How can you make amends: Words for Clyde Kerr III

This discusses suicide, sexual assault/rape, and racist violence.

In Lafayette, Louisiana, on February 1st, Deputy Clyde Kerr III killed himself after recording videos about the institution of policing’s irreparable brokenness and racism and so was consciously choosing to kill himself in protest. He said it’s a demonic system, nested inside a bigger demonic system, to which the 43-year old had also been exposed on his Army deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.

US veterans kill themselves frequently. There are a few common narratives surrounding this, often confined to the existing discourses of glorifying the military. One of the most popular is that combat veterans cannot bear their post-traumatic stress. Another is that after spending years in a tight-knit, hyper-structured, and insular organisation, veterans are maladjusted to civilian life. The Department of Veterans Affairs’ constant bungling of the epidemic make it seem as if it’s tacitly accepted as tragic collateral to American imperial exploits abroad.

There is certainly truth in these narratives, but I think there’s a lot more to it, and narratives that do not uphold the military-industrial complex (such as the suicides of military sexual trauma victims) do not get enough consideration. I read several accounts of Kerr’s suicide and waded into their comment sections. His death inspired condolences from Blue Lives Matter supporters and white supremacists who lionize law enforcement in the same way popular American consciousness does for the military. His colleagues from his time as both soldier and sheriff eulogised him as a man of honor, duty, and discipline. He was also mourned by Black Lives Matter and left-wing sympathizers, who lamented the tragic loss of a good person who could have channelled his sense of service and insider knowledge to transforming the system, and bemoaned the lack of mental health care in the US. Both parties, however, seemed to draw a consensus that the man was not of sound mind. Kerr anticipated this, though, and said that by calling him crazy, “it will allow a dialogue not to be started.”

He went on: “It needs to be talked about. This is insane, about to go off the rails. I’m not doing it anymore. To continue to think that we can continue doing what we’ve been doing, hitting the status quo, no. No. No whatsoever. This is wrong, it needs to be resisted against, and you have an obligation and a duty to do that. If you’re not, you’re complacent. I would be complacent if I continued doing what I am doing and not saying anything. I’ve tried to bring things to people’s attention, little small things, but it’s a system. I’m a small cog in in this whole big machine. I’m jumping off.”

I think Kerr’s suicide may reflect a thought processes or logic embedded in his mind during his military service. I did not serve in the Army, but I was in the Marine Corps for 4 years, and like Kerr, went to Afghanistan. I do not think he was crazy. I think he was suffering immensely, in a way scarily familiar to me. Military training instils that inevitably, people sometimes will die for a mission to succeed. I don’t think Kerr’s suicide was necessarily an aberration from his military and law enforcement training, but a warped progression of it. I think it was his reaction to accepting his mission as a law enforcement officer was based on brutal lies, and that the system he worked within would prefer him, a Black man, without any power. But he didn’t have an alternate, tangible mission to embark on with a different, better team. To jump off the machine meant jumping off everything.

In the military, individual servicemembers’ lives are devalued, amalgamated into a whole system, and sometimes sacrificed. This sentiment was first really entrenched in me during the six-month infantry training second lieutenants attend in Quantico, Virginia. I was there in 2012/2013, when sexual assault in the military was routinely in news headlines. We were begrudgingly taught about sexual harassment in the workplace and channels for reporting assault. Victim-blaming was pervasive, vulgar jokes about women were commonplace, and it was largely understood that a woman reporting a rape (she asked for it) by a brother-in-arms was an administrative nightmare and hindrance to “unit cohesion.”

Death was used a teaching device, alternatively to desensitize us (we watched a video, with little context, of terrorists beheading someone), to embolden us, and to further the Marine Corps mythology that all “devil dogs” are noble warriors who fearlessly and unequivocally fight for good in “every clime and place.” We were trained hard to avoid casualties, but sometimes, as instructors reminded us cavalierly, Marines will die or get hurt in missions, shot by the enemy or blown up by improvised explosive devices. “Sometimes you send Marines on a mission knowing not all of them will make it back.” We were not taught about war crimes, torture, or widespread rape in combat zones committed by our predecessors, or the flimsy justifications on which modern American wars are predicated. We were taught about the heroes who threw themselves on grenades to protect their comrades. We were not taught that our presence in certain parts of the world only destabilizes them further, or that for the benefit of contractors’ profit margins, we were not legally allowed to maintain some equipment ostensibly to protect us on convoys and patrols.

Each training company of second lieutenants was organised into platoons led by a captain. The six platoon commanders in my company were mostly combat veterans with military occupational specialities like infantry officers and combat engineers. The ribbons on their chests indicated recent deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, firefights, Purple Hearts, valorism. These men, when sober, maintained swagger or stoicism. When partaking in the Marine Corps tradition of binge drinking, they would sometimes hysterically cry about the Marines who died in combat under their charge.

In the heart of anyone who kills themselves are mysteries and burdens beyond comprehension. I don’t know anything about Clyde Kerr III’s inner life, but he alluded to having been repeatedly exposed to trauma. Watching his video, however, I recognised the efficient, clipped speech of pragmatic people with a bias for action drawn to military service, who appraise situations unemotionally, do not tolerate complacency, and sometimes run short on patience.

Kerr loved his job as a cop. “Loved it. Loved every aspect of it, finally found something I could call my own and made it my own.” I recognised in his incredulity the double heartbreak of someone who joined an organisation thinking he was doing good but found the organisation is not only anathema to its “core values” but also actively hates people like him within and beyond it. All four years in uniform, I felt a furious betrayal that woman-haters, or at least men who resented working with women, were over-represented in the organisation I spent years preparing to join. I felt like a fool for submitting to its indoctrination and rigors. Beyond my personal incongruity with the Marines, my deployment to Afghanistan was the false coda to a massive grift of American taxpayers by defense contracting industries still playing out as an interminable vortex of death and lost opportunity for Afghanis. The US military obviously does not value the citizens’ lives of whatever country it invades and occupies, but by shipping its own personnel off to these futile, corrupt, profiteering schemes for defense contractors, it cheapens their lives too.

This shattering realization was compounded by its isolation. I think a lot of people are drawn to the military because they like the feeling of being in a group, “something bigger” than themselves. Veterans are an easily-radicalised bunch, as evidenced by their unsurprising yet disgraceful over-representation amongst attackers at the Capitol earlier this year. On the other side of the political spectrum, though, many misguided “liberal” and Democrat veterans also do not see the military’s existential failure and so advocate for progress only within the ranks. The myopia is frustrating and demoralizing. The corporate-style diversification inside ranks is a false flag, a superficial performance. What difference does the gender identity of a war criminal make? Who cares no Department of Defense installations are named after women? Will the parent of a child killed in a drone bombing take solace knowing it was piloted by a “minority” airman? It’s like looking at an oversized, gas-guzzling SUV that’s on fire, leaking oil everywhere, plowing into a building, and being happy that its Confederate flag bumper sticker is finally coming off.

At the risk of projecting onto him, I wonder if Clyde Kerr III felt paralysed by his entanglement in an enormous system evil beyond redemption. In the first two minutes of his video, when he’s still wearing his Army cover, he references “this killing going on especially by the police,” pauses a beat, and gives a resigned, sad smile- “which I am. I can’t abide by this no more. I’m not having anything to do with this nonsense.” Maybe he felt like an alien amongst his peers and a pariah amongst their resisters.

I don’t agree with everything he said, but he draws a clear line from the white supremacist foundations the United States was built on to white supremacist off-duty cops like Amber Guyger murdering Botham Jean in his own home, and white supremacist on-duty cops like Jonathan Mattingly, Myles Cosgrove, and Brett Hankinson murdering Breonna Taylor in hers. “None of this is happenstance, at all.” He connects capitalism and the gutting social damage wrought by the war on drugs. “This whole system that was built on free slave labor, there’s no way this can’t implode on itself. We can’t continue on. You won’t even give us reparations. That’s the thing about it, y’all are thinking about money.” He raps his knuckles against the table. “But it’s. about. being. decent.”

