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Merced police responsible for creating the violence at Merced’s Hookah Lounge

Inside the Chandelier Hookah Lounge & Smoke Shop on Main Street in Merced. Last Sunday, a contingent of police officers used force against patrons while searching for a burglary suspect who was not apprehended.
Inside the Chandelier Hookah Lounge & Smoke Shop on Main Street in Merced. Last Sunday, a contingent of police officers used force against patrons while searching for a burglary suspect who was not apprehended. The Merced Sun-Star

The United States has a policing problem. We have watched video after viral video of police officers using excessive force, sometimes causing death.

Now we’ve seen something similar in Merced.

Media, including the Merced Sun-Star, have reported the scene early last Sunday morning was “chaotic” and that a Merced police officer was assaulted as officers looked for a suspected robber at Chandelier’s Hookah Lounge on Main Street. While the Merced police department has stated an investigation is ongoing, there is no context that would justify the level of force we saw used against unarmed young men and women.

Cellphone footage from a security guard shows portions of the encounter. Immediately, we see an officer with a large “anti-riot” gun pointed at patrons, screaming at them to back up. Another officer uses a baton to force patrons toward the exit. People, hands up, are leaving the room. In the background we see an officer pushing a black man. The first officer – who was screaming and pointing his anti-riot gun – shoots the man being pushed backward, hitting him with a rubber projectile.

The shot creates fear and panic. The video cuts and starts again, showing more violence toward patrons, anger, fear and confusion.

The video was corroborated by multiple witnesses, including one black female UC Merced student. She said police first entered the building with flashlights. They left, and people resumed the event thinking the situation was over. But the police rushed back in with guns and Tasers drawn, causing the confusion and fear.

During all this, one officer slammed the student’s friend to the floor and sat on his neck. As the student began to protest, saying he can’t breathe, an officer shouted, stay back or I’ll shoot.

Imagine if this happened to you. Or to your daughter or son.

The MPD and media have already created a narrative that patrons (most of whom are black) caused a justified violent response. When the public reads or hears about an officer being assaulted, and five individuals being arrested, they tend to blame the people at the event. Escaping culpability is the MPD, which created unnecessary panic leading to use of excessive force.

What unfolded was premised on the attempt to apprehend a suspected burglar, who at the end of the night was not caught – making all the violence and use of excessive force for naught.

We must ask, would this have happened in another establishment where the patrons were white instead of mostly black? Watching the video, I would say, no.

Remember, law enforcement went in for one person and ended up beating, shooting, handcuffing and arresting a host of other people.

How did this happen?

In this case, law enforcement officials (conscious of it or not) entered with predetermined views about certain people as being criminal or potentially criminal. Their militaristic mindset is obvious in the video, as is their disregard for any “collateral damage” caused by their approach.

Enabling this behavior is a belief (and in some cases reality) that people of color – black people in particular – do not possess the social, economic and political capital to fight back (legally or otherwise) against police violence. When they do speak out, they are dismissed as angry protesters.

Making this incident worse is the fact that excessive force, police brutality and anti-blackness were subsequently normalized in media accounts.

Repeatedly, when a black person experiences police brutality or is killed, there are those who quickly defend the police, claiming the victims deserved what they got; that the police are just doing their jobs, or that they acted in self-defense.

As a community and nation, we need to rethink the belief that aggression, violence and dehumanization are appropriate responses in such situations.

The issue of police violence has shown itself in Merced, producing fear, anger and trauma. Our community needs to hold the police accountable so that this does not happen again.

Establishing a police accountability board might be a good start. We need to confront the deep-seated belief that lives of people of color do not matter. We don’t want a “next time,” in which the silver lining is “at least no one was killed.”

Kit Myers is an assistant professor of Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at UC Merced. He wrote this for the Merced Sun-Star.