…And Eric Harris, and Freddie Gray, whose videotaped deaths are feeding the nightmares of black Americans.
Technology has made it difficult for me not to be made aware of yet another black life snuffed out by a police officer who felt “threatened.” The endless timelines of social media forge impressions on my memory far more quickly and objectively than corporate media’s delayed and often biased take. When Michael Brown was killed, tweets from and about Ferguson’s peacefully protesting citizens facing an asymmetrical response from law enforcement served as counter-programming to CNN’s endless loop of the alleged Swisher Sweets heist that may have set his murder in motion. Over the last several months, I have had encounters with individuals for whom such “causes” justified such fatal, undignified “effects” for too many unarmed, black citizens. And in dealing with that insensitivity, my anger seems to render words inadequate.
Not long ago, I was told by a white acquaintance that I should use an instance of someone’s ignorant, racist bullshit as a “teachable moment.” But only in the mind of the privileged is it the responsibility of the oppressed to educate the hateful. One need only to pay attention, even in short spurts, to receive all the education necessary. White America required possibly the most clear-cut footage of a police execution of a black American to date, video of the Walter Scott shooting, to confirm in their minds what blacks have known for generations.
I’ve had trouble wiping the image of Scott’s lifeless body from my mind, the North Charleston man being handcuffed as killer-cop Michael Slager attempted to cover his tracks. In Scott, I cannot help but see my uncle, whose family lives in South Carolina. I imagine him running like Scott did, with everything he had, desperate for life, or at least for the fleeting last few seconds of it, not realizing that he is but moments from being plunged into oblivion. I often have dreams where I’m running, impossibly fast and far. And I’ve certainly been dream-chased by police, unsure of what my dream-self did exactly, like many who have died with their hands up or backs turned.
Not long after the video of Scott’s death came out in the press, Americans learned of another shooting, this time in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the surreal footage showing Eric Harris, with an officer’s knee on the back of his neck, fully restrained and having just been shot by a modern-day Keystone Cop, cry out “I can’t breathe!” The officer’s reply to a statement-turned-motto by Eric Garner’s similar ordeal could be heard faintly: “Fuck your breath!”
Team “Well, why’d he run if he was innocent?” cannot seem to acknowledge black humanity even in the face of police actions as egregious as these. And those with some decency and common sense can still seem less than sympathetic. Some of my white friends’ “Don’t worry, be happy” outlooks can be difficult for me to connect with after viewing another Twitter feed full of commentary on police brutality, or a televised interview with tearful, grieving parents. I know the answer is not to “stop looking at it,” as some have tried to persuade me to do. I feel as though that’s the worst thing I could do, to feign ignorance as a salve for the trauma of these 21st century lynchings.
Only the privileged can turn their backs on the crisis at hand, blame social media for blowing things out of proportion, or ask why people are protesting. I mostly take issue with how some white people in my life can continue to skate through their mundane lives, unfettered and unafraid, while I can’t get the image of Walter Scott running for his life out of my head. A lifelong fear of the police has been ratcheted up markedly in the last year alone. Silence, whether out of fear, ignorance, or simply the comfort of white privilege, is complicity. At this point, we don’t need allies. We need warriors.
And asking why he ran, or whether we’ve stopped to look at the victim’s criminal past, indicates nothing short of an endorsement of a law enforcement culture that finds the act of fleeing/driving/existing while black punishable by death. Never mind that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1985 (Tennessee v. Garner) that using deadly force in such instances was “unconstitutional insofar as it authorizes the use of deadly force against, as in this case, an apparently unarmed, nondangerous fleeing suspect...”
Most recently, in Baltimore, and then internationally, Freddie Gray’s name has rung out. Arrested by Baltimore police “without incident,” as the department was quick to note, for wielding a pocketknife, all signs point to a vicious beating at the hands of police in a van following that arrest as Gray’s cause of death a week later, sparking outrage that is all too familiar. Fellow Baltimorean Mike Rowe (of Dirty Jobs and Somebody’s Gotta Do It fame) has complained about Baltimore’s image, which he feels has been sullied by the “crack whores” and “drug dealers” depicted on The Wire. Yet Gray’s death is like a chilling subplot from the HBO drama, and its thin line between art and life is why I’ll recommend the series to my dying days. There are those who would love nothing more than for Baltimore (and cities like it) to be an endless expanse of bars, restaurants, and boutiques, with the supposed blight of blackness wiped out—save for those hired to cook and clean at these superior establishments. These types are usually white, and they are usually the ones asking why he/she ran.
In the short time since Gray’s passing, I have already had to “educate” someone who felt it necessary to justify police murder by way of a victim’s past. And I say to Rowe and his ilk, if Baltimore police hadn’t beaten Freddie Gray so badly that his spinal cord was left severed and his larynx crushed, the international media would not be talking about Baltimore this time, in this manner. If they’d granted him the medical care he requested repeatedly, another black body’s blood would not be on yet another police department’s hands, and our mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, would not have to wring her hands while urging calm and patience.
The “All Lives Matter” crowd jumps through hoops to defend the seemingly indefensible actions of police run amok, actions that make it quite clear that some lives do appear to matter much more than others in our current society. I can no longer be shocked when some white person, eager to get my take, asks why someone resisted, what I think really happened, whether the cops felt threatened, and all sorts of other bullshit that I’m done being polite about.
Days before Gray was arrested, I received news that my cousin had been locked up, again. Not even a month ago, I’d visited him in jail, had a heart-to-heart and related my own experiences and my willingness to help him get back on his feet. I’d thought that I’d made a real connection, but my expectations had gotten the best of me. That I could finally be of service to a kid who had looked up to me his whole life was genuinely fulfilling in a way I didn’t think possible.
Now I legitimately fear that my cousin will meet a fate like that of Freddie Gray—if not tomorrow, then maybe years down the line, possibly killed in police custody, with a local government short on answers and sympathy. The pain of having to digest too much death too quickly from a distance is surely nothing compared to the pain of losing a loved one to this quietly state-sanctioned violence. But the vehement refusal to acknowledge our voices and lived experiences, which are now at least given a broader platform via the internet, allows for the justification of cops killing unarmed black people and going scot-free, as Rekia Boyd’s killer, Detective Dante Servin, did this week. With familiar, hope-sapping phrases like “suspended officers” and “independent reviews” being bandied about in Baltimore, this can be a different sort of pain altogether, the layers of the soul still raw from the “last one.”
The fact that decisive action was taken in the South Carolina case after the video broke worldwide could be viewed as swift justice at first glance. But in the wake of the unrest in Ferguson, and the negative attention it brought to a city government steeped in racial bias, it could also be construed as a municipality’s preemptive measure to avoid igniting turmoil. The “riots” that took place in Ferguson this past summer were the last resort of a black populace haunted by the specter of state violence and institutionalized bullying. Bearing witness, even by way of a screen, to this procession of macabre, brutal videos has a lingering effect on the soul. There is nothing guaranteeing that someone I love isn’t next, that I’m not next. I haven’t had any white friends tell me about their dreams about the Walter Scott video. A number of my black friends have.