I was having breakfast in the kitchen last week while my dad, who is a barber, was giving an old friend a haircut in the barber chair set up in the living room. I sat quietly at the table while they spoke of the new developments coming to light following the recent shooting death of 18-year old Michael Brown at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson.
They sounded as you might expect them to. They formed theories about what the parties involved might have been thinking at the time of the shooting. They spoke in disbelief of the notion that Brown was trying to assault the officer. They were unsurprised by the incident. “They always be tryin’ to kill us,” Dad would say, which is something that wasn’t a new thing for me to hear as I sat there listening to the conversation. Dad has been saying things like that to my siblings and I since we were kids.
What was new to me however, was a thought I had as I finished my breakfast and got up to wash my plate. I stood over the sink with the water running over my soapy dish and heard my voice in my head say, “They’re still killing us.” It was new and surprising to me because the thought had hit me with such a visceral force that it felt almost like a primal response.
As a young black man, I’ve been aware of the racial divide between ‘black’ and ‘white’ my whole life, be it spoken or unspoken or felt or whatever. The idea that there is racism in the world and that there are people out there who don’t like me and who might even want to do me harm just because of my skin color is something I’ve always known. Why hadn’t I had the thought of my people being killed by the hands of “The White Man” in the same way before? I don’t know that I have a concrete answer. I think as I washed my dish (I took longer than one would normally take for one dish as thoughts swirled around in my head), other incidents similar to the Michael Brown shooting came to me and it became suddenly overwhelming. Oscar Grant. Trayvon Martin. I thought more and found others. Eric Garner. Michael Stewart.
The Slave Trade in this country is over. Yet, white men in power are still killing black men. Not just physically, but spiritually, emotionally, or they are locking them up in jail and prison for petty offenses that a white person would get a slap on the wrist for. I’m beginning to understand more what my dad has always been talking about. Not that I didn’t get it before, as I too, have been accosted by white police officers on a number of occasions. I’ve seen how police have responded to my dad, during his dark alcoholic days. Even if Dad was in the wrong with us, the police behaved unnecessarily. Dad has also shared many stories of white police using excessive force from his youth in New York and years later, when he and my mother came out to California. I understood. I’m just understanding in other ways now.
This country has a very dark history with minority groups in general, but it is particularly dark with respect to the black experience. From slavery to segregation and the Civil Rights Movement, there has always been a conflict between ‘black’ and ‘white’. It feels as if this perpetual conflict is something deeply rooted in the subconsciousness of this country. I say that because you never hear stories of anyone white being killed by white police officers even-though they are unarmed. If you do, it is extremely rare. After a while hearing all these stories, how could you not get the feeling that race plays some role in all of this no matter how small?
It isn’t just that white officers are killing my brethren, it’s also that they keep getting away with it. Their “punishments” are hardly anything that resemble any form of justice. Suspended without pay. Placed on desk duty. Arrested, charged and then acquitted. What is that? How does that measure up to MURDER? It doesn’t. I believe that all these recent protests and in some cases, riots are an expected response. What else can be done? People want justice and want their voices heard. So, they protest. Even here in California protests are taking place. People are collectively saying that this is beyond wrong and there is no excuse for it. That it keeps happening makes it even more sickening.
I was curious and thought I would do a bit of research on how often this kind of thing has taken place just in the last decade and I was shocked to find there were hundreds of cases. Hundreds. The fact that the word ‘hundreds’ was used in one powerful article dealing with writer/professor/political commentator Melissa Harris-Perry’s tribute to black men killed by police, which can be viewed here, was all the more troubling. It was moving. It was frustrating. It was depressing and disheartening. Yet, it continues. Why? Why do I have to be extra careful in public spaces for fear of someone mistaking me for a bad person? Why do I not feel safe around police officers, who are supposed to be serving and protecting me? Why does being black sometimes feel like wearing a target today?
You look at all the work civil rights leaders and heroes did. You recognize that progress has definitely been made, sure. I mean, we now have a black president for goodness sake. Yes, he was a product of an interracial marriage during a time when it was more frowned upon than it is today, but he looks as black as any black man and he is running the country. So, yes. Progress has been made. However, when things like the Michael Brown shooting occur or when even black women, like Nubia Bowe are being arrested, assaulted and humiliated, you begin to see just how much work there is to be done.
I felt like I had to respond to the Brown shooting and some of the issues it brings up the only way I know how and that is by writing about it. It doesn’t change much, but at least I am speaking my truth, which counts for something. I thank God for that gift. I also thank my ancestors who fought and died for me to be able to speak this truth freely.