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 (http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/fugitive-slave-acts) Though those laws were repealed, the spirit of those laws never died, and what police do today in their treatment of black people feels like those acts are still hovering over and inside the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 …

Youth Paralyzed; Police Who Allegedly Shot Him Still Working

English: Image of Ella Baker, an African Ameri...
English: Image of Ella Baker, an African American civil rights and human rights activist. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Here’s a new name of a young black man who has been victimized by police: Leon Ford.

 

Yesterday, I wrote that “we the people” need to be aware of what is going on as concerns the plight of young black men in this country, and that we need to step up and fight for justice for these young men who are being criminalized, demonized, and worse.

 

Yesterday’s post was about three African-American males who, while waiting for a school bus to take them to a basketball scrimmage, were arrested by police officers and charged with disorderly conduct. Their coach who showed up and saw them in handcuffs, defended them to police, but he was told that if he did not be quiet he would be arrested, too. In fact, the coach said, officers threatened to arrest the entire team. (http://rolandmartinreports.com/blog/2013/12/coach-defends-students-arrested-at-bus-stop/).

 

Today, I listened to a story posted on the site of  The Root about a young African-American male who was shot and paralyzed by police officers one year ago in Pittsburgh. It was a routine traffic stop. The young man, Leon Ford, was asked by police officers to produce his driver’s license and registration, which he did. Police were looking for a “young black man wearing a white tee-shirt,” the story said.  Leon fit that description …just like any number of black males can fit on any given day. The man they were looