When Being Unarmed Isn’t Enough: Black Folks Still Being Denied Humanity

Photo courtesy of stltoday.com

More than 40 days and restless nights have passed since Mike Brown was shot and killed on August 9th. That followed the death of John Crawford, who was shot in a department store aisle while holding a toy gun. Then there was the incident of a police officer in Oklahoma City allegedly targeting at least 8 black women and sexually assaulting them in the process. Folks, I’m getting tired of this. What we have continually seen is that when it comes to the split second decision of firing a gun — and ultimately changing the life of the victim and the shooter — blacks in this country are still seen as criminals first, people second.

This lack of humanity has been seen time and time again. Whether it’s a choke hold caught on camera, or a mentally ill man being shot in Los Angeles, a grandmother being punched on the side of the highway like some MMA fighter, or the woman dragged naked from her home in Brooklyn when cops showed up to the wrong door, ‘protect and serve’ has never seemed to mean so little.

In the specific case of Mike Brown, witnesses say he had his hands up and the that officer, Darren Wilson, continued to shoot anyway. If this is indeed true, then I have no understanding of why Wilson has not yet been arrested. We’ve seen time and time again people of color get the short end of the stick when it comes to dealing with law enforcement, and often being met with deadly consequences. This particular treatment happens repeatedly in ways that simply do not, if ever, happen to whites. The fact that there are those who continue to deny this, despite a long history of such abuse, is peculiar at best, and down right disturbing at worst.

Whenever we see instances of an unarmed man or teenager being shot, it seems to follow a familiar formula:

“They must have been doing something wrong.”

“He looked suspicious.”

“They should have just listened to what the officer said and followed directions.”

“He was selling illegal cigarettes.”

“She had marijuana in her system.”

Each of these things have been said at one point or another when referencing Mike Brown, Renisha Mcbride, or Trayvon Martin. In the case of Mike Brown, the same day after the police finally revealed the name of the officer who killed him, they also released footage of a person they say was Mike Brown shoplifting from a convenience store. The police chief of Ferguson initially said that Mike Brown was stopped by officer Wilson because of the shoplifting incident. Hours later, that same police chief stated that Wilson had no prior knowledge of the shoplifting incident when he stopped Brown. It doesn’t look good when the head of police in Ferguson is changing his story.

If people wonder why people of color and black folks in particular get worked up when we hear incidents of police abusing unarmed men and women, it’s because of a long history of law enforcement not treating black and brown bodies with basic respect and dignity. In the 1920s and 30s there were more than a few instances of where you had local police officers embedded within the KKK. In 1946 a WWII soldier who got off a bus in South Carolina was brutally beaten by police to the point that he was blinded for the rest of his life. We all have seen the police with their attack dogs in footage of the 1960s Civil Rights March, but what about the voices of those like Fannie Lou Hamer, who were beaten in a jail cell for registering people to vote? Or how beginning in the 1970s former Chicago police commander John Burge and his department were found responsible for torturing more than 100 African-Americans in their custody.

Despite this painful history, the tide may be changing due in large part to the rise of technology.

In recent weeks its been announced that the Ferguson police will be outfitted with wearable body cameras. If cops know they’re being recorded, chances are you’ll have less instances of unarmed men and women being shot and their community and families being left to find the answers. After all, it was a police dash cam that kept this innocent New Jersey man from being wrongfully charged with resisting arrest and serving time behind the wall. I’ll be discussing the impact of media, especially that of social media has had in the Mike Brown case in a coming post.


Though we don’t know when justice will be served, Mike Brown’s death is tinged with a disheartening poetic irony. Just as people are questioning Brown’s innocence, and in some circles denying him his humanity, it was not far from where Brown was killed that the humanity of another man was denied in what some call the worst ruling in Supreme Court history. Dred Scott was a former slave who was denied his freedom in Missouri as it was ruled that he had no rights to citizenship. Well, more than 150 years after that decision, people are wondering will the rights of a community of color be respected this time?

Looking Back at "To Sir, With Love 2"

When I think back to some of the more inspiring and intriguing movies that I’ve seen these last 10-15 years, they’ve all left me wondering to some degree. It could be about the characters, plot development, scene structure, or any other particular overarching themes. “To Sir, With Love 2” left me thinking about not only the importance of teaching, but the type of person depicted to lead a classroom.

“To Sir, With Love 2” was a former Movie of the Month of mine back in July 2003. It stars one of the legendary names in Hollywood cinema, one Sidney Poitier. Poitier was also the star of the original “To Sir, With Love,” which took place in an inner-city London school in the mid-1960s. While the first “To Sir, With Love” was released in 1967, the sequel would not come out until 1996. I can’t recall another series of movies where the sequel came out nearly 30 years following the original. 

Unlike Joe Clark in “Lean on Me,” or the motorcycle riding take-no-prisoners Rick Latimer in the 1987 movie “The Principle,” Poitier’s character is far more reserved and tactful. It seems surprising at first that a man who just retired from 30 years of teaching in England, would welcome the duty of educating the toughest students in a nondescript Chicago public school. However, Poitier’s character, Mark Thackeray, does just that.
Thackeray challenges his students to not only think about what makes them who they are, but also consider that they ultimately determine other people’s perceptions about themselves. Now that’s not to say there aren’t some real problems his students are facing, but Thackeray refuses to allow them to use outside influences as an excuse. The entire movie is actually on Youtube and I’ve included some of the more poignant clips below.

From Full-Time to Freelance: Saying Goodbye to the American Photojournalist

It’s somewhat ironic that as cameras become more ubiquitous within our society, the role of the photojournalist is becoming more rare throughout newsrooms every year.

