Most Americans are familiar with Harry Houdini. Houdini earned such notoriety for his famous escape acts that to this day criminals who get loose from their handcuffs are often described as having “Houdinied” their way out. In New Iberia, Louisiana, however, Houdini’s name is being used in a slightly different way to describe the alleged suicide of 22-year-old Victor White III who died in police custody in what family lawyer Benjamin Crump describes as a “Houdini handcuff” suicide that “defies all logic”.
At 11:22pm on March 2nd, 2014, a deputy from the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office responded to a report of a fight at a convenience store. Minutes later, Victor White III and his acquaintance Isaiah Lewis (who were not involved in the fight but were present at the store when it happened) were stopped a few blocks away by Corp. Justin Ortis. According to an Iberia Sheriff’s Office service report obtained by NBC News, White consented to a pat-down during which Ortis “located suspected marijuana in [White’s] front pants pocket.” After back up arrived, an additional search was conducted on White resulting in the discovery of a small amount of cocaine. Lewis was let go, while White was placed in the back of a cruiser with his hands cuffed behind his back and transported to the Iberia Country Sheriff’s Office. That was the last time anyone other than law enforcement saw White alive.
The night White was arrested, his father, Reverend Victor White II, called the sheriff’s office looking for his son. He was told that his son had never been arrested and was not in their custody. It wasn’t until a friend told him about a press release the Louisiana State Police posted on their Facebook page that Rev. White found out what happened to his son:
TROOP I NEWS RELEASE
March 3, 2014
State Police Investigate In-Custody Death of Iberia Parish Man
Iberia Parish — Early this morning, Louisiana State Police Detectives began investigating the death of 22 year old Victor White III of New Iberia after he was found deceased of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. Troopers began the investigation at the request of Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal.
The initial investigation indicates that last night at about 11:22 p.m., deputies with the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office were responding to the report of a fight in the 300 block of Lewis Street. Upon responding to the area, deputies located White and discovered he was in possession of illegal narcotics. White was taken into custody, handcuffed behind his back, and transported to the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office for processing. Once at the Sheriff’s Office, White became uncooperative and refused to exit the deputy’s patrol vehicle. As the deputy requested assistance from other deputies, White produced a handgun and fired one round striking himself in the back. White was transported to a local hospital by ambulance where he was pronounced dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Detectives are continuing to investigate the circumstances of the case.
The family hired Carol Powell-Lexing and Benjamin Crump and sought to get more information from the Sheriff’s Office and the Louisiana State Troopers, but little was revealed until the coroner’s report was released on August 25th, 2014. The report revealed that White’s fatal gunshot wound actually entered the right side of his chest and exited under his left armpit (unusual, since White was a left-handed). Abrasions and gunshot residue were found on White’s body, but the report did not indicate whether his hands were tested for the substance. Despite these inconsistencies, Iberia Parish coroner Dr. Carl M. Ditch neglected to change the ruling on Victor’s death from a suicide to a homicide.
So why hasn’t the name Victor White III been constant in mainstream media coverage surrounding police impunity and violence in relation to the Black community? Even though White has occasionally popped up in mainstream media sources such as CNN and The Washington Post, it’s rare to hear his name in the media or in conversations and actions I’ve been a part of from Ferguson to Washington D.C. to New Orleans.
I asked Rev. White why he thought his son’s case hadn’t received the same amount of attention and scrutiny as, say, the other cases family lawyer Benjamin Crump has been on. Below is a short and incomplete list of potential reasons that emerged out of our conversation:
- When it comes to Black victims, respectability politics comes into play.
When Trayvon Martin was killed, media sources were heavily criticized for reporting on things such as his history of smoking weed when covering his murder. When Mike Brown was killed, the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown went viral on Twitter and Tumblr after a similar smear campaign was done in the media. Hell, an article even came out showing how white suspects and criminals were treated better in the media than Black victims. With all that, what support do we really think mainstream media and everyday Americans would have mustered for a young Black man like White who was under arrest for narcotics at the time of his death?
- There are a lot of Black people being killed by law enforcement in America, but we have just recently started hearing about how often.
Before this summer, the media would have you believing that there were only a few, sporadic cases of police violence, but with the high profile deaths of Eric Garner, John Crawford, Mike Brown, and Ezell Ford within a one month of each other, their deaths and the reactions to them began to dominate the news cycle. Maybe if White had been killed within this same time frame (just 3 months later), his case could have caught the same momentum in the calls for justice as others.
- When we talk about things happening “nationally” in America, we often aren’t talking about the South.
I’ve spent 6 years living in New Orleans, but I got my roots in organizing, and have spent most of my time in America in the North. In my time down here, co-workers and organizers have shared that Southern states have a reputation for being last in the best indicators and ranking first in the worst ones. As a result, what’s going on in the South is often absent in national conversations.
For example, I have not heard about the New Orleans police department (which is currently under a Department of Justice consent decree) in media conversations about body cameras despite a recent case where an NOPD officer allegedly turned her camera off right before shooting an unarmed man in the head. When I asked Rev. White if he thought being in the South had anything to do with the lack of conversation about his son’s case, he told me, “Being in the South has a lot to do with it…it’s supposed to be commonplace down in the South, its unconscious prejudice…[We’re] supposed to settle for what’s presented.
The truth is, all of these things could be relevant, or none of them could. Unfortunately, there is no concrete formula that will tell Rev. White and his family how to get their son’s case more attention, and even if it did, there is certainly no guarantee that attention would equal justice (just ask the families of John Crawford, Mike Brown and Eric Garner).
What is clear is that there is little space in the mainstream media for the conversations that need to happen around race, state-sanctioned violence and the victims it leaves behind. Fortunately, we are in an age of technology that has allowed everyday people to amplify calls for justice in cases like Victor White’s, and that’s exactly what Rev. White is asking us to do.
Author’s note: You can help the White family demand justice for Victor by:
- Contributing to the GoFundMe account set and like the “Justice for Victor White” Facebook pages set up by the White family to aid with legal costs to help pay for an independent autopsy to be performed and stay updated on the case.
- Sign and share the petition to have the coroner change the official ruling of Victor’s death from a suicide to a homicide.
- Share these graphics on social media with the hashtag #HoudiniHandcuffKillings