“Get down,” Pat said to the room. I saw him lingering by the windows of our third floor office, which overlooked F Street in downtown San Diego. I wasn’t sure what he meant. The people nearest to the windows were already ducking under their desks.
“Get down!” he said.
Then I heard the popping and knew he wasn’t kidding or overreacting. We all dropped to the floor. Suddenly the idea of an open plan office seemed immensely stupid. I wondered how many cubicle walls it would take to stop a bullet.
Someone said it was a police shootout, as if that explained something. All I could think of was how indiscriminate bullets are. They go in the direction they’re sent by flawed, terrified people. And they rip through anything that gets in the way.
Then several seconds passed with no more pops. A few of my coworkers stood up and looked around. From her desk near the window, one said, “Only come look if you really want to see. There’s a guy lying there with a lot of blood.”
I hesitated. My instinct was to rush to the window and see what was happening, but if you can’t do anything to help, isn’t it just voyeurism? I understood the urge to rubberneck at a public scene, but that didn’t make it any less indecent.
To not look, though, felt cowardly. People get shot in America every day and when the gunshots were on my doorstep, I didn’t want to look away because it wasn’t my problem.
Each step I took toward the windowsill revealed a little more, like watching a horror movie through the cracks between your fingers. I let myself see feet, then legs, and finally, a man lying on his back in the street. Jeans, sneakers, a T-shirt. He was black with long braids and three or four cops were gravitating around him. The man lying on the ground had two gunshot wounds to his chest.
Immediately, police cars swarmed from all directions, but I couldn’t see an ambulance anywhere. It seemed to take forever for an officer to kneel down and touch the man. Finally, a couple of them started putting on latex gloves. They cut his T-shirt open. I wanted everything to move faster. I wanted to see the urgency I felt in the movements of the people on the scene. The man’s body was still but I saw his head turn a little. When I glanced at the intersection where F Street met 6th, it was already blocked off with caution tape and police cruisers.
Two or three cops were now crowded over the injured man. I noticed a handgun on the ground about five feet from him. It was big and black with a brown handle and none of the police officers were touching it. If he had a gun, this wasn’t like the news, which had been dominated by footage of one unarmed black person after another being killed by police. If he was armed, maybe there was a legitimate reason for the shots. A stupid, tragic reason, but sometimes that’s the reason you get.
I swept the scene with my eyes and kept coming back to the gun, trying to see something of use. The footage of Walter Scott being shot in the back by a South Carolina cop played in my head. It felt like the only useful thing I could do was watch the scene and look for anything amiss, to look for deception. In the moment, though, it didn’t occur to me to take out my phone and record. Over and over again, my eyes darted to the gun on the ground, but no one touched it.
Behind me, I heard co-workers talk about what they saw and didn’t see, what happened or appeared to have happened. These were the minutes when facts and guesses and feelings are thrown in a blender to create some kind of story. It was already hard to separate what I had seen from what I’d heard. There were many “Oh my God”s. Many police cars.
“I’m going to Snapchat this,” said someone behind me. Because I was still looking out the window, I don’t think anyone saw the disgust on my face. I wanted to yell at her and ask what the hell was wrong with her, but I didn’t.
Outside, a paramedic had arrived with his kit. He pulled out a defibrillator with patches extending from it like tentacles. A cop began pumping on the bleeding man’s torso, leaning over and dropping his weight on him again and again. The black man’s chest sunk several inches and the flesh of his stomach rippled outward from the point of impact.
A bulky officer in a dark green vest was standing over the handgun on the ground. The woman next to me motioned to shooter being led away from the scene. I couldn’t make out who she was pointing at.
There was surprisingly little blood. It was dark, but less substantial than I’d imagined. It stained the injured man’s ripped-open shirt a darker blue. Another officer or medic slashed at his jeans with a knife, cutting all the way down his left pant leg, exposing black mesh shorts underneath. The man lay on his back, his head pointed like a compass at our office building. His face because was hidden by the men leaning over him. Two cops swiftly traded places to pass on the duty of chest compressions. A medic ran an IV into the injured man’s shin and held up the bag of fluid. I looked again at the gun.
Finally, an ambulance pulled into the blocked off intersection. Its back doors opened and a stretcher came out. One of the medics ran ahead with a bright orange backboard. Silently, I thanked him for running.
I wanted to see the injured man move, but I also wanted to observe everything else. I wanted to be useful. I kept looking back at the gun because it was the only thing I could think of that the police might manipulate.
