Ferguson is on fire for a reason. That reason isn’t just because on Saturday, Aug 9, an unarmed black man by the name of Michael Brown was gunned down in the streets by someone who swore an oath to protect and serve the public. The reason Ferguson is on fire is because Michael Brown is just one of the latest high profile incidents of this nature, and when taken together, an entire race of people are becoming crudely reacquainted with the idea that their skin color is a liability that carries with it lethal consequences. And while I don’t endorse any violence or lawlessness on the part of the protesters, I certainly understand it.
The simple truth of the matter is, every time an unarmed black man is killed by the police, and there is no consequence, a very clear message gets communicated to the rest of the country: the value of black life is negligible.
For this reason, I will have the obligatory talk with my future sons and daughters where I give them pro-tips about how to act around the cops. I will try to let them know that their life indeed does have value but some people might not see it that way. Every black man I know has received this talk by someone who loves them. Naturally, as a parent, it will be my job to let my kids know, that although all men are created equal, and endowed with certain inalienable rights, they will need to be extra careful around the police, even more so than their friends who have less melanin in their skin.
You see, in America, for so many reasons and for far too long, Black skin on a man has come to be seen as dangerous. And as the incredibly astute Brent Staples pointed out many years ago, this perception is what leads police officers to make those split-second decisions to pull the trigger and end a life. In dicey situations, when the target is Black and thereby considered scary or dangerous, it seems like many in law enforcement subscribe to the policy of shoot first, ask questions later. Fear and weapons is a very bitter cocktail, as such Staples goes on to warn that where fear and weapons meet – and they often do in urban America – there is always the possibility of death. The hard truth is, if our society teaches us to fear black people and perceive them as a threat to life and limb, then that society is wrong and needs to work on correcting itself.
Why doesn’t America weep for my people? Because Black skin evokes fear and signals danger, because African Americans are grossly underrepresented on police forces around the country, because most of the people being gunned down don’t have a 401k or preferred stock in their company, because Fox News is quick to point out the lawlessness that ensues after a gun-related tragedy instead of facilitating a meaningful conversation on the relationship between law enforcement and Black America, because for far too long the consequences, if any, for those who do the killing have been minimal, because Black people have come to accept these killings as a part of life and they hope that the conversations they have with their kids about mitigating this danger actually sinks in, and because this sort of thing happens so often that the shock value is waning and we as a people are becoming desensitized.
I don’t have many encounters with the police anymore. I no longer live in an area that requires their strong presence. I wear button-downs and nice slacks to work every day, so I don’t really fit the bill of many of these young men that are being killed by cops. But none of that really matters. A life is a life, whether that life is Ivy League trained, or a recipient of welfare. Yet and still, I am a Black man and I understand that even if I’m whistling Vivaldi in my pressed shirt walking home from the Englert Theater, that I am bound by an entirely different set of rules should I encounter a police officer. The game is different for me, and the odds of me getting hauled away in a body bag because I reached for my wallet too quickly are higher than the norm.
I was compelled to write my thoughts for several reasons. No doubt, I’m completely saddened by this tragedy, as are many others around the country. But I’m also writing because I’m tired of feeling as if I belong to a race of people who could end up on the endangered species list because we’re being hunted in the streets.
For every Michael Brown, there are countless others like him, whose deaths rarely command national media attention. I do not begrudge the media for being selective in which cases to publicize, nor do I begrudge the American people for their consumption of such media. However, I do take issue when justice is not served. When after all of the marches and speeches, we have no tangible signs of progress. If I am to feel as if my life has just as much value as anyone else, then I’d like to see meaningful action taken to curb the disproportionate violence against African Americans being perpetrated by law enforcement.
We should be reviewing the use of lethal force protocol for law enforcement officials around the country. We should investigate every instance of an unarmed death at the hands of the police. We should see the police officers punished when they cross the line. We should see families compensated for their loss. We should have more national conversations on race relations. We should see police departments doing more to understand the cultural dynamics of the communities they’re paid by tax dollars to protect and serve. All of these things and more represent only the beginning of what needs to happen.
Until we begin to walk down the path of correcting this ill in our society, these tragedies will continue to hurt us deeply, particularly because they are eerily reminiscent of a time where it really was socially acceptable for police officers to kill black folks. It hurts so deeply because we’re telling the world that we’re okay with lynching black boys in our streets so long as we can perceive them to be dangerous. We’re lynching these young men with bullets from a government issued gun with no sense of justice in sight.
Michael Brown’s mother will never hug her son again. He was assassinated. Six bullets, center mass.
Why won’t America weep for my people? Because right now, she is busy lynching them.