Image Above by Ben Kesling via Twitter
Yesterday I was asked to comment on the police shooting of Michael Brown on Radio 24/syv in Copenhagen. (audio below – skip to 1:44:35)
The segment was short and direct, and though I felt it went well, the details and nuances of a discussion on racism in American law enforcement merits a much longer discussion. So I’ve decided to write a few things down.
This past weekend, two Americans died tragically, their deaths both widely publicized in the media. Robin Williams, a legendary comedian beloved worldwide, was found dead in his California home – an apparent suicide. Michael Brown, an 18 year old high school graduate who was 2 days away from his first day of college, was shot to death by police in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis. With the exception of their coincidental timing, these two deaths are ostensibly completely unrelated… and yet the attention these coincidental deaths receive in the news media, social media, and in our private conversations is a tell on our social and cultural priorities.
I’m seeing a lot of posts on my Facebook feed today about Robin Williams. The late young Mr. Brown, not so much.
While I am sad to hear of one of my favorite actors leaving this world (euphemisms seem more appropriate for Robin, for some reason I’ll totally get to later) I am far more disturbed, disheartened, and in despair over the police shooting of Michael Brown. This young man’s death is sadly not an isolated incident of police overstepping the use of force. There have been far too many cases where police officers have drawn their firearms, aimed at civilians and pulled the trigger without exhausting other options to deal with suspects. To be fair, not all cases are motivated by the same factors. Not all situations present the same level of danger. Every case is unique, and policing is a very difficult job to do. However, with all things considered, the issue of the day for Michael Brown that cannot be ignored is the color of his skin. Brown is one of a long list of unarmed African Americans who have been shot and killed by police officers. In the most memorable (shocking) cases, officers have killed unarmed black Americans, and went free without being convicted of any crime.
The high profile cases that got the media’s attention in recent years – Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo – among others, all highlight a serious issue that is deeply embedded in American society, not only within the justice system. The police are trained, hired, employed and expected to serve and protect the citizens in their jurisdictions. That is their job. Unfortunately that’s not always the job they do. At a certain point, it becomes apparent that some police officers do not value the lives of all American citizens equally.
Now, it is at this point in the conversation where paths of thought diverge, debate gets heated, and facts become relative, if not secondary to the emotionally charged opinions that racial issues inevitably stir. If you’re about to click the “x” on the window because you think I’m already way too biased, I implore you, stick around and at least read another line or two of my biased point of view. Maybe you’ll see where I’m coming from.
DISCLAIMER: I’m black. I have been for some time now.
Asger Juhl felt it was necessary to establish that fact during my interview at Radio 24/syv. That’s the main reason they asked me to come to the radio station and give some commentary, and I’m cool with that. Being black is a relevant facet of my identity – in the same way that any identifying marker becomes relevant… for instance, when a marker like skin color is used to delineate the expectations of people, how folks get treated under the law, what privileges they are afforded, what rights they have, and what opportunities they are able to avail themselves of, then skin color is very relevant. And therein lies the most important fact about Michael Brown’s identity and his atrocious death. The day he was gunned down the police, this young man’s blackness equated to him being dehumanized by the very officers sworn to protect his life.
How can I say such a thing? Because the police in Ferguson are not treating black folks like people. You see, the police in Ferguson have a documented history of racially profiling black residents and stopping and arresting them at a shockingly disproportionate rate. Moreover, St. Louis is a city with a long history of racial tensions and segregation. The racism there is not imagined; it is very very real, and it cannot be excluded from the discussion of this young man’s death at the hands of police.
What comes next seems like the obvious question – “doesn’t that mean black people are simply committing more crimes than white people?” No. Just… no. What the reports about arrests and profiling indicate is that the police are policing black people more. That’s it. There is no data about how many crimes are committed by whites that go unnoticed, go unenforced, are not prosecuted, or are simply not investigated. We don’t have those numbers. What it boils down to is that if you are black and you do something illegal in Ferguson, you are twice as likely to be caught. Or you could just be black and in the wrong neighborhood… and if you assert your rights as an American to have the freedom that any citizen should be able to demand – or even if you run away screaming in fear – you run the risk of being accosted, being frisked, being violated and perhaps incited to provoke the over-zealous response of police officers (and neighborhood watchmen) who’ve already determined your guilt before ever open your mouth. Worst case scenario – you get killed in broad daylight by the police, your body left to lay in the street for hours.
To have the police in Missouri gun down an unarmed black teenager in the same year that Cliven Bundy, a white cattle rancher in Nevada backed up by several militia could engage in a standoff with federal rangers – in which several militia members were not only armed, but aiming their guns at the police – and walk away, scott free is I think the the clearest paradigm of a national miscarriage of social justice. Mr. Bundy had the full support of several media characters, until he said something stupid about black people and picking cotton. But I digress… I cannot imagine a group of armed black militia men getting into standoff with police without any shots being fired – especially when unarmed black kids can’t even stand with their hands up or lay on the ground with their hands behind their back without being shot to death by police.
And yet, with these glaringly obvious contradictions staring us all in the face, it seems that we are unable to come to grips with the unacceptable reality that is the American experience. We ignore the news we can’t handle. Ignore the context. Ignore the crimes against humanity in favor of celebrity news and the latest gossip. While tragedies that are part and parcel of the worst injustices seem too difficult to face, too impossible to deal with, to painful to endure we scroll through, click away, and type a digital prayer for our dearly departed entertainers who made us laugh and forget how desperately tragic our society has become.
Well I’m not a religious man, but tonight, I’ll say a prayer for Michael Brown and his family, for his community, for the society that declined rapidly in his lifetime, and the culture of injustice that inevitably killed him. We have got to do better than this.
Special thanks to Isabella Hundt Røhmann and Helene Marie Hassager and the rest of the staff at Radio 24/syv for reaching out to me.