On Being Black in America, Part 1

This past week bore loud witness to one of the most disturbing and ignored aspects of American society: the mortal risk of being a black male in public. A recent study estimated that a black male is shot dead by police or security guards every 28 hours. Many of these victims of homicide will not be guilty of any crime, and unarmed, although virtually every killer will be released claiming they thought their victim was committing a crime and thought they were armed. Many of these homicides are committed in broad daylight in public settings with no criminal prosecutions resulting.

Eric Garner was choked to death on a street in New York City by the police. He was pleading with the officers killing him that he couldn’t breathe. Police later said that he was detained originally because he allegedly selling “loose cigarettes.”

None of the officers have been charged with a murder clearly captured on video. John Crawford was shopping at a Walmart in a predominately white suburb in Ohio, when he made the mistake of picking up a toy gun to buy for a nephew. On seeing a young black man talking on a cell phone and carrying a toy gun, alarmed Ohioans called security and the police. As Mr. Crawford was pleading the toy gun was not real and with his arms up, he was shot dead.

None of the guards or police have been charged. They claim he was not being “compliant” with their commands. The circumstance surrounding the homicide of Michael Brown are still unclear but suspiciously similar to the script. Mr. Brown and a friend were walking down a street when they were detained by an officer who told them to get on the sidewalk and produce IDs. One thing we do know is that he was shot at least several times as he stood holding his hands in the air. The police tell a different story.

They claim after the officer “politely” asked Brown and his friend to get on the sidewalk and wait, Brown charged the police vehicle, began beating the officer and attempted to grab his gun. Why Brown, a young man bound for college would suddenly become a crazed police killer is only one of the absurd questions being investigated by the police, as the officer who killed an unarmed man who was standing still with his arms raised is typical of these killings by the police. These investigations always involve substantiating the claims of the officer that the victim was armed, committing a crime and threatened their life.

Being stopped for no probable cause is an everyday occurrence for black men, and their socio-economic class is no exemption. I speak with African-American attorneys, doctors and other professionals who can all share incidents of police harassment. When I was younger, simply crossing 8 Mile Road as a black man was reason enough to be detained. “Driving while Black” is another well-known cause for harassment. If it’s hard for me as a white man to understand why this doesn’t create a rage, all I need to do is remember their reality: that even the most righteous anger can result in being shot dead.

This is a reality that white America won’t listen to. Martin Luther King once said that “riots were the language of those not being heard.” Eric Garner, John Crawford and Michael Brown will never be heard from again, but at least some people are speaking for them, and thousands like them.

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