On Michael Brown and Toni Morrison

When I was a child, I would cry when I was called names. It didn’t seem like anyone else was getting the same treatment, but in victim mode, one seldom sees anyone else’s pain and misery but their own. Continue reading “On Michael Brown and Toni Morrison”

Before

Before Michael Brown, there were others.

Trayvon Martin, Roger Owensby. Timothy Thomas. Emmett Till. There were so many others.

The black community has been under assault by “law enforcement” for decades, and law enforcement has historically gotten away with it.

The Rev. C.T. Vivian, of whom I am writing an authorized biography, when I asked him how black people are to cope, not just with the murders of unarmed black people, but the lack of justice, and therefore of respect and dignity, said that we have to realize our strength, and realize that white people know that what we as a people suffer is brutal. (my word, “brutal,” not his.) He said, “Most white people realize that they could not live as black people do. They realize they would not be able to handle it.”

I relate to what is going on, and to what has always gone on with sanction in this nation, as a mother of a son. I have a daughter, too, but it is my son that I worry about, just because he is a black male. He does not do drugs. He does not have a criminal record. He knows “how to act” if stopped by police.

But none of that matters.

And that’s what scares me. Black people do not have to have a criminal record or be doing something wrong in order to be gunned down with abandon …by police. White officers and black officers have the same obsession with power, it looks like. They do not like to be challenged or questioned…and they know they have the upper hand. They too often shoot first and ask questions (or make up a story) later. No matter how compelling is the evidence that they are in the wrong, they get off.

That is scary.

The nation, this nation, cannot be “exceptional” so long as such barbarity within the ranks of law enforcement exists, because the actions of those who are supposed to serve and protect are causing a huge swath of parents and loved ones to suffer emotional pain that is ignored and minimized.

Black people have lived on the hope, the faith, that God will make a way …out of this madness caused by the dehumanization of them and their children. But God has been slow. Black parents stand weeping on the banks of “Red Seas,” holding out a metaphorical “rod,” waiting for the sea of injustice to part, but the parting has not happened yet, not after all these years.

The parents and loved ones of all of these unarmed black people are standing on the shore of that sea, waiting for God.

But God has been slow. It feels like God has been absent, actually.

It is horrible that police officers have been randomly killed, but here’s the difference between slain police officers and slain black people. Whomever has killed a police officer will be brought to justice. Most police officers who kill unarmed and many times, innocent black people, even if charged with a crime, will go free. There will be no justice.

That reality is the fuel of the Black Lives Matter movement. The lack of justice speaks to the core belief of this nation that black people do not matter, and never have. The lack of justice undermines the words of the United States Constitution, which black people and those concerned with justice latch onto, “All men are created equal.”

Not so. It wasn’t the case when the Constitution was drafted and it isn’t the case now.

I wonder if any of people who are so quick to blame black people for our lot in life ever stop to think about the effects of being dehumanized. I wonder if they feel it when black mothers cry, when little black kids are put in handcuffs for doing things little kids of all races have always done …because they’re little. I wonder if white mothers feel the pain of the mothers of Trayvon and Michael and Jordan and Roger and TImothy and Renisha and Sandra and Freddie and Sam…and so many. So many…

Please understand. Parents and loved ones feel the pain when black lives are taken by other black people…but the difference is that black people who kill other black people are usually brought to justice and end up in prison. It is small consolation but at least it represents justice.

The cry that some are trying to vilify and call representative of hate is a cry that is filled with anguish about being used, exploited, and then being discarded. American society uses black people (and poor people) for cheap labor, exploits the, unwilling to give them decent wages so they can take care of their families, and then discarding them when they cry out for help as their loved ones are mowed down by state-sanctioned actions of law enforcement officers.

Law enforcement doesn’t care about black lives. The education system doesn’t care about black lives (schools for black children are the worst of all schools). America doesn’t care …about black lives.

Before Michael Brown there were others, so many others…

And we live in a nation that just does not care.

A candid observation

Emmett, Trayvon and Michael

It is a notable fact that in our country, major racial strife and a subsequent movement followed the lynching of young, black men.

That is not to say that black women have not been lynched. In fact, black women’s bodies have been brutalized by whites in this country in a way nobody likes to talk about. It is a great irony that while white men were lynching black men to protect their women from “the black beast,” which they considered black men to be, they were in fact raping black women with abandon. Because white people did not consider black people to be human, what white men did to black women was discarded and considered as a right they had in doing what they wanted to their property.

That’s another piece altogether.

