Nearly two years after he was shot 10 times by a police officer while seeking help after a car crash, Jonathan Ferrell just became the latest victim of the smear tactic playbook. During the trial against Officer Randall Kerrick, a second officer involved in the fatal incident described Ferrell as “amped up” and in a “zombie state” — echoing rhetoric used to describe African Americans killed by cops and white supremacists in the past.
On Wednesday, after members of the jury watched 36 minutes of dashcam footage captured from Kerrick’s car, Officer Adam Neal testified that he told investigators Ferrell appeared to be in a “zombie state” and “amped up” on the night of his death. According to Neal, Kerrick fired four shots at Ferrell, who allegedly fell on top of the officer and attempted to crawl over him. Kerrick fired six more times, but the police say Ferrell kept crawling — at which point the cop fired two more shots.
The night he was killed in September 2013, Ferrell was involved in a severe car crash and walked to a nearby house for assistance. Instead of helping, the homeowner — who thought Ferrell was trying to break in — called the police. Chief Rodney Monroe of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department later claimed that when his officers arrived at the scene, Ferrell was acting “aggressively” and tried charging at Kerrick. Fearing for his life, Kerrick fired his weapon multiple times.
The officer was charged with voluntary manslaughter and faces 11 years in prison.
Comparing Ferrell to a “zombie” is straight out of a playbook law enforcement and media use repeatedly to defend cops’ actions. To help justify use of force, especially in cases where the victim was unarmed, officers paint victims as animalistic or monstrous. In one high profile example, Darren Wilson, who shot Mike Brown one year ago, likened the unarmed black teen to Hulk Hogan and described him as a “demon” who fought through the bullets.
The claim of supernatural strength crops up again and again in police reports of altercations. In a case later settled for $2.5 million, officers shot a bipolar 38-year-old grad student, claiming the man seemed to have “super-human-type strength” and was unaffected by beatings or pepper spray. Another black man, Dontre Hamilton, was shot 14 times by a police officer who claimed Hamilton seemed to be growing stronger with “super human strength,” and advanced through the bullets as if the officer were “shooting a BB gun.” Rodney King, whose brutal beating at the hands of Los Angeles cops sparked days of rioting in the 1990s, was described as a “Tasmanian devil” with “hulk-like strength.”
As Slate’s Jamelle Bouie previously pointed out, the “black brute” narrative stems from a long history of vilifying African Americans. At the height of the lynching era, victims were described as giants and beasts to justify violence and cruelty against them. Similar “super-predator” terms were used to describe drug addicts during the crack epidemic.
The character assassination of people killed by police comes in other forms as well. After Ferrell was killed, sources revealed that he may have consumed drugs and alcohol before the crash (a toxicology report proved otherwise). Officials reported that Sandra Bland had traces of marijuana in her system. Media reports also zeroed in on bags of marijuana found in Cincinnati shooting victim Samuel Dubose’s car.