At a press conference on Tuesday, Andrew Womble, Pasquotank County, N.C., district attorney, announced that no cops would be charged for gunning down an unarmed Black man, Andrew Brown Jr., last month. Authorities had descended on Brown’s home to arrest him on a felony drug warrant. Womble claims that Brown “turned his car into a weapon,” though the brief body camera footage Womble bothered to release doesn’t show that to my eyes. What I saw was Brown attempting to drive away from the officers when they opened fire, killing him.
Womble called these actions “justified,” blamed Brown for his own murder, and then made the announcement that he would not be prosecuting the officers responsible for killing him. A federal investigation by the Department of Justice is ongoing.
Womble made a big deal about the car being a deadly weapon, and I’m sure white-wing legal commentators all around the country will harp on it. The problem is that Womble gave up on his own best legal argument later in the press conference. In defending the officers’ actions, he said that he didn’t care which way the car was going: “I don’t care what direction you’re going—forward, backwards, sideways. I don’t care if you’re stationary.” Since I am not infected with whatever disease makes white prosecutors like Womble act like this, it falls to me to point out that an unarmed Black man in a stationary vehicle is not a deadly threat. Nor is an unarmed Black man in a moving vehicle necessarily a deadly threat. Trying to escape arrest is illegal, but it’s not a capital crime.
Of course, such basic laws of constitutional interpretation and particle physics don’t apply to Black men the cops have decided to kill. And Womble just explained in his own words how a white prosecutor can justify any police murder of a Black civilian if he feels like it.
Womble—a Republican initially appointed to his post by then–North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory (a Republican best known for eviscerating civil rights and antidiscrimination laws)—is a textbook example of why the police get away with murder. Our system allows local district attorneys like Womble to decide if killing Black people is OK, and when they say “of course,” there’s little anyone can do about it.
Lawyers for Brown’s family have asked Womble to recuse himself from the case, just as Hennepin County DA Michael Freeman did during the investigation into the murder of George Floyd. The lawyers (among them, civil rights attorneys Benjamin Crump, Harry Daniels, and Bakari Sellers) made the request in light of Womble’s “close relationships” with all of the officers involved in the shooting. But Womble refused. Again, there was nothing legally that anybody could do to force the cops’ buddy off the case involving those cops.
In the end, Womble didn’t even tell Brown’s family about his decision not to prosecute their loved one’s murderers before announcing it to the press. As if the permissiveness of police violence wasn’t enough, Womble decided to add a final pinch of disrespect.
This is where I’m supposed to say that the solution is to vote Womble out of office. Indeed, Pasquotank County is a “winnable” district for a Democratic prosecutor who actually gives a damn. Of course, the Democrats would have to run somebody who promised to rein in police brutality—something all too few Democratic candidates have, historically, been willing to do. But if such a person could be found, they would certainly stand a chance. Pasquotank county is only 57 percent white, which is not enough of a margin for the white majority, which enjoys seeing Black people shot to death by their cops, to vote their guy into public office without a fight. The county, by a razor-thin margin enabled by the 38 percent of its population that’s Black, went for Joe Biden in the last presidential election.
It would be great if Democratic prosecutors were willing to stop police violence and if Democratic voters could bring the same energy they bring to federal elections to their local races. There should be at least one major party who cares.
But, as I sit in the wake of another act of state-sponsored terrorism against Black people, the ubiquitous “vote them out” argument feels a bit small. Yes, we should vote out people like Womble. But Black people deserve justice regardless of who is in power.
It’s not enough to say, “Elections have consequences.” Of course, they do. But one of those consequences should not be, “If your side loses, our side will refuse to prosecute those who kill you.” A system that habitually and cyclically spits out people like Womble is entirely broken. Terrorism, and the permissiveness thereof, is not an acceptable consequence of losing a local race for DA.
As long as the system operates like this, as long as we allow local white prosecutors, operating at their sole discretion, to determine which acts of police murder are “justified,” we will never get anywhere. There will always be cops willing to kill if they know they have guys like Andrew Womble protecting them.