Sunday, August 09, 2015

In Memoriam; In Hope

It was one year ago today that an 18-year old young man and his friend were walking down the middle of a quiet street that weaves through apartment buildings and one-story homes.  He had been a credit shy of graduating with his class, but had just completed the necessary work and had been awarded his diploma about a week before.  He was scheduled to begin studying at a technical college a few days later.  Everything changed when a police cruise stopped that Saturday afternoon and told the young men to get onto the sidewalk.  What happened in the next 90 seconds is still a matter of contentious debate.

The official version of events -- the version that led a Grand Jury to decide not to indict the Officer involved -- is that one of the young men struggled with the Officer through his car window, trying to get his gun.  This led to the officer's gun being discharged, the two young men turning and running, and the Officer leaving his vehicle and giving chase.  After a moment the fleeing men stopped and turned toward the officer who then, in fear for his own safety, fired his gun multiple times.  Six bullets struck the young man, fatally wounding him.  Less than 90 seconds after Officer Daren Wilson first encountered Michael Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson on Canfield Drive that Saturday, Brown lay dead.

Many of the elements of this official narrative continue to be in dispute.  The initial altercation may have been instigated by the way Officer Wilson first ordered the young men out of the road and onto the sidewalk.  The first acts of physical aggression may also have been on the Officer's part, and there are those who maintain that Michael Brown's hands were in the air in an obvious stance of surrender when he was shot.  

What cannot be disputed is the local and national response to these events.  In many ways the killing of Michael Brown -- an unarmed Black teenager -- at the hands of a White police officer catapulted the subject of the killing of young Black men into the national consciousness in a way that few things had.  Throughout the country protests sprang up -- some with elements of violent rioting; most with calm determination.  Even this became part of the discussion:  Why was the eruption of group violence in Black communities almost invariably called a "riot" when mass violence in white communities -- the turning over and setting on fire of automobiles by mobs of fans after a sporting event, for example -- were usually not?

The #BlackLivesMatter movement, which had begun after the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012, took on a new visibility and a new intensity.  For many White Americans the shooting of Michael Brown created a new-found awareness of the issue of the murder of Black men (and women, and children) at the hands of the (often White) police.  And while this particular case is what sparked the conversation, in many ways it's details are not what's most important.  Certainly, for the sake of justice it matters precisely what happened that Saturday morning in 2014.  The Grand Jury's determination not to indict Daren Wilson is not the same thing as a a verdict of innocence and as long as there are unresolved questions there will be no peace for Michael Brown's family and friends.

In terms of the larger issues of the killing of young Black men at rates that far exceed any rational explanation, the specifics of the events of that day become somewhat less important.  That's because the issue from that perspective really isn't whether or not Officer Wilson was justified in shooting Michael Brown.  What matters most is that Michael Brown joins a long list of other men and boys:

I'd originally collected those names for a blogpost I wrote back in December of 2014, and as I said then,  the list could go on ... and on ... and on.  And you'll notice that not all of those on the list are men and boys.  The rallying cry has been "Black Lives Matter" rather than "Black Male Lives Matter" because this systemic  and systematic devaluing of Black lives does not really favor one gender identity over another.  Yes, Black men (and boys) are killed and incarcerated at extraordinarily out-of-proportion rates, yet Black women, too, and Black transgender folk certainly face this too.

And it's important to remember that the devaluing of Black lives is not a new phenomena.  To this list we could add the names:  Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Lamar Smith, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Virgil Ware, Jimmy Lee Jackson and so many others who were killed during the so-called Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and 60s.  (The Southern Law Poverty Center has a website dedicated to "Civil Rights Martyrs.")   We could add the nearly 4,000 Black men and women who were lynched between roughly the late 1880s and the late 1960s. (A recent study reported that the number exceeded previous estimates.)  And then there are the estimated 2 million Africans who died during the Middle Passage, and all of the enslaved Africans who died on these shores since those first 20 Africans were brought to Jamestown in 1619.

It might not seem that these earlier incidents have anything to do with those going on right now.  (It's probably easier to think this if you're White than if you're Black.)  Yet none of this could have happened -- not then, not now -- if the lives of people of color were valued as much in this country as the lives of White people.  Let that sink in.  The "black lives matter" movement is really not a response to the recent examples of young Black men being killed by police.  Rather, it is a response to centuries -- hundreds of years! -- of evidence and lived experience. 

It is most certainly true that all lives matter.  When Walter Palmer shot and killed Cecile the lion in Zimbabwe recently, the national and international outrage was intense and instantaneous. Non-human life matters.  All lives matter.  Yes.  Yet at this moment in history there appears to be a crack forming in the shell of blindness which surrounds those who are part of of the dominant culture.  We -- straight, white, cisgender men of a certain socio-economic position -- are used to having our experiences, our reality, projected back to us as reality.  Our history, our lives, are the norm, and it is possible to go through one's whole life without ever quite understanding -- or even considering -- that other people's lives might be very different.

Yet today the mainstream media reports seemingly every week about the killings of one young Black man after another.  Over and again people of color tell their stories of living a far more danger-filled life than most White people could even imagine.  And it seems -- just maybe -- that a crack is appearing in that shell of blindness.  After Grand Juries declined to bring indictments in the killings of either Michael Brown or Eric Garner, a hashtag appeared -- #CrimingWhileWhite.  White people were understanding that the experiences they'd had with law enforcement officials were vastly different than those people of color have on a daily basis.  People were getting it.

50 years ago White America was shocked to see images of police with fire hoses and German Shepherds viciously attacking peaceful Black protestors.  The Civil Rights movement changed -- not immediately, but ineradicably.  Perhaps the events of the past year will create a similar shift.

Pax tecum,


Update:  One sharp-eyed reader noted that while the lists of names I cited included a fair number of women and boys, much of the text referred to violence against Black men.  I had intended by their inclusion in the lists to be clear that this is not a gender-limited problem, yet it appears I was not as clear as I'd hoped.  I have, then, gently edited this piece since it's original posting.

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Anonymous said...

Seems to me there are a significant number of women and girls in your list of men and boys. What about them?

RevWik said...

Thanks, Anonymous. As I noted in my update, my inclusion of the names of women and girls in these lists was intended to lift up that this is not just a problem facing Black men and boys. There was even a line or two in the original version of this that said that explicitly, yet I apparently was not as clear as I'd intended to be. In response to your comment I've edited the post to be more clear. "Black Lives Matter" is not a gender-based cry.

I do believe that it is still true, however, that the out-of-proportion killing of people of color by police, and their mass incarceration far beyond any reasonable explanation, falls considerably more on the shoulders of Black men and boys than it does on women and girls. Perhaps even here, though, the reason that the stories of women and girls are often relegated to the margins of the issue has something to do with the reason the stories of women and girls have always been relegated to the margins. Again, my intent in including them in the lists was to address this imbalance.