- The mass shooting in Boulder, Colorado on Monday sparked a fiery debate about race and policing.
- Activists said police demonstrated that they can apprehend suspects without using deadly force.
- "The fact that he was able to literally walk out of there is an example of the glaring disparities of how people are treated based on race," one expert told Insider.
- Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
When police captured 21-year-old Ahmad Aliwi Al-Issa injured but alive following a Monday shooting in Boulder, Colorado that left 10 dead, helicopter footage showed officers leading the shirtless man away from the King Sooper grocery store in handcuffs.
The criticism of law enforcement's response and the backlash sparked debate about the role race plays in public perception of mass shootings and police violence.
"The fact that he was able to literally walk out of there is an example of the glaring disparities of how people are treated based on race," ACLU of Colorado's executive director, Deborah Richardson, told Insider. Richardson said that the fact that Al-Issa was perceived as white "absolutely" affected early assumptions about him by law enforcement and media alike.
While police did not immediately confirm Al-Issa as the individual shown in the video or release his name, some Twitter users quickly commented on how the shooter's skin color affected how police handled his arrest.
-Amy Siskind 🏳️🌈 (@Amy_Siskind) March 23, 2021
Others drew comparisons between police treatment of white mass shooting suspects and their treatment of unarmed Black individuals including fellow Colorado resident Elijah McClain.
-Na-tha-nee (@NathaniNoShame) March 24, 2021
McClain was a 23-year-old Black massage therapist and violinist who died on August 24, 2019, after authorities in nearby Aurora, Colorado put him in a chokehold and injected him with ketamine as he walked home with a bottle of iced tea he'd bought for his cousin.
Once the shooter was identified as Al-Issa, other Twitter users were quick to point out Al-Issa's Muslim name and Arab heritage, saying it contradicted others' initial assumption the shooter was white.
-Erik Cooper (@805_cooper) March 23, 2021
-Salman Khan سلمان خان सलमान खान 🏳️🌈 (@ImGreenGuru) March 23, 2021
Boulder police spokesperson confirmed in a Tuesday morning press conference that Al-Issa, who is of Syrian descent but spent the last 19 years of his life in the US and is a naturalized citizen, was shot by police before being taken into custody and treated at a local hospital.
The US Census currently classifies Arab Americans as white, even though Arab American activists have long advocated for separate classification. The category "Arab American" is a broad one that encompasses a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds and skin tones.
Critics of the arrest say police perceived him Al-Issa white, regardless of his actual background, and treated him differently based on their initial perception.
In contrast, a 2018 study by researchers from Washington University, Rutgers University, and University of Michigan Ann Arbor found that Black men were 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men.
Black men face a one-in-1,000 lifetime risk of death by police, while the risk for white men is just 39 in 100,000, the study found. In Aurora, Colorado specifically, Black individuals were 3.9x more likely to be killed by police than white individuals, according to the research project Mapping Police Violence.
-⏳Ace_P23⏳ (@P23Ace) March 22, 2021
Samuel Sinyangwe, the founder of Mapping Police Violence, told Insider that police handling of mass shootings like the one in Boulder demonstrate that police can apprehend people using without deadly force.
"In the majority of cases of police violence, police weren't responding to this archetypal mass shooter," Sinyangwe said. "They were responding to a minor infraction, mental health situation, traffic violation, or situation where no crime at all is happening. In those lower-stakes situations, there is a way for police to intervene without resorting to violence."
Richardson said that mental health support has to be part of the conversation, regardless of race or gender. But the same grace that's given to white shooters with mental illnesses is often not given to people of color, Richardson said.
She pointed to the cases of Anthony Hill, a Black veteran with PTSD who DeKalb County police in Georgia shot and killed in 2015, and an 11-year-old Hispanic child with autism whom attorneys say Colorado police handcuffed and left in a patrol car for hours. The ACLU of Colorado filed a lawsuit on behalf of the child against the school district in early March.
"Because our humanity is looked at differently, the mental health piece is one that is ignored," Richardson said.
Boulder police have not yet released a motive for Monday's shooting. But Al-Issa's brother, Ali Aliwi Al-Issa, attributed the shooting to his brother's mental illness, saying he had become anti-social after frequent bullying in high school, The Daily Beast first reported.
Scott Simpson, the public advocacy director for civil rights organization Muslim Advocates, told Insider that Muslims as a group are often made to answer for crimes committed by individuals. That results in violence targeting Muslims in general, and even people who are perceived as Muslims.
Shortly after police detained Ahmad Al-Issa, they also detained Al-Issa's family, according to the Daily Beast.
Prominent Muslim Americans including Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar and writer Wajahat Ali posted about how the conversation suddenly shifted after police publicized Al-Issa's name.
-Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) March 23, 2021
-Wajahat Ali (@WajahatAli) March 23, 2021
"I think about what happened in the shooting in Atlanta, and I feel like the church that he went to was used to humanize him," Simpson said. "Nobody is putting that shooting at the feet of an entire religion."
Richardson said that Arab Americans are profiled differently than white Americans. When individuals with Arab backgrounds are the perpetrators of mass shootings, law enforcement and media are 488 times more likely to label them "terrorists" than if they were white.
Since Arab Americans are considered white in the census, their unique experiences with law enforcement aren't reflected in government data.
Sinyangwe said Mapping Police Violence is still currently trying to figure out how to better account for Arab Americans, who are classified in their data as either Asian or white.
In the meantime, Sinyangwe hopes the conversation continues to center on white supremacy and right-wing extremism, which he says are the biggest motivation behind domestic terrorism. According to the Anti-Defamation League's 2020 report on murder and extremism, white supremacists were responsible for 77% of domestic terrorist killings in the last decade.
"It is shocking and revealing that the right-wing echo chamber is trying to spike the ball and celebrating the fact that in this one instance, finally, the mass shooter isn't white," Sinyangwe said. "I think that's telling of how many white supremacist terror attacks just happened."