If you stumbled across the #JusticeforJonathan hashtag recently, you could probably guess what it referred to, even without context. We have learned to expect this in America: another day, another name, another Black person killed by the police. Because these events happen so frequently, people can easily tune out the deaths, especially when they aren’t as high-profile as George Floyd’s or Breonna Taylor’s.
But behind each hashtag is a person. This time, his name was Jonathan Price. He was a 31-year-old from Wolfe City, Texas, a small town outside Dallas. He was a “motivational speaker, a mentor to student-athletes in the area, and a frequent participant in community service activities” (Yahoo News). He was beloved by his community. And on October 3, while defusing a fight he witnessed between a man and a woman at a convenience store, he was killed. To be more precise: on October 3, a police officer murdered an unarmed Jonathan Price as he walked away from the scene (Washington Post). For more about Jonathan Price, read Marquise Francis’s article from Yahoo News.
• Ensure Jonathan Price stays part of the conversation. Demand #JusticeforJonathan.
• Call for police accountability in your community. Follow up on conversations on defunding the police and re-investing in other community support systems.
• Reflect: Are any groups, people, or institutions like the Texas Rangers romanticized or glorified in your area? Take a careful look at the history behind those local legends. Did their glory come at others’ expense?
When I read that, I thought about a line from our recent newsletter on being an active bystander: “It’s important to note that being an active bystander often takes privilege.” Jonathan Price intervened as an active bystander to stop the violence he happened to see, and yet, because he was a Black man, he was murdered for his efforts. This, unfortunately, is not surprising when we think of the litany of “reasons” the police have killed Black people. What is surprising, though, is that the officer was charged with murder in the next few days (WFAA). Unfortunately, we’re well aware of how both the charges and the speed with which they were deployed are a rarity.
To better understand the context of this police shooting, we must look at the unique history and structure of the Texas Rangers, an influential agency within Texas law enforcement. The Texas Rangers, a “division within the Texas Department of Public Safety with lead criminal investigative responsibility” (Texas.gov), are unlike the state police in other states. They have broader power and higher-level responsibilities, like overseeing special operations and SWAT teams (Dallas Morning News).
More importantly, the Texas Rangers have captured American popular imagination in a way no other state law enforcement agency has. They were mythologized in the character of the Lone Ranger, of radio, TV, movie, and comic book fame (History), and in the later Walker, Texas Ranger TV series, which ran from 1993 to 2001 (IMDB). Even the 1986 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove (and subsequent Emmy-nominated miniseries) is based on the exploits of former Texas Rangers (Pulitzer). The law enforcement agency is also memorialized in the name of the Arlington-based Major League Baseball team (Dallas News).
In such media, the Texas Rangers are portrayed as do-good defenders of the law with a staunch moral code, battling for the soul of the Old West. Americans love such stories because we have a collective nostalgia for the West. But our collective nostalgia is, at its core, collective amnesia. The saying “History belongs to the victors” is exemplified by the fact that we still view westward expansion through the lens of the rugged, individual (white) American spirit—instead of through the lens of colonialism and genocide. For more on the myth of the frontier, check out our previous piece on racism in sports team names.
In the case of the Texas Rangers, when we remember only the Lone Ranger and the like, we ignore the racism and white supremacy at the root of the institution. In the early 1820s, the Texas Rangers began a small, informal army to “protect” the white settlers from the Indigenous people whose land they occupied. According to the founder, Stephen T. Austin, protection meant eradicating the Native tribes: “There is no way of subduing them but extermination” (Texas Monthly).
In the 1910s, the expanded, established Texas Rangers participated in similar violence:
“[The Texas Rangers] didn’t invent police brutality, but they perfected it down there on the [Texas-Mexico] border, where they operated as what we would now term death squads… They executed hundreds, perhaps thousands of Mexicans and Mexican Americans. And some of those were bandits who had attacked white-owned farms and ranches, but many of them had committed no crimes. You know, they were guilty of having brown skin.”
– Doug J. Swanson, author of Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers, on NPR
Over the next century, their violence towards people of color continued. Before the Civil War, they collected bounties for escaped enslaved people; after the Civil War, they ignored the lynching of Black men (Texas Monthly). In the 1918 Porvenir Massacre, the Texas Rangers took 15 unarmed Tejano men and youth “taken into custody, denied due process, and executed en masse” (Texas State Historical Association).
Some might argue that we cannot judge an institution today based on its actions in the early 1800s. But even in 1956, the Texas Rangers merely watched while a gravel-throwing white mob prevented Black students from entering their school. A decade later, they assaulted Mexican American workers while breaking a strike (Star-Tribune). Institutional rot spreads and trickles down.
It is true that Jonathan Price’s murder was not organized or sanctioned by the Texas Rangers and that the responsible officer was charged relatively quickly. Yet the officer’s actions descend from the same racist beliefs upon which the Texas Rangers were founded. Jonathan Price deserves justice—the kind of justice denied to all the other Indigenous, Mexican, and Black people the Texas Rangers killed over the last two centuries. And the rest of us need to ensure we do not succumb to collective amnesia. We must remember the truth behind the myths of the American West.
• Jonathan Price, a 31-year-old Black man from Wolfe City, Texas, was walking away after breaking up a fight when a Texas Ranger shot and killed him on October 3, 2020.
• The Texas Rangers law enforcement agency is mythologized in popular media. Rangers are often depicted as moral defenders of the law, battling for the soul of the Old West.
• The agency was founded in the 1820s specifically to protect white settlers by “exterminating” (killing) the Native residents.
• In the 1910s, Texas Rangers massacred hundreds of Mexicans and Mexican Americans along the border.