Having moved him onto the backboard, one officer pulled the civilian’s hands together over his torso. Another cop produced a roll of tan tape. It looked like the kind you might use when shipping packages. He taped the man’s wrists together in a shiny figure eight. I fumed at the indignity.
Once they lifted him onto the stretcher, someone started chest compressions again but the rhythm fell apart as they wheeled him toward the ambulance. An officer heaved over the man’s chest a few more times. I wondered if it was for show.
As the ambulance pulled away, I looked back down at the scene. There was blood and paper and plastic packaging from the defibrillator patches. There was one shoe. It must have come off when they ripped the jeans from his body. The incident left an orbit of debris and at the edge of it, there was the gun that no one had touched since I’d reached the window. The officers moved away. A gust of wind shifted some of the paper and plastic and I wanted to stop it, put things back where they were.
An officer at one of the nearest police cruisers produced a cylindrical container of disinfectant wipes, like the ones I use to clean my kitchen and bathroom. The cops needed to wipe away any blood that got on them, in case of disease. A crowd of onlookers had gathered quickly, but they stayed on their side of the yellow tape.
Shortly after the ambulance pulled away, someone in the office found a bottle of whiskey and people settled on the couch to come down from the adrenaline.
Returning to my desk, I searched for news on the shooting, but the local coverage had little to offer.
Two desks away, my coworker Marshall was speaking into his headset. He’s frequently on the phone or in webinars with customers, demonstrating how to use our software. But the call he was on now was about the shooting. He was recounting what he saw, presumably to the police. I half listened, afraid of what I’d hear. But as Marshall talked, I heard him call the man who was shot “the victim” and “the gentleman.” I wondered if this was his polite customer service demeanor on auto-pilot, but then I decided I didn’t care. I was just relieved to hear that someone else hadn’t assumed the man deserved what he got.
Two hours later, at about four o’clock, the police allowed people in our building to leave in small groups.
I went home and baked banana bread. I don’t usually bake, but I needed to keep my hands busy. I didn’t go looking for more news until my roommate came home and asked how I was doing.
The local news story I found called the gunshot wounds “fatal.” The man had been pronounced dead at the hospital.
When they wheeled the man toward the ambulance, I’d suspected he was already gone, but there was hope. That night at home, I wondered how differently I would have felt if he had survived. It would still be horrific, just one more instance of state-sanctioned carnage. It would still devastate the man, his family, and so many others, but at least it wouldn’t be final.
Sometimes I see people I don’t know and make up stories about why they might be sad. I see an elderly man eating lunch by himself and I assume his wife has died and that’s why he eats alone. But I can deflect these thoughts by reminding myself that I don’t know anything about the stranger. Maybe the old man has been hosting close friends for the past week and wants a quiet day to himself. Maybe he is on his lunch break from a job he loves.
But there’s no uncertainty for the man who was shot outside my office. Hope only lasts until you know how things end.
The next day, I had to walk by the scene to get to work. The paper and debris was gone, but there was still a visible blood stain. It was a darker blackness than the asphalt. Did they not think his blood worth cleaning up? I thought. But then I wondered if it was better that it hasn’t been scrubbed away so quickly. Maybe this street shouldn’t look the way it did last week. Maybe we should have to walk by and see the stains every day.
There were no flowers or candles for the man.
Inside, I settled at my desk and checked the updated news story. The man’s name was Lamontez Jones. He was 39 years old. In Virginia, there was a warrant for his arrest on an armed robbery charge.
The stories said that he’d run from police when they tried to engage him over disturbing traffic near the mall a couple of blocks from my office. They said that, on Sixth Street, he pulled out what appeared to be a large pistol. It said the cops opened fire, shooting Lamontez Jones once when he was on his feet and again after he fell, because he allegedly sat up and pointed the weapon at them.
At the end of the article, it said the weapon was found to be a replica.
A news story also noted that this was San Diego’s second fatal police shooting that year where officers had failed to activate their body cameras, as they are supposed to when making what they call “enforcement related contacts.” They had opened fire on the previous victim because he had been holding something shiny.
It was a pen.
That afternoon, I sat in a conference room, where the company had arranged for a trauma counselor to come talk. When we told her the gun was fake, she brought up the possibility of “suicide by police.” I hadn’t heard the term before, but the meaning was easy enough to guess. It is hard to think of any other reason a black man would point a fake gun at an American police officer, if that is what happened. But police claimed Sandra Bland committed suicide, too.
