.” Daniels looked around and saw people, running toward them in response to the gunfire. Not sure if they were protesters or not, he instinctively tensed up as they got closer. But within seconds, squad cars came hurtling from both directions.
The call had come through that there was an officer-involved shooting and another officer was down. There was literally nothing that could provoke a swifter response in law enforcement in any situation, but given the fear and tension that had settled over the city, the police had become hypervigilant knowing that in such a volatile atmosphere, any encounter could turn deadly.
As officers arrived on the scene, Daniels was hit with a barrage of questions – but the first thing he did was inform them about the weapon in the pocket of the dead man’s jacket.
A SHORT TIME EARLIER
Gia Sanchez was using this precious time to study while her three-month-old daughter, Clarita, peacefully slept in her bassinet on the other side of the room.
The young mother felt blessed to have given birth to such a beautiful baby. When Gia received the positive test result for Down syndrome during her pregnancy, she instantly made up her mind to raise her little girl with unconditional love. However, Clarita’s father refused to be a part of his child’s life and had managed to disappear. Consequently, they were on their own.
Working full time while putting herself through school, the small cramped apartment was all Gia could currently afford, but she believed that once she got her degree, life would be better for her and her baby.
However, this morning it had been difficult to concentrate because of the terrible noise. The rioting was now entering its sixth day, and it seemed like it would go on forever. To make matters worse, the disturbances were slowly getting closer. Gia could clearly hear the demonstrators furiously battling police for control of the streets only a couple of blocks away.
She had turned the TV off because it was nothing but wall to wall coverage of the conflicts, and it was too depressing to watch. Born in Puerto Rico, and now in her mid-twenties, she’d had her share of unpleasant encounters because of her race. Gia could empathize with the protesters – but, by the same token, she believed the police were being put into an extremely difficult position. Because of her strict Catholic upbringing, she’d been taught to respect those in authority, and it was upsetting to see the attacks on law enforcement. As the rioting continued day after day, she just wished the hostility gripping the nation would stop before more people were hurt.
She looked at the clock and saw it was almost noon. Gia needed to take a break before Clarita woke up and wanted to be fed. Deciding to stretch her legs, the young mother pushed away from the table, stood up, and walked to the window. Their apartment was on the second floor of the five-story building, giving her a decent view of the street below for several blocks in each direction.
She pulled back the curtain to let in some sunlight and was stunned by what she saw. Directly across the street, just inside the alley, three men were viciously beating someone. She watched as one of the individuals stepped away and headed down the alley. It was only then that Gia could see that the victim was a policeman. She flinched in revulsion as she watched the other two men repeatedly hit and kick the bleeding officer. It was obvious he was helpless and couldn’t fight back.
Gia had moved into the aging building about a year ago and had never been able to open this particular window. Unfortunately, she knew it was useless to bang against the glass with her fists to try to scare off the attackers because they would not be able to hear her over the tumult of the nearby protests.
When it dawned on her that she might be the only person witnessing the attack, Gia ran to the table, grabbed her phone, and returned to the window. She punched in 911, and on the second ring, the operator answered. With her voice shaking uncontrollably, the young mother blurted out her street address and said that a cop was being beaten to death. Then she saw the man in the alley pick up what looked like a concrete block, so she broke the connection, and like every one of her generation, started filming with the phone’s camera. Gia gasped in horror as the man came up behind the officer and brought the concrete down on the helpless policeman.
Seconds later, a huge black man suddenly appeared and confronted the attackers. Immediately the three men fled from the scene. She watched as the big man knelt down and tried to help the officer before a second policeman came up the alley and completely misunderstand what was happening.
Gia watched in disbelief as the black man, who was now standing, put his hand into his pocket. Was he reaching for a weapon? The officer had his gun drawn and appeared to be yelling. From her vantage point across the street behind a closed window, she could barely hear the policeman’s voice, but after a second or two, the man pulled his empty hand out. Then the officer stepped towards him, and the man immediately reached into his pocket again. In her mind, Gia was thinking, No! No!! Please God, don’t let this happen…… But it did.
