The Perplexing Case of Kajieme Powell

August 25, 2014 Topic: SocietyDomestic Politics Region: United States Blog Brand: The Buzz

The Perplexing Case of Kajieme Powell

Many have speculated that Kajieme Powell's death was a "suicide by cop." Was it more than that?

A storm has been brewing in Ferguson, Missouri since the fatal shooting of Michael Brown—but not the storm you think. While the protests that have been taking place in Ferguson have been given extensive media coverage, and are a storm in and of themselves, a more subtle, political revolution may be fomenting.

The fatal shooting of Kajieme Powell may be indicative of this new revolution. Powell’s death is the second Missouri shooting to have gained nationwide attention this month for its controversial circumstances. Had his “suicide by cop” occurred outside of the context of the Ferguson protests, there would be less of a case to be made for the potential politicalness of Powell’s intentions. However, the fact that he committed his suicide a couple of weeks after Brown’s death and in the midst of the Ferguson protests raises the question of whether his suicide was simply an act of opportunity (perhaps he felt that law enforcement would be exponentially more trigger-happy during this time of protest and wanted to take advantage of that) or whether there were deeper, political motivations for his timing his suicide so soon after the Ferguson protests broke out.

The protests in Ferguson are born of objection to police brutality, excessive force and racial tensions. In Michael Brown’s case, some news outlets, such as the Huffington Post, have been focusing on the race issue. This may be a race issue, but it could just as easily be an economic class issue as well, or Brown may have indeed been aggressive towards the cop. Saying that Brown’s shooting was certainly motivated by racism, just because the cop is white and the victim is black is not a compelling argument. It is like saying a male boss who denies a female employee a raise is doing so because he hates women. It is also possible that she simply isn’t a good employee and doesn’t deserve a raise.

At any rate, there have been many issues raised by these shootings that pertain to law enforcement standard operating procedure, autopsy reports, white-on-black violence, protests and riot controlling—the list goes on. However, Powell’s case is distinctly different.  

Here is the full video of Kajieme Powell’s shooting taken by an eyewitness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ta2-7QJM78&bpctr=1408801705

After watching the footage, there is certainly ambiguity about what exactly was said between Powell and the officers, how close he actually was to them, if he was brandishing the knife and so on. And the media has been addressing these issues. However, far more interesting is Powell’s behavior leading up to the shooting.

From the beginning of the video, something about the situation seems odd. This was not your run-of-the-mill case of shoplifting. Here is what doesn’t add up: Powell exits the store—and doesn’t run or walk away. What does he do? He walks slowly to the edge of the sidewalk and places the two cans of soda he stole on the ground, side-by-side. The cans appear unopened. He didn’t drink them. Then he paces, seeming somewhat agitated, but not frantic. He paces around with his hand in his pocket (a pocket, we find out later, contained a knife). He knows that the police will be coming, and he waits for them. When the police arrive, they instruct him to take his hand out of his pocket, and he does—he shows them the knife. Now, the police have not started shooting at him yet. He walks towards the police, but doesn’t charge them. He deliberately climbs up on a cement ledge and into an enclosed area, away from police and just as he turns and walks towards them again, the police fire off their shots (at about 1:40 in the video). All the while, it is reported that he was saying, “Shoot me, shoot me already!”

It goes without saying that both these men’s deaths were tragic. However, in Powell’s case, we have been given a rare opportunity—to see a man’s last moments, minutes even, before his death. After analyzing the video, one might conclude that Powell may have been politically motivated. After likely being profiled his whole life, and perhaps feeling that law enforcement is too quick to jump to the conclusion that a seemingly low-income black man is up to no good, he may have purposely staged the whole incident with the intent of being shot to prove a point to American society, giving his suicide a political edge.

Revolutions and protests by suicide are nothing new to the world. There are the famous cases of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tibetan monks and Jan Palach, to name a few. But before being quick to say that Powell’s case is nothing like these cases, consider for a moment that political protests can indeed take many shapes and forms. For example, in April 2013, a man in Rome attempted suicide by cop by opening fire and yelling “Shoot me, shoot me!” Some suggested that the tense political climate in Italy motivated his actions.


Kajieme Powell may have had much deeper and complex reasons for acting the way he did. Automatically labeling him insane or simply suicidal seems too easy. Insanity is too often misused as a band-aid explanation for someone’s actions when we are too complacent to investigate a person’s motives any further. Just because we cannot imagine ourselves doing what Powell did, does not make the man insane. Conversely, he could have had political motivations and also been insane; the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. However, Powell’s actions seemed calculated, planned and intentional, not rushed, haphazard or random. Perhaps Powell did not plan on being political. But one should at least entertain the possibility that Powell intended to evoke a social revolution of another kind in his community.

Image: Flickr/Shawn Semmler/CC by 2.0