*We have been here before – and more times than I care to count.
I as in a black male, we as in the African American community, and more universally we as in American society, have seen this movie (where the black guy dies at the hands of one or more white men) and we know how the story ends.
If everyone keeps their cool, there will be lots of apologies. If folks start losing their cool, there will be some loss of life, loss of property, loss of freedom, criticism, and less apologies.
The events at issue are the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the choking death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York. It is important to note that both of these deaths were at the hands of police officers.
American society has come a long way in upgrading the status of men of color so that their civil liberties are not infringed upon by other citizens. There is still a blind spot when it comes to officers of law enforcement.
My first encounter with the phenomenon of a black man dying and his death being determined as justified was Amadou Diallo who was killed by police in 1999. After an inquiry a grand jury decided that the tactics employed by the officers were justified. Regarding Diallo I commented that while law enforcement generally deserves our gratitude and support there is a problem when training dictates that officers respond with deadly force. Furthermore this training is dictated by the neighborhood. In other words, when in a predominantly minority neighborhood and in doubt, shoot to kill.
It seems that police training hasn’t changed very much in the last 15 years. Garner was a large man (over 400 pounds) so I can imagine officers were a bit intimidated and thought they would have a hard time subduing him. I understand. But then that’s what tasers are for, aren’t they? Instead multiple officers physically tackled Garner and in doing so choked him to death even as he stated he couldn’t breathe. Something is wrong with this picture.
In Missouri Brown was shot 6 times as officers pursued him as a suspect in a petty theft. Somehow officers felt that Brown represented enough of a threat that they felt justified in firing 6 times. The fact that the autopsy shows 2 of the shots were to his head either turns the officer into a liar or the worst kind of incompetent officer who is unable to discern when deadly force is necessary and/or no longer necessary. Again, isn’t this why officers supposedly carry tasers?
I once had someone being chased by the police pull into my driveway. Once they put the person in custody the car was left on my property. I went out to ask the remaining officer about it and reminded myself to walk slowly, speak softly, and keep my hands up. Was I being paranoid or just using common sense?
At some point someone will point out that both Garner and Brown were suspected of illegal activity. Certainly true. This is where the criticism starts and the apologies lessen. But being suspected of committing a crime is not the same as having been proven to have committed a crime; and the crimes were selling unlicensed cigarettes (Garner) and petty theft from a convenience store (Brown). Even if Garner and Brown were guilty of these crimes, neither crime would justify deadly force.
It has been proven that there is a correlation between the ethnicity of a person murdered and the likelihood that the convicted perpetrator is sentenced to death. Black victims do not lead to as many death penalty sentences as white victims. The easy interpretation of this is that society does not value black life as highly as white life. Perhaps there is a more nuanced perspective to be taken on this data but the recent events in Staten Island and Ferguson support the simple interpretation.
It’s at times like these that I am particularly thankful that I have daughters. Because how do you tell young black men not to react violently? The looting that has taken place in Missouri is definitely misdirected; as far as I know the stores that are being damaged and stolen from are not owned by police officers. But the desire to strike back physically can be overpowering. And the normal restraint of not wanting to be targeted by police is weakened by the perception that they are already being targeted. And yet the historian in me can confidently state that there is no way in hell that a physical confrontation between men of color and law enforcement ends well for the men of color. At the end of the day there are always more police than are possible to harm and/or evade. So I wish folks would chill just a bit more.
But I also wonder what it would look like if the next Michael Brown were a white American and what the response from the police would be. And more importantly how intense and long lasting the outrage would be.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.