Her body recoiled as three shots were fired in rapid succession. Even two stories up, they were so loud they caused her sleeping daughter to jerk awake and start wailing in a full-throttle effort to gain her mother’s attention.
The young woman had never witnessed the death of another human being, and it was so shocking she could scarcely believe it was really happening. But it was real, and although she didn’t know for sure if the man was dead yet, she thought it would be impossible to survive three gunshots from such close range.
As a mother, it was difficult to ignore her daughter’s cries, but she forced herself to watch as the policeman checked both men on the ground. Suddenly multiple patrol cars came screeching up from both directions.
Thinking there was nothing left to see, Gia started to set her phone down to go pick up Clarita when she realized the first officer to arrive was going to check the shooting victim’s pockets. She decided to keep filming, however, she was not prepared for what she saw next. In order to preserve the evidence, the policeman put on gloves and carefully opened the jacket pocket where the weapon was – but there was no gun or even a knife. Instead, whatever he pulled out was too small for Gia to see from her second-story window.
My God, the man had not hurt anyone. The officer killed an innocent person. A person who was unarmed.
Not surprisingly, the gunshots garnered unwanted attention, and because a large crowd quickly began to gather around the scene, Gia decided to stop filming. Soon the news would spread among the protesters that a black man had beaten a policeman and another officer had shot the attacker dead.
Not wanting to see any further violence, Gia went to her baby and scooped her up. Clarita’s tiny face was bright crimson from crying, and the young mother did her best to soothe her. Gently rocking her back and forth in her arms, she whispered, “Shush, little one. It’s okay. Everything is going to be all right.”
However, Gia didn’t know if that was really true. Still shaken to the core by the bloodshed she had witnessed, she couldn’t help but wonder just what kind of life her daughter had been born into.
TWO HOURS LATER
Gia nervously paced from room to room. Since the shooting, there had been more altercations on the street below, leaving her tormented about what to do. After what she’d seen, she believed, as a citizen, she had a responsibility to do the right thing – but what was right in this situation?
The officer had made two mistakes, and even though the circumstances were confusing, those mistakes had possibly left a man dead. An unarmed black man. Shot by a white cop. In this racially charged atmosphere, that was all people had to know. The city was seething with pent-up anger, and Gia knew it would only get worse once darkness fell.
She had already decided not to post the video on social media because she wanted to remain anonymous, so, after much soul-searching, she believed there were only two choices. Either turn the evidence over to the police – or the press. But if Gia gave it to the police, how could she be sure it would ever see the light of day. Would a man’s life just be forgotten without justice prevailing? On the other hand, if she gave the video to the press, she knew they would run it over and over again and that would incite even more passion and resentment in the protesters, leading to an increase in injuries and possibly even deaths.
Of course, there was a third choice. Gia could delete the shooting footage and keep her mouth shut. That would be the easiest course of action – but she knew she wouldn’t be able to live with herself.
The young mother had not turned her TV back on since the tragedy, so she decided to take another look at the coverage. The second she hit the power button on the remote, the screen lit up showing violence exploding all over the city. In multiple locations, protesters and police were going at each other with a vengeance that bordered on chaos.
It was only a short time before a report came on about what Gia had filmed. She turned up the volume as the anchorman began to read from the teleprompter.
“At this time, the identity of the shooting victim, a black male believed to be in his mid-forties, is not being released pending notification of his family.”
So, the man was dead.
“Officer Miguel Hernandez, a nine-year veteran of the force, was severely beaten and is listed in critical condition. After being separated during the rioting, it was his partner, Officer Mason Daniels, with only five months on the force, who came to his assistance.
“When the rookie officer confronted Hernandez’s attacker, the man reached for a concealed weapon. Daniels discharged his gun, in what is being described as a legal use of deadly force.