But in thinking about what is going on now in this nation’s Black Lives Matter movement, it is clear that it has been the brutalization, the lynching, of young black men which has periodically set the country on fire. Not only have the murders of the black men been a catalyst for social upheaval, but also the lack of justice in their murders has stoked the fires of resentment and pain carried by black people in this country.

The protest today is centered around the police killings of young black men, but in the cases of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin, it has been white vigilantes who have done the killing. In both cases, the murderers were tried and acquitted of wrongdoing. Their lives did not matter; the pain of their parents and loved ones did not matter, either. Emmett Till was killed on August 28, 1955 in Money, Mississippi, yanked from his uncle’s house in Mississippi as he slept because he allegedly winked at a white woman. He was beaten beyond recognition and his body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River. Emmett’s murderers had a trial but were acquitted after only an hour’s deliberation by the all-white, all-male jury.

We all remember that George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin and Officer Darren Wilson was not even bound over for trial in the killing of Michael Brown.

What struck me as I thought about these three young men was that they were all lynched. No, not in the classic “rope hanging from a tree” sense, but in the sense that their killings were done by white people who believe it is their duty, almost, to rid the world of those whom they deem to be unworthy of living. While Emmett was thrown into the Tallahatchie River, Michael Brown was allowed to lie on the hot pavement of a city street while officers in Ferguson built a case around his not being “a saint.” The murderers of Till tried to hide his body; the murderers of Brown left his body exposed so that the world could see what happened to people who messed with police.  Trayvon was not hidden or left lying exposed like Emmett or Michael, but his body did lie in a morgue for three days, listed as a “John Doe,” though he was killed feet from his father’s residence in a gated community in Florida. Tracy Martin, his father, had been looking for his son since the night he was killed; the morning after he didn’t come home, Martin called the police, looking for Trayvon. It was only then that he found out that his son had lain in the morgue for three days.

Three young men, one 14 years old, one 17 years old and another, 18 years old, were killed because they were black; being black made them “suspect,” and worthy of being brutalized.

None of these young men were treated …like they matter. From being stalked and “looking suspicious” as was the case with Trayvon, to engaging in a youthful flirt with a white woman in the case of Emmett, to refusing to treat a police officer, Darren Wilson, with appropriate deference, these young men lost their lives.

And too few people in the white community care about it.

If it had been my son, gunned down and then left in the street for hours, I would be furious now, just as I would be furious had my son been gunned down because he “looked suspicious.” I would be even more furious, deeply hurt, and probably inconsolable if my son’s killers were acquitted of any crime.

This nation has a plethora of mothers (and fathers) who are carrying the deepest of hurts and grief …and measured fury. The parents and loved ones of Jordan Davis, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, and literally hundreds more black people …are carrying hurt, grief …and fury. Their sadness is part of the fabric of this nation; it is an ever-deepening undercurrent of America.

The presidential candidates have, so far, all but ignored the Black Lives Matter movement. The participants in the movement are being cast off as “troublemakers.” They are. There needs to be trouble when injustice keeps on happening. If there is no trouble, nobody will listen.

Mamie Till started this wave of trouble-making when she would not permit the white people who killed her son to keep his death a secret. They thought it was over when they threw him in the river, but Mamie made them look for her son. They thought it was over when they said they would bury her son in Mississippi, but Mamie refused to let them. She took her son home to Chicago and had his horribly destroyed body photographed so that the whole world would see what the white people had done to her son.

Sybrina Martin, Trayvon’s mother, and Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr, the parents of Michael, sought justice for their sons and were deeply disappointed as the justice system refused them. Not only did the lives of their sons not matter, but neither did their lives matter, apparently, as parents seeking justice.

These three young men, robbed of life, clearly did not matter to the men who shot and killed them; they are mentioned here only because their parents  refused to remain silent.  The parents of others robbed of life in this way …are refusing to remain silent. The young people who are marching and chanting and demanding to be heard are marching because they know their own lives are in danger. They know they do not matter much, either. They also know that the only way anyone will listen …is for them to be “troublemakers.”

I think Emmett, Trayvon and Michael …and all of the others who have been gunned down largely because they were black people in America …would like that. I think their deaths ..deserve that. Their lives, and the lives of all the others …mattered.

A candid observation …

Policing in America

A friend of mine caught me off guard when he said, out of the blue, “Police here are radicalized.”

It’s not like this guy is a bleeding heart liberal. He’s a middle of the road, sometimes Conservative, sometimes Liberal guy who used to be a police officer. He has been in the military …and he has a lot of soldier and police officer friends. “A lot of those guys are really nice guys,” he said quietly, “but there are a few who have been radicalized.”

