In 2015, Otto Warmbier ventured from China to North Korea via a tour company that advertised “budget tours to destinations your mother wants you to stay away from.”
While in the authoritarian state, the University of Virginia student was accused of attempting to steal a propaganda sign that likely read “Let’s arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong Il patriotism!” from a hotel, allegedly as a souvenir. As a result, Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor, but was returned to the United States in a coma following 17 months of imprisonment. Warmbier died six days after returning to his home from complications due to an apparent severe neurological injury he suffered after only two months in captivity.
In a written statement offered just hours after his death, President Trump said that there “is nothing more tragic for a parent than to lose a child in the prime of life” and condemned the “brutality of the North Korean regime” for his death.
Trump’s interest in Warmbier seemed genuine. According to a White House insider, he would often ask his briefers, “What are we doing for that kid in North Korea?” Trump also sought to speak with Warmbier’s parents several times, although they declined those requests. Trump even approved a mission to send a diplomat and two doctors to Pyongyang to demand Warmbier’s release when U.S. officials learned he was in a coma earlier this month. He stated, “Otto’s fate deepens my Administration’s determination to prevent such tragedies from befalling innocent people at the hands of regimes that do not respect the rule of law or basic human decency.”
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The North Korean state effectively killing Warmbier, a civilian, is a tragedy. Trump clearly understands this. Yet he refuses to see the similar tragedies in Black people being killed by the U.S. state. It is ironic, yet unsurprising, that the president whose campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again” is quick to condemn a case of brutality abroad, but is silent when U.S. citizens are being routinely shot and killed on our soil by the very people supposedly sworn to protect and serve.
Trump has a history of not only being indifferent toward the killing of Black people but in favor of it. In 1989, five Black and Latino teenagers were accused of raping a white woman in Central Park. Donald Trump responded by taking out $85,000 worth of full-page newspapers ads calling for the return of the death penalty.
He obliquely referred to the teens as “muggers and murderers” who “should be executed for their crimes.” Even after DNA evidence cleared the teenagers of any wrongdoing, Trump still apparently believed them to be guilty. The anti-Blackness of Trump’s actions and beliefs surrounding this case cannot be ignored. Donald Trump the civilian in 1989 and Donald Trump the president of the United States are one and the same.
On the road to the White House, candidate Trump spoke specifically about violence in communities of color. In a presidential debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump declared that “African Americans and Hispanics are living in hell. You walk down the street and you get shot.” He also matter-of-factly stated that “African-American communities are being decimated by crime.” This rhetoric focused solely on intraracial crime, absolved the police of their role in the rise in violence, and put the onus on untrained civilians instead of trained law enforcement.
Furthermore, the president’s apparent solution to the violence that is “decimating African-American communities” is to send in “the Feds.” In a tweet specifically about the violence in Chicago, Trump revealed that his understanding of the causes of violence in communities of color is limited at best, and implied that an increased police presence would make people safer. Yet at no point did he mention any of the victims of Chicago’s overpolicing. The families of Rekia Boyd, a 22-year-old Black woman shot and killed by a Chicago off-duty officer, or Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old Black child who was fatally shot by a member of the Chicago Police Department, for example, would probably disagree with the commander in chief.
Trump’s pro-police, anti-Black rhetoric projects beyond the campaign trail and the Twittersphere into the real world.
His first month in office was the deadliest for police brutality since 2015, with 105 people being killed by the police. In January alone, Trump had 105 chances to publicly reach out to the family members of an American slain by the police. Trump had 105 chances to write a statement offering condolences while condemning the perpetrators of deadly violence. Trump had 105 chances to rightly state those who died at the hands of the police had lives that mattered. Instead, during National Police Week, Trump described the police as “the Thin Blue Kine between civilization and chaos” and lamented that the police had been “subject to unfair defamation and vilification“—a view he does not extend to Black Americans.
With Trump’s uncritical praise of the police, Black people are even more vulnerable. Trump has shown that he will not offer the same empathy for Black victims of violence as the previous administration. The new administration has ushered in an overt disregard for violence against Black Americans in more tangible ways as well. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a Trump nominee, ordered Justice Department officials to review consent decree agreements made with troubled police departments to address the police brutality that disproportionately affects communities of color. If the decrees are still in place after the review, it is unlikely a Sessions-led Department of Justice will enforce them.
While the branches of government are separate, the president has the far-reaching influence of the bully pulpit. This influence has the potential to have a regressive impact on the judicial and legislative branches, leading to a proliferation of “Blue Lives Matter” laws passed by lawmakers and reinforced by the judicial branch. The most powerful man in the country is an existential threat to Black people and an exemplification of a society that will continue to question the worth of Black life.
When a Black person is killed by the police, their background is scrutinized publicly, an attitude perpetuated by Trump and others’ uncritical support for law enforcement. Did they resist? Have they been in trouble with the law before? Have they ever smoked marijuana? Did they post pictures displaying their middle finger on social media? Black victims of brutality are blamed for their own deaths if they are imperfect, if they happen to be human.
Advocates for police reform often react to the unfair character assassination by highlighting the most respectable aspects of the victim’s life. Sandra Bland had a college degree. Philando Castile was beloved by the children who attended the school where he was a cafeteria worker. Eric Garner was a doting father, grandfather, and former horticulturist.
In an article written shortly after the death of Trayvon Martin, his father describes Trayvon as “a beautiful child” who was “raised to have manners and be respectful.” The article goes on to say that Trayvon still enjoyed going to Chuck E. Cheese, baking cookies as he babysat, and listening to gospel music. All things a dad who misses his son would want the world to know, but this defense tactic is counterproductive as it further dehumanizes Black people. Creating the “perfect victim” further perpetuates the stereotype that Black people are inherently guilty—a burden that Otto Warmbier never had to confront, from society or the White House.
The president of the United States, and most of the public, acknowledged Warmbier’s wrongful death and valuable life despite any mistakes he made while alive. What happened to Otto Warmbier after his death offers an important antithesis to the Black experience in the United States—an experience that is underscored by a deprivation of empathy and justice.