Tony Timpa Can’t Breathe

This blog is about the death of Tony Timpa and what his example tells us about lethal police action. Tony died at the hands of officers Dallas Police Department. It took three years for attorneys to drag out the DPD the officer’s body cam footage. This video below is disturbing to watch. But I think you should. Tony begs the officers to stop holding him down. He is struggling to breathe.

Timpa, who was mentally ill, was suffocated with a cop’s knee on his back. Erik Heipt, a Seattle lawyer who specializes in cases of in-custody deaths, said this about this case: “It’s just basic science: People can be essentially suffocated to death when they’re lying on their stomachs in a prone position and there’s weight on their backs compressing their chest and diaphragm.” Whites must be privileged, since information like this caused the public to demand police reform. Only it didn’t. Not all lives matter. Tony’s life didn’t.  

I am sharing this video to illustrate the problem with these types of police techniques. We need to ban this and similar techniques in policing. But I am also sharing this video and writing these words out of fear that we cannot deal effectively with the problem until we bring the largest number of people into a movement to control the policing apparatus. I am sharing this video and writing these words because Timpa was white and the activist in the streets and the media covering him would leave you with the distinct impression that there are no Tony Timpas. As most, maybe a few. But the truth is there are lot of dead white men as a result of police encounters. In fact, most victims of lethal police action are white men. Their lives matter. It is not racist to say that. As a humanist, I must say it.

I have been troubled by the fact that there was so little public outcry about the Timpa killing. It’s not that the media didn’t cover it. That officers mocked Timpa as he died made it newsworthy. “Tony, we bought you new shoes for the first day of school,” one officer can be heard saying. There was talk of waffles as encouragement for him to wake up. See, Tony was overweight. The police later rationalized their talk as a “tactic.”

After a couple of days of reporting on the story it disappeared down the memory hole and everybody forgot about Tony. I didn’t. I can’t. Tony’s death haunts me.

I know we’re not supposed to think about this, let alone say it, but the problem of cops killing men is not really a race thing. While most men killed by the cops are white, controlling for the level of neighborhood crime and violence, white men are not proportionally more likely to be killed by the cops. The media never report this. Their agenda is to reinforce a myth that black men are disproportionately killed by cops and always for racist reasons. A white corpse is inconvenient to such a narrative. We should talk about all the victims of lethal police action. But those shouting “No justice no peace” only care when the victims are black. At least that’s the message I’m receiving. You know what happens if you suggest that all lives matter. Black lives matter. As if they didn’t.

Omission of inconvenient fact disturbs me not only as a social scientist, but also at a moral level. To say that some corpses weigh more on the scales than others sacrifices morality on the altar of politics. In this case, racial politics. It’s not that I want white corpses to weigh more. I want equal treatment for all. I worry that racializing the problem functions to make it difficult to move people about the problem of police violence. I worry about this because I want to save lives. There will be more Tony Timpas—and that means more George Floyds—if we don’t address this problem from the standpoint of reforming the police for the good of the country.

What George Floyd and Tony Timpa both had going against them is that they were working class people in trouble with the law. Making George Floyd’s death only about racism obscures the problem at hand. Racism didn’t kill Tony. But Tony is still a human being.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

2 thoughts on “Tony Timpa Can’t Breathe”

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