I had to ask him what he meant. When we hear the word “radicalized,” we usually think of people who have been snagged by ISIS and trained to be brutes. Radicalized Muslim extremists, if the news is to be believed, are the ones to be aware and be afraid of. They are the ones who bomb buildings and cut peoples’ heads off. They are the ones who do suicide bombings. The way they are described, they are pure evil, worthy of being extinguished from the face of the earth, or at least from the face of America. So, the term “radicalized” caught me off guard.

“What I mean is, these guys have been taught to hate black people. They have been taught that black people are bad and are to be feared. They grow up with that and then they become police officers. It’s perfect for them. They have the law behind them; they are free to kill “the bad guys,” who, in their minds, are often black. They are like the modern KKK. They don’t wear white sheets anymore. They wear blue uniforms and have badges and they carry guns. They are as free to kill black people as was the KKK. Trust and believe me on this one.”

His tone was somber. He was angry but he was serious in his analysis of what is going on in America today. He knows well the line that police say, “I was in fear for my life.” “That’s all you have to say,” he said, “and you are pretty much justified in using your weapon.”

I had to look up the word “radicalization.” According to the National Counterterrorism Center, radicalization is “is a process by which an individual or group comes to adopt increasingly extreme political, social, or religious ideals and aspirations that (1) reject or undermine the status quo or (2) reject and/or undermine contemporary ideas and expressions of freedom of choice.”

Is that what happens to people who are taught to hate?

We know that in America, hatred has been the seedbed of white supremacy. In spite of belief in God and claims to be Christian, it has been hatred, not agape love, mercy and forgiveness that have been the central beliefs of those who have killed, maimed and discriminated against people because of their color. That is indisputable.

So, are many white children in America radicalized from an early age?  And is radicalization of a white American who grows up to shoot, lynch, beat and discriminate against people of color any less a threat than is a religious extremist who is involved in ISIS? Is ISIS any better than the Ku Klux Klan?

There is yet another piece to this police issue in America that is problematic. We all remember last year in Ferguson when the people were in the streets, mostly peaceful, and the police came out in full military gear. It was like a war; the police were the “good guys” and the black people protesting the death of Michael Brown and so many other issues, were “the enemy.” It was hard to watch, but it was clear that the police were positioning themselves as those in power. There was nothing the people on the streets could do to beat the tanks and military-style weapons. Ferguson was a war zone …and the police …had the power.

This power issue seems to be at the heart of racism, white supremacy and police brutality. Not all that long ago, it was the power that white people had that made black people afraid and caused the Great Migration. White people knew they could accuse a black person of something and there didn’t even have to be a trial. A black person could be and was killed often on the back of an unsubstantiated accusation. Black people wanting to vote could lose their jobs, their homes …and their lives. It was fear that drove black people ..fear caused by the unrestrained and unharnessed power of white people.

Any challenge to that power – then and now – is deadly. When one looks at the tapes of what happened to Sandra Bland and Sam Dubose, it is clear that it is not only racism that is operating, but a brute show of power. Both officers in both those incidents became incensed when their authority was challenged. Challenging the authority and power of white people has always been dangerous for black people in this nation. Police, it seems, (and this is not just white officers, but officers in general), have been seduced by the power they have, and they do not tolerate being challenged. For many officers, it appears that  the show of power extends into their private lives; study show that officers are two to four times more likely to engage in domestic abuse than the general population.  (http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/09/police-officers-who-hit-their-wives-or-girlfriends/380329/).

It feels like we need to understand the landscape of the issue with which we are dealing if we want to effect change as concerns policing in America. Many of these officers are nice people, that is for sure …but many others are brutes …or thugs ….who do violent things to people – people of color or their own families – because they can. It seems that this systemic violence which is a part of policing in America needs to be studied carefully so that something can be done to stop the tragic deaths of people who have done nothing or, at best, committed some minor traffic infraction.

Just a thought …and a candid observation.

Sandra Bland and the Perpetual Absence of Justice for Black People

This morning, I am mourning.

It is the day after Sandra Bland has been buried, and the police department in Hempstead, Texas, and other authorities, have decreed that Sandra killed herself. This 28-year-old black woman, who was about to begin a new life in a new job, has been tossed aside as a reject by the state. Her body, her talent, her very being was not worth saving and is apparently not worth the honor of a just investigation. To say her death was a suicide is easy; it is an “oh, well!” type of response which relieves the police from having to look further, dig deeper and perhaps own responsibility for the result of what happened after this young woman was arrested for something that clearly was not an arrestable offense.