“However, there appear to be several unknown issues surrounding the shooting that leave three important questions unanswered. Where was officer Hernandez’s gun, why were the bodycams of the two officers not activated, and what type of weapon did the assailant have?”
The news anchor then moved on to the reactions of outrage and condemnation from leaders in the community over the killing, so Gia turned the sound down. Feeling numb from shock, she tried to process what she’d just heard. The press thought the dead man was the attacker, and that he had a weapon in his pocket. The police must have issued a statement, and, at least for the time being, it was being accepted as fact. But – the police knew that the victim was unarmed. And yet, hours after the incident, with the city under siege from all directions, the police were not disclosing the truth.
It was now obvious that Gia had to give the video to the press, but she needed to determine which news outlet would be best. She briefly considered one of the local network affiliates, however, she thought it might be better to pass it on to one of the cable news channels who had bigger audiences and more influence, even though she realized that in short order the video would go viral no matter who she gave it to.
Although there were three major players, she knew that she couldn’t even consider Fox News. After they put their right-wing spin on it there was no telling how much truth would remain. She thought about MSNBC, but she believed the film needed to be introduced to the largest possible audience, so she decided to contact CNN.
THE NEXT MORNING
When Gia’s alarm clock went off at 6:00 a.m., she discovered the cable giant had broken the news and released her video clearly showing what really happened with the two officers. The entire country was shocked to learn that the victim did not have a weapon and had not harmed anyone. CNN, along with every other major news outlet in America, was hounding the police for an explanation of what was actually found in the dead man’s pocket. Tensions were now spreading around the nation as people demanded answers to questions those in authority did not want to provide.
The stalemate dragged on through the morning, with violence escalating by the hour. Finally, at noon, the police relented and scheduled a press conference.
At 1:00 p.m., a little more than 24 hours after the shooting, a horde of reporters, desperate to hear facts instead of rumors, crowded around a bank of microphones as the female spokesperson for the police department stepped up to perform the unenviable task of setting the record straight.
She gave a brief opening statement expressing the department’s regret for the injuries and destruction of property that had occurred during the protests that had spread throughout the city, then she focused her attention on the fatal encounter.
Gia held Clarita in her arms as she stared intently at the TV. What she wanted to hear was the brutal, unvarnished truth, but she held her breath as the spokesperson began to provide pieces of the puzzle concerning the event that had torn the nation apart. When the woman came to the description of the deceased, Gia focused on every word.
“The shooting victim has been identified. He is Aaron Colson, a 46-year-old black male…… In contradiction to earlier reports, Mr. Colson was not armed. When officers checked his jacket pocket, instead of a weapon, they found a business size card that reads as follows: My name is Aaron Colson. I have a developmental disability, and I am nonverbal. I cannot communicate with you, and I may not understand your verbal instructions. I am not a threat to you or myself. If I give you this card, I need your assistance.”
Hesitating as she fought to control her emotions, the spokesperson took a deep breath, regained her professional demeanor, and finished her explanation of what the police had found. “The other side of the card lists the name and address of the group home where Mr. Colson lived, along with their phone number and several contact names. All of that information is being withheld at this time.”
As the words washed over her, Gia’s heart broke. Her mind reeled as she thought about how Clarita with her intellectual challenge would perceive the world, but more importantly, how the world would perceive her. Life could be dangerous for anyone – but for those who were vulnerable, it could be particularly perilous.
After all, in this case, Aaron Colson was only doing what he’d been taught to do. He was trying to retrieve the card to give to the police officer. He did not comprehend how reaching into his pocket could be so easily misunderstood, and that lack of understanding had cost him his life.
She also thought about Officer Daniels, and how he must have reacted when he discovered he’d shot an innocent man. A man who was not armed and who was only guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The spokesperson went on to state that Officer Hernandez’s Glock had jammed, and during the attack, it was knocked under an industrial garbage bin. The gun was discovered several hours later at which time it was determined it would not fire.
As to why neither officer had activated their bodycams, the police did not currently have an answer. However, she stated that a full investigation had been ordered, leading the press to believe that the truth would eventually prevail.
