NORFOLK, Va. – The police officers’ guns were trained on the uniformed U.S. Army lieutenant, his arms raised and palms outstretched as he sat in his SUV under a brightly lit gas station awning.
Lt. Caron Nazario had been pulled over in rural Virginia by the two officers, who repeatedly demanded that he step out of the vehicle. Nazario, who is Black and Latino, didn’t move and continually asked, “What's going on?”
“I’m serving this country, and this is how I’m treated?" he said at one point.
“Yeah well, guess what? I’m a veteran, too,” police officer Joe Gutierrez responded. “And I know how to obey.” Nazario said he was afraid to get out, to which Gutierrez replied: “You should be.”
Within minutes, Nazario was pepper-sprayed, struck in the knees to force him to the ground and handcuffed. No charges were ever filed.
Videos of the December incident taken by the officers’ body cameras and Nazario’s cellphone became public last week, sparking outrage and accumulating millions of views. Nazario has sued the two officers, alleging his constitutional rights were violated during the traffic stop in the small Virginia town of Windsor. Officer Gutierrez has also been fired.
The episode was a grim reminder to many Black Americans that even being in military uniform doesn't necessarily protect them from mistreatment by police. Further, there's a long history of violence against veterans and service members of color, whose military status was seen by some as a provocation.
“I don’t think the uniform provokes in the same way that it once did, but it absolutely doesn't shield,” said Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative. “And there will be people who will be provoked by Black achievement. … It can create a kind of a desire to humiliate and demand obedience.”