On May 30th the Chicago Sun-Times laid off their entire photography staff, including distinguished photographer and Pulitzer Prize winner, John H. White. Yes, a Pulitzer Prize winner laid off. That’s like you being recognized nationally within your industry as ‘Employee of the Year,’ and being let go the following year. Chances are you’d be stunned. So too were the photography staff at the Sun-Times when they were given their pink-slips less then three weeks ago.

John H. White had been with the Sun-Times for more then 40 years before he was relieved of his duty last month. Neither his tenure nor his work was enough to save his job, and his firing — along with that of the entire photo department — is an ominous sign for photojournalists across America.

The rise of iPhones and DSLR cameras have given way to the perception that photojournalists aren’t all that important and that anyone can do it. Add in all the tools you can use in any standard Photoshop Suite and all the sudden you have a belief that photography is rather simple. This belief has sadly and seemingly seeped into the newsroom culture where more and more photojournalists are having to resort to freelance type work.

I think of photography much in the same way I do poetry. Both are easy to dabble in, but hard to truly master. There’s a certain nuance that a photojournalist possess about their craft that can really only be developed through time, skill and the capturing of countless photos. Let us hope that newsrooms across this country come to their senses and once again see the importance of photography as the lens through which we see the world. For the actual article and a collage of John H. White’s photography of 1970s Chicago, click here.


A Shooting Breaks Out, But National Coverage Is Slow To Follow

Imagine being at a parade on Mother’s Day in your neighborhood enjoying yourself. People are dancing and singing and just having a good time. Now imagine a shooting breaks out and people in your vicinity are shot and wounded. Sounds like a pretty frightful experience. This scenario needs no imagination for it’s exactly what happened at a second line celebration in New Orleans last weekend.

Violence has been a problem in New Orleans for a few years now since the rebuilding effort after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Still, it’s disheartening to hear 19 people wounded in a shooting when their only crime was enjoying a parade on Mother’s Day of all days. Perhaps even more troubling however, is the lack of national media attention this shooting received.

I remember seeing the word ‘New Orleans’ trending on Twitter that following Sunday evening, and CNN did mention the shooting in their nightly newscast, but within a couple of days it seemed to blow over. At a time when guns and gun ownership is a hotly debated topic in our nation, you would think a shooting at such a public event would warrant more attention. But it didn’t. Sadly, this lack of attention about the causes and circumstances behind these crimes has too often been missing in dealing with communities of color.

On December 14, 2012 the United States experienced one of the most horrific gun tragedies in our history when 26 people were killed during a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. This event lead to a lot of grieving, soul searching and questions about the safety of our children in schools across America. What followed was a speech by President Obama later that month in Newtown, as well as public pressure on legislators to enact stiffer gun laws.

As horrific a tragedy as Newtown was, I wonder where was this concern and outrage when 50 people were shot in one weekend in Chicago during the summer of 2012? Much like the shooting in New Orleans, the national coverage was brief and it seemed that everyone just moved on with their lives after a few days. There was no public rebuke of the NRA or national discussion on gun control. Matter of fact, there wasn’t much of anything following the shootings. I couldn’t help but think when Obama finally did address the issue of gun violence in Chicago last February following the death of Hadiya Pendleton, why didn’t he give this speech last summer before Newtown, when it would have been just as pertinent?

That’s why I give a lot respect to Melissa Harris-Perry and her panel for discussing the recent shooting in New Orleans and giving this story the in-depth and critical coverage it deserves.You may be surprised at one particularly shocking statistic as well in relation to gun deaths in Louisiana. Check out the videos below.


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Remembering Roger Ebert

Last week the world — not just the film world — lost an icon in Roger Ebert.

Though Ebert’s official title was that of film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, he was much more than that to the movie going American public. “Two thumbs up” was a phrase that originated with Ebert and his former film critic Gene Siskel, that became synonymous with a positive review of a new film. How esteemed was Roger Ebert in the movie industry? He’s the only film critic with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

When it came to race and the social dynamics of the Hollywood studio system, Ebert didn’t shy away from those subjects either. During the 1990s, two of his choices for movie of the year centered around protagonists of color: “Malcolm X” in 1992 and “Hoop Dreams” in 1994. Lauren Williams of The Root does an excellent job of compiling Ebert’s reviews on some well known black films at the time. Ebert goes beyond the characters and main story of the films and asks larger hard hitting questions about the impact of these films within cinema.

On “Love Jones” Ebert writes:

   “As the characters move from record stores to restaurants to the Sanctuary, we realize how painfully limited the media vision of black life is. Why do the movies give us so many homeboys and gangstas and druggies and so few photographers, poets and teachers? …”

On “Glory” Ebert writes:

   “Watching ‘Glory,’ I had one reoccurring problem. I didn’t understand why it had to be told so often from the point of view of the 54th’s commanding white officer? Why did we see the black troops through his eyes — instead of seeing him through theirs? To put it another way, why does the top billing in this movie go to a white actor? I ask, not to be perverse, but because I consider this primarily a story about the black experience and do not know why it has to be seen largely through white eyes…

‘Glory’ is a strong and valuable film, no matter whose eyes it is seen through. But there is still, I suspect, another and quite different film to be made from this same material.”

Things to think about. Roger Ebert, you will be missed.

Howard University Students Making A Difference in Chicago

Gun violence has been a hot topic here in the United States since the tragic shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut last December. As horrible as that was, the violence has been unrelenting in one of America’s largest cities — Chicago.

Through the first two months of 2013, Chicago is on pace to surpass last year’s dubious total of more than 500 murders. Regardless of where you fall in the debate on gun control, clearly there is a serious problem at hand. Just this week, a 6-month old baby girl was shot and killed as her father changed her diapers.

That’s why it’s good to hear students from Howard University going into local Chicago high schools this week and talking with students about the importance of college, education, and being a positive impact in the community. Take a look.