She also clarified how Mr. Colson ended up in the alley. Aaron had wandered away from his group home the morning of the shooting, and although his staff had immediately reported him missing, the police were overwhelmed by the protests and unable to conduct a thorough search. Officers Hernandez and Daniels had not been informed about the individual’s disappearance.
In a cruel twist of fate, amid of all the civil unrest, Aaron Colson, a person forced to live his life on the fringes of society, had silently slipped through the safety net designed to protect him.
Out in the streets, the gut-wrenching news convulsed the country. The killing of yet another innocent black man proved too much for most citizens to bear. This time, people refused to pretend like it didn’t happen. They refused to turn away and ignore it. They refused to forget about it.
This time, a middle-aged man with an intellectual challenge, who had never spoken a word in his life, changed the national conversation regarding the complicated relationship between law enforcement and those they are sworn to protect.
But, of course, change does not come easily.
ONE WEEK LATER
After an hour of effort, Gia had finally gotten Clarita to sleep. Exhausted from a double shift at work, she walked back into the front room and slumped down on the couch. The last seven days had been a whirlwind because, despite her desire to not be part of the story, it had quickly become public knowledge that she was the person who gave CNN the shooting video.
Although most news outlets had refused to disclose her identity, those on the right of the political spectrum had no reservations about destroying her privacy, always choosing to lead their story by pointing out that she was born in Puerto Rico, as if that defined her humanity.
Still, she was convinced she’d done the morally correct thing, and that made her willing to endure what she expected would be a temporary kind of notoriety.
Leaning back, she closed her eyes for a few seconds. Unfortunately, every time she tried to relax, her mind replayed the awful sequence of the officer firing the three shots and Aaron Colson falling to the ground in what seemed like slow motion. Gia wondered how long it would be before the shooting faded from her memory.
There was no point in watching the coverage on TV because she didn’t need to see what she already knew. Instead, she picked up the laptop to check her email.
She opened the program, but paused, thinking that Clarita had made a noise. Gia waited but heard nothing else. She’d been a nervous mother over the last three months, but after seeing the shooting, she now worried even more about everything – especially her daughter. She had never known it was possible to love so completely. Her little girl was now the center of her life, and she knew it would be that way forever.
Gia began to sort through emails from her family and friends until she came to one titled: TU PESADILLA COMIENZA. Her first impulse was to delete it, but then she reconsidered. Although the title was unsettling, she let her curiosity get the better of her.
With a vague sense of apprehension, Gia opened it and began to read.
HA!! I knew the Spanish would make you open this, you stupid Puerto Rican bitch.
I’ve got just one question for you. Why do you hate the police? Can’t you get it through your head that they’re here to protect everyone? Even your sorry ass.
I am so sick of watching this country go straight to hell because of foreigners like you. Yes, I know you were born in a U.S. territory, but you’re dead wrong if you think that makes you a real American.
I just want you to know that I belong to a powerful organization of like-minded citizens, and you can rest assured that I will be giving out your email address, street address, and phone number to all of our members.
You made a serious mistake when you turned on those who are willing to risk their lives for us – and now we’re going to protect them from people like you who despise law and order and are trying to ruin our white nation.
The smartest thing you can do for yourself and your bastard kid is to GET THE HELL OUT OF OUR COUNTRY!!!
Wishing she had deleted the email instead of opening it, Gia sat perfectly still as tears began to stream down her face. Obviously, the sender’s intent was to frighten and intimidate her, and he had succeeded.
With her hands shaking, she closed the laptop. The last week had indeed been a nightmare, and she had hoped that maybe it was coming to an end – but now Gia realized it was just beginning.
With the country becoming so politically polarized, there seemed to be no way to bring people together in a peaceful way that respected different opinions and ideas.
Feeling both terrified and angry, the young mother thought about her precious baby girl. What kind of world was Clarita going to grow up in? And when, in God’s name, would all of the hate finally stop?