Image by Eugene Police Department
On 11 January 2019, two police officers responded to a custody dispute at Cascade Middle School in Eugene, Oregon. Charlie Landeros, a thirty-year-old Army veteran, had failed to inform the school that he shared custody of his daughter with his former wife. Asked to leave the school in order to avert a confrontation with his former wife when she arrived, Landeros refused and shouted at his daughter to go. While being hustled from the building by Officer Aaron Johns, Landeros drew a gun and fired twice at Officer Steve Timm, discharging at least one shot in the direction of the school. As Johns and Landeros grappled, Timm fatally shot Landeros in the temple.
“It is unknown why Charles Landeros chose to use deadly force in this circumstance, but he clearly had no regard for the lives of the police officers or the students or staff present, including his child,” concluded Lane County District Attorney Patricia W. Perlow. “Officer Timm saved the life of Officer Johns, himself and perhaps many others, given the number of rounds Charles Landeros had loaded in his weapon.” (Landeros wielded a Taurus 9mm pistol, modified to hold twenty rounds.)
It may not immediately be clear what is heroic about Charlie Landeros—why one would want to buy a Charlie Landeros T-shirt, attend a concert in his honor or post calls for the blood of Officers Johns and Timm on social media. But, for those enacting a sort of reductio ad absurdum of identity politics, that Landeros was a person of color, preferred they/them pronouns and organized anti-rape workshops is enough to transform his absurd and unnecessary death into a racial martyrdom.
The Civil Liberties Defense Center, a Eugene-based legal activist group, has been at the forefront of a push to canonize Landeros. The day after the shooting, the CLDC issued its first statement, promoting the hashtag #LoveAndRage4Charlie and paradoxically announcing that “the details of this homicide are still largely unknown.” Five days later, the CLDC posted to Facebook: “Charlie Landeros is forever … EPD stole your life! But you live forever! We carry your name in love and struggle!”
Even after body camera footage of the event emerged on 24 January, Landeros’ halo remained mostly undimmed. To concede that the situation was, at least, ambiguous was impossible in principle: every police officer is a white supremacist, and every non-white person killed by a police officer is a murder victim. To consider or even be aware of the specifics of the event was unnecessary. Remarkably, the official version of the incident—that Landeros instigated a gunfight at a middle school—has gone mostly undisputed. The question is whether Landeros’ status as a non-white, non-binary person and activist is sufficient to turn a failed shooting into an act of heroism.
“Charlie Landeros was murdered by white supremacists armed and authorized by the city of Eugene, OR and the body cam footage proves it,” tweeted University of Oregon graduate student Taylor McDougal. “No one is safe, especially not QPoC [queer people of color], as long as police continue to patrol our communities.”
Predictably, anti-woke commentators were not always above celebrating a school shooting in order to trigger the libs. “The world will not miss Charlie Landeros,” writes anti-feminist blogger Slavicmate. “He was a perfect example of the beta-male soyboy. Ironically, the last thing that Charlie saw before being shot to death was the thing he hated most, a gun, his own GUN! LOL!” The fact that Landeros died wearing a T-shirt reading Smash the patriarchy and chill has been a source of particular hilarity for some.
According to the CLDC, the shooting demonstrates that “the experience of dealing with police in America is different for whites and nonwhites”—in other words, that a white man who conducted himself like Landeros would probably not have been killed. Any white reader is free to test this hypothesis by opening fire on the next available police officer. Otherwise, one must concede that Landeros’ skin color was not the decisive variable.
Had Landeros been a white man with a crew cut, it might have been easier to interpret his actions as a preempted spree shooting. His military service might have reminded us of fellow veterans-turned-active-shooters Charles Whitman, Bradley William Stone and Lee Harvey Oswald. Conflict with his former wife might have been seen as a psychological stressor that caused him to crack. Facebook comments by Landeros about killing pigs might strike us as overlooked red flags sent up by a dangerous misfit. We might even have time to consider the trauma Landeros surely inflicted on his daughter and her classmates.
The essence of personal racism is an inability to see individuals as other than interchangeable units of a larger racial group. For activists seeking to instrumentalize this shooting, there appears to be no difference between Charlie Landeros and, say, Oscar Grant III, a black man who was fatally shot in the back by a police officer for no clear reason. Landeros and Grant are simply two dead black men, as interchangeable as two eggs in a carton.
Within even the most bizarre expressions of identity politics, a grain of rational concern can usually be found. No doubt many of the people who will attend the Love And Rage For Charlie benefit concert are motivated by an authentic concern with racism. The CLDC’s initial statement raises a number of wholly sane points—that non-whites are statistically more likely to be killed by police and that there is not yet an official national database of police shootings—amongst various tenuous or inaccurate claims about the Landeros homicide.
Reasons for alarm at American policing methods abound. According to a study by the Guardian, there were fewer fatal shootings by Australian police between 1992–2011 than there were fatal shootings by American police during the month of March 2015. German police are usually responsible for about six or seven fatal shootings per year, compared to 998 fatal shootings by US police in 2018. But when these facts are carried away on a torrent of obvious distortions and self-promoting histrionics, onlookers can easily wonder if the whole issue hasn’t been blown out of proportion.
The CLDC, which is currently accepting donations “in memory of Charlie Landeros,” has vowed to open an investigation into the district attorney’s conclusion that the shooting was a permissible act of self-defense. CLDC Executive Director Lauren Regan writes:
We know that issues involving a person’s child are already tense and delicate situations with the potential to escalate. We also know that people of color are disproportionately the victims of police violence. We know that Charlie, as an activist against police brutality and a descendant of Mexican and Filipino parents, was aware of this. We do not know, however, what was going through Charlie’s mind when they were shoved out of the door in front of their child and pinned to the wall. We also do not know why Officer Johns felt the need to aggressively shove Charlie through the door and against the wall as Charlie appeared to exit the school.
Energizing controversy around the shooting for as long as possible conveys obvious short-term benefits—namely, monetary donations and increased publicity for activist organizations. The longer-term disadvantages of this reflexive canonization of a school shooter, however, are equally obvious. For the American mainstream—the 85 percent who believe that race shouldn’t get an individual admitted to college, let alone bestow him or her with a license to kill—the insistence that Landeros is a victim must seem strange indeed. The Cult of Saint Charlie is poised to do injury to activists with reasonable concerns about police conduct.