People take turns, offering their feelings and thoughts in the hopes someone will say “me too.” I was surprised to hear that some of my coworkers were stuck on those few seconds of gunfire. I had been scared in those moments, but as soon as I saw Lamontez Jones, all my fear was for him. It had been very easy for me to accept my safety as returned.
One person said they saw his face twisted in pain. The counselor said our feelings for him were normal. As if to explain why we would care about him, she notes that everyone was once a baby. Months later, I can’t shake the implication that the fully-grown Lamontez Jones wasn’t deserving of our compassion.
Before the shooting, I had thought about how watching a black son grow up must come with mounting dread. To know that every inch he grows makes him a bigger target, makes it easier for people to say they are afraid of him and hurt him with impunity.
I cried for 39-year-old Lamontez Jones, not for the baby he once was. I cried for the man lying in the street knowing his only chance for survival was in the hands of those who had shot him.
In the meeting with the counselor, a young woman my age told the room that she had grown up in a neighborhood where a shooting like this was not such an anomaly. She felt guilty, as if our safety made our grief invalid. I understood. I felt that way, too.
“What right do we have to be upset?” she said tearfully.
Someone who works in recruiting talked about doing something for Lamontez Jones, maybe buying flowers.
“Yes!” I said. “I was just thinking that.” I had worried people would think it weird that I wanted to.
The counselor assured us that everything we were feeling was normal.
After we left the conference room, though, the spell of shared grief was broken, at least for me. I sat at my desk, unable to concentrate, and resented anyone who looked like they could.
The October sun was setting when I walked by the bloodstain that evening. I’d packed up my things and wordlessly left the office a few minutes early. I walked past the parking garage and turned into the flower shop on Market Street. I’d never been inside it before. I never buy flowers. I looked around, a little embarrassed because I didn’t know what I was doing and I didn’t want to explain. I picked up a single white flower and took it to the cashier. She wrapped it in brown paper and added some of what she called “filler,” little sprigs of flowers that made my purchase look more substantial.
I left the shop and crossed the street back toward the office. Marshall passed me on his way to the garage.
“That for me?” he joked.
“Yep,” I said, forcing a small laugh.
I was a block away from the office when my coworker, Liz, texted me asking if I had left. I wrote back, “I went to get a flower from the shop on Market.”
“are you doing that alone? I’d totally love to lay a flower down with you when you come back”
I had just reached the corner where Sixth Street meets F. I told Liz I was already there. I felt foolish and selfish for not even asking if anyone wanted to come. I had assumed that no one cared and everyone else was back to business as usual.
I looked around for somewhere to put the flower. The lamppost nearest the bloodstain seemed like the only place. I fumbled to lean the wannabe bouquet against the pole.
I couldn’t think of anything else to do. I wondered how quickly the marker would disappear. I took a picture on my phone and sent it to Liz.
She answered, “Love it. That’s awesome, thanks for doing that.”
For months, I have been trying to write about the shooting. I have tried to find something worth saying. I could say that it’s proof that police can kill a black man anywhere, even in a nice neighborhood in San Diego. But that was not news to me and it shouldn’t be news to anyone else.
I could say that watching Lamontez Jones die was traumatic. That for weeks afterward my mood was affected. That I would disconnect from reality and snap back to attention, like when you didn’t get enough sleep. That several days later I had a loud and animated crying fit, alone in my living room.
I could say that I was happy at the small signs that my coworkers were not okay. Knowing other people were upset didn’t just make me feel less alone, but it gave me a little bit of hope, because if we can still hurt, we can still care. I’m so afraid of people not caring.
I wanted to write about that day because most people will never have heard Lamontez Jones’ name. The injustice of this death was not sufficiently obvious and senseless to attract any more that a few local news pieces.
According to the Washington Post’s tally, police killed 38 unarmed black people in 2015. Another five black men with “toy weapons” were killed, including Lamontez Jones. Much of the country can name a few victims of police brutality: Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and more recently Terence Crutcher. But they are the exceptions. There are far more people like Lamontez Jones, whose stories didn’t gain traction because there were no cameras rolling or they had a criminal history or we found some other reason to justify it.
For every police shooting or killing that haunts your television and social media, remember how many you’re not hearing about. Remember that it took extraordinary effort and evidence and luck just to get you to notice. Remember that a person doesn’t have to be a saint to be sacred.
Remember Lamontez Jones.