I am in mourning, not just for Sandra, but for all of the other black people who have been likewise thrown away by the system called justice. I say it that way because it has not provided justice for black people in so many instances. I found myself thinking last night about the Constitution and how it is always lifted as the benchmark for all “right” decisions, and yet, the words of the U.S. Constitution, when it has clearly said that people are entitled to a trial with a jury of their peers, have so often been ignored when it has come to black people. So many times, too often, black people, many of them innocent of the crime for which they’ve been accused, have been tried by all-white juries, filled with people who have had disdain for black people and who had no regard for throwing them in prison and whenever possible, giving them the death penalty. Our justice system has allowed white people to kill or maim black people without fear of reprisal, while at the same time, historically, prevented black people from testifying against white people. No justice. No peace. None.

The police have been on the trails of black people since the days of slavery, when people could hunt down escaped black slaved and kill them if they felt like they wanted to. No reprisal. The Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850 authorized governments to seize and return escaped slaves and meted out severe punishments for anyone who impeded their capture. (http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/fugitive-slave-acts) Though those laws were repealed, the spirit of those laws never died, and what police do today in their treatment of black people feels like those acts are still hovering over and inside the halls of justice everywhere in this country. Black people are no longer slaves, technically, but they are slaves in terms of how they are treated and regarded by the justice system.

I am in mourning.

I am mourning for the loss of Sandra and John and Trayvon and Jordan and Renisha and Michael and Freddie and so many others. I am mourning because they are gone and there has been no justice and I am mourning because their parents and loved ones have been left to fend for themselves as they manage their pain in light of the lack of justice. Could I handle it, were it one of my children who had been so unjustly dealt with by the justice system? I think not.

When Emmett Till was lynched, his mother gathered strength from somewhere I still cannot grasp in order to make the world deal with what had been done to him. .It is said that the people in Money. Mississippi wanted to just bury young Till’s body quickly in Mississippi but that Mamie said, “Oh, no.” She traveled to Mississippi and it is said that she could smell the stench of her son’s body as it lay in a local funeral home some blocks away as soon as she got off the train. She pulled strength …from somewhere. She marched to that funeral home and made herself look at her son’s mutilated and decomposing body. He was swollen and nearly unrecognizable as the young kid she had sent to see relatives …but she stood there and looked at him and recognized the ring of his dad he had put on before he left Chicago. She took her son back to Chicago and had an open casket and allowed the media to take pictures of her son as he lay there, because she wanted the world to see what “they had done” to her son. When the two men accused of the crime were put on trial, she traveled back to Mississippi and was in the court every day of their trial …and had to pull that strength …from somewhere …when they were acquitted.

No justice. No peace.

Black people are killed and have so often been said to have committed suicide. In working on a project with Ruby Sales of the SpiritHouse Project, I read report after report of black people who ended up dead while in police custody and so many of the reports said the victims had committed suicide. I had to stop periodically and, as my grandmother would say, “gather myself,” because the tears would not stop flowing. They were tears of pain, of anger and of incredulity. The justice system offered these reports as truth, and expected parents and family to just accept their words as truth. How could they? How could they offer such insulting explanations and expect us to just get over it and accept it …and move on?

There’s a reason the chant is “no justice, no peace,” and that’s because for anyone, when there is no justice, there is no peace. Fred Goldman, whose son, Ronald Goldman O.J. Simpson was accused of murdering, had no peace when Simpson was acquitted. The nation had no peace, and has no peace, as the killer of Jon Benet has not been apprehended. No justice. No peace. Had the killer of John Lennon not been apprehended, and convicted, there would have been no peace.

So, why are black people, who so frequently have no arrests, no convictions of the people who kill their loved ones, supposed to have peace in spite of there is so often …no justice?

This nation has a huge swath of people who are in perpetual mourning. Not only are there people in mourning, but there are parents and relatives who are uptight whenever their young ones are out. Black people are not safe here. Black people cannot count on the police or the justice system to protect them and make sure there is justice for them. There is too often no justice; there is no peace.

The parents and family and friends of Sandra Bland are crying this morning not only because Sandra is gone but also because now they have to deal with this system which has the reputation of casting black bodies away and not seeking justice. The families of Michael Brown and John Crawford and Trayvon Martin are left holding their grief in check while justice slides through the sieve into which their loved ones’ cases have been placed.

No justice. No peace.

All we can do is keep on trying, keep on pushing for justice. It ought not be this hard, but it is and has always been. As exhausting as it is to fight, African-Americans have to stay on the battlefield. Power concedes nothing without a demand.

There is a demand. Justice. Without it, no peace.

A candid observation …