Despite his historical and lived grasp of policing’s central role in the oppression of Black people, Kerr does not call for defunding or abolishing police departments. Throughout the video, he is obviously angry, incredulous, and devastated, but he talks with restraint. His eyes occasionally water. He looks exhausted, but with the complaining-intolerance of true professionals (“no sense in griping unless you have things that can probably be fixed”), suggests realistic reforms about civilian oversight, public transparency, training standards, mentorship, and routine mental health care for police officers in the final minutes of his farewell video. He talks about the psychic strain of constantly seeing people on their “worst days,” but does not say that the police officers frequently give people their worst days, or their last. “Listen, I understand we have a tough job, but we signed up for this. We need help. Help. Because we deal with the bottom rung of society does not give us the excuse to do whatever we want, and that’s we’re doing, and we’re not being held accountable. It’s just allowed.”

Maybe Kerr thought that like the “broken, wicked worldly system that does not give a damn about people,” he, a small cog in it, was beyond redemption too. Membership in a violent, corrupt, and fraudulent institution like the Department of Defense or a police force can make the disillusioned participant feel overwhelmingly complicit. Like Kerr, I did my individual job competently and honorably. In the five years since I’ve been out of the Marines, though, I have grappled emotionally, spiritually, and mentally with how someone stupid enough to believe a death cult’s patriotic propaganda can be useful, or at a minimum non-hypocritical, in any meaningfully transformative struggle. It has not been a linear process, but it has been lonely. Last year, I experienced the complicity and shame as if it were a permanent part of me that would leave a stench even if scrubbed off. I felt like a contaminant, and that my brain was compromised by the worst parts of military culture. Once a Marine, always a Marine. Once in the machine, always of the machine. On the shittiest of these days, I can’t picture the long term and have started stumbling into a deeply flawed logic aligned with Kerr’s rationalisation that his suicide was the best use of his life, a legitimate protest of racist police terrorism.

Action-oriented, on-the-ground types prioritise tangible, immediate results, which makes for an especially long, hard time when they disavow the life they were living. I wish Kerr had more patience, more time to meet people who could help him find a new sense of purpose. He knew they were out there. “Y’all are radicalising people, and then, when they buck and wanna go against the system because it’s not for them, you come down on them with a hammer. I don’t understand this. I do not understand this.” I wonder how much of himself he saw in them.

I wish Kerr had access to the mental health care he wanted for his colleagues his whole life, and I wish that we lived in a better society that didn’t constantly traumatise people into needing mental health care to begin with. I wish he didn’t have to talk to his sons about how to not get killed by one of his colleagues, and I wish he had a mentor to talk to who could have helped him imagine a better mission, a life post-policing. I wish that after whatever recent conversations were his “confirmation” that suicide was his “role to play,” he had taken another week, or month, or year, or decade, to follow his own advice to his viewers. “Search your heart and find out what you gotta do.” I wish that, confronted with the unfathomable scale of the system he wanted no more part of, he found strength and hope in himself, and like-minded people he maybe hadn’t met yet. He himself insisted that there are more good people than bad, but maybe he couldn’t envision a way out of the insidious depth and longevity of racism fully programmed in America. Kerr asked “How can you make amends for that? You can’t.”

Clyde Kerr III’s last assignment as a sheriff’s deputy was as a School Resource Officer. “My entire life has been in service of other people…I’ve served with a full heart in the military, after that, got back into law enforcement… Listen, y’all trust me to safeguard your little ones, your small ones, the thing that’s most precious to y’all, and I did that well. You trust me with that.”

Elsewhere in America, however, 1400 miles north in Rochester, New York, some sadistic, inhumane cops were behaving like they wanted to murder a little Black girl, or, given the most generous benefit of the doubt, were just incompetent to compassionately interact with a terrified, distressed child. They didn’t kill her, though, perhaps because they were wearing body cameras, or there were too many witnesses, or they didn’t want to deal with the paperwork. Instead, they took the panicking, frightened 9 year-old, bound her arms, and sprayed a chemical weapon in her face. None of them have been arrested, but the video of this child’s torture has been circulated globally and consumed for the enrichment of the media companies platforming it. Three days later, Kerr took his own life outside the Lafayette Parish sheriff’s office.

How can you make amends for that.

Clyde Kerr III (image by Brad Bowie)