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.

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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?

Ebony Commemorates Trayvon Martin

With the Trayvon Martin verdict still fresh in the minds of many, Ebony Magazine released four covers showing the unity and concern expressed in the We Are Trayvon movement. The covers feature well known black celebrities like Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat, Boris Kodjoe and Spike Lee from the entertainment world, and Trayvon’s parents along with his surviving brother. Ebony Magazine Editor-In-Chief, Amy DuBois Barnett, recently spoke to the HuffingtonPost on why Ebony chose the covers they did.

President Obama Speaks on Race and Trayvon Martin

Last Saturday a Florida jury determined that George Zimmerman was not guilty in the death of Trayvon Martin. For those of you reading this who may not be aware, in February of 2012, Trayvon Martin was walking home from the store when he was approached by Mr. Zimmerman. A fight ensues and Trayvon is left dead. It turns out George Zimmerman had been following Trayvon in his vehicle, and when he asked a 911 operator whether or not he should go after Trayvon, he was told, “we don’t need you to do that.” Despite this, he ignored the operator and pursued him anyway. So what exactly was that suspicious looking man in the neighborhood armed with that Zimmerman decided to pursue? A pack of Skittles and an Arizona Ice Tea. I gave my thoughts about this case last year.

In the following days across the United States there were protests in cities from New York to L.A. In New York’s Time Square, protesters halted traffic dead in its tracks with the streets swelling with thousands of hurt, angry and disappointed people. It wasn’t just the fact that George Zimmerman was found not guilty, but that he wasn’t even initially arrested until people started protesting. Many talking heads on the news networks stated their opinions on the verdict, but it seemed everyone (well, many black folks at least) was waiting on the thoughts of one man in particular.

On Friday President Obama gave his thoughts and the nation listened.

Speaking from the deeply personal perspective as a black man in America, Obama spoke of black men being followed in stores, women clutching their purses while in the presence of black men and car doors locking as black men walked by. How does he know these things? Because they’ve all happened to him. Perhaps his most powerful statement was identifying that Trayvon Martin could have been him 35 years ago. To hear a sitting American President speak to the nation in those terms is unlike anything we’ve see before in our nation’s history. I encourage everyone to watch the speech at least once, but more importantly, listen.

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Trayvon Martin & The Black Boogeyman

“It’s not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” 

–  Audrey Lorde

Last Wednesday I attended the march for Trayvon Martin at Union Square in New York City. I was commuting from Brooklyn and didn’t make it till well after it had already began. Even still, there were a few hundred people in the park with signs, letters, and faces of concern at what happened nearly a month ago. The case of Trayvon Martin is troubling at best, and as a black man, downright frighting at its worst.


Though there are different variations and interpretations going around, here’s what we know so far.

  • On the night of February 26, Trayvon Martin is leaving the The Retreat at Twin Lakes development when he is pursued by George Zimmeran
  • Zimmerman follows Trayvon in his car despite being told by a 911 operator, “We don’t need you to do that.” 
  • All the while, Trayvon is on the phone with his girlfriend who tells him to run.
  • A struggle ensues between Zimmerman and Trayvon, and Trayvon is shot dead.
  • Zimmerman was armed with a 9 millimeter handgun. Trayvon? A bag of Skittles and an Arizona Ice Tea.

I can’t even begin to imagine the heartache Trayvon’s family is going through. Your son goes out in a gated community and the next thing you know he’s dead and the man who shot him hasn’t even been arrested.

Multiple reports have Zimmerman describing this guy as suspicious and out of place in the neighborhood. According to Zimmerman’s own words, he believes Trayvon is possibly on drugs at the time. As it turns out, Zimmerman probably should have been the one tested for drugs in light of his alleged reckless behavior.
What this most recent case of violence against another unarmed black man dictates is that black males are still subject to the criminal element stereotype. His jeans are too baggy. He’s looking at me suspiciously. What’s he got hiding in his waistband? It’s as if after all these years, there’s still this “boogeyman” element that too many black men have to contend with regardless of whether we fit the description or not.
In 1994, Time magazine infamously darkened O.J. Simpsons photo in attempt to make him appear more menacing. Time of course denied this, but folded to public pressure and issued a new cover. Here’s the original Time cover compared to Newsweek’s version. 

                                                                 

Regardless of whether or not you think O.J. was guilty, I can’t recall any white suspects having their photo altered in such a way to make them appear more threatening and evil. Images hold power. And the darkened photo of an accused black man certainly has the intended effect of making the accused appear more sinister. 
The idea of black men being deemed “suspicious” or perceived as some “boogeyman” continues to play out despite a stream of statements from police, law officials, and those within local government, to the contrary. It’s always, “we’ll do better.” “This won’t happen again.” “This should have never have happened.” So how many incidents like these have to keep happening before black men and people of color are no longer deemed “suspicious” because of their skin tone or article of clothing? Trayvon Martin is just another mark on the wall of a long list of black men who did nothing wrong, but either ended up dead or severely injured by the very people who were supposed to protect them.
                     
Abner Louima, 1997
Amadou Diallo, 1999
Sean Bell, 2006

Oscar Grant, 2009

As you can see through the series of photographs, Trayvon Martin’s story is neither a new one, nor sadly, is his death. Many black men will have some form of interaction with the police in their lifetime. Whether it’s driving a car that is a little too nice, or living in a home that couldn’t possibly be yours, it’s clear that black men still have to prove themselves as legit even when it comes to their own possessions. 
This reminds me of my own interaction with the police. In 2010 I was pulled over by an unmarked cop car while riding a bike (yes, not a car, but a bike). According to the officers, I was riding “awfully quickly through an area with known drug activity.” I showed them my I.D. and they got back in their unmarked car and smiled at me. This is the BS that black men have to sometimes go through with law enforcement. 
It is because of all this that I felt moved to be at Union Square last week. Seeing people of many races and backgrounds showed at least that Trayvon Martin’s murder and subsequent investigation will not go quietly into the night. People protested. They sang. They marched. That night I spoke with a white woman from Colorado who said she was so moved by this case and sense of injustice, that she just had to be there. 
Hopefully, justice will come for Trayvon. But more importantly, hopefully in this land where a black man is the current Head of State, there will come a time when brandishing a hoodie and pack of Skittles, no longer deems you “suspicious.” Hopefully, that teen on the corner is no longer viewed as a potential “boogeyman,” but as a young man on his way home with a hoodie on his head and without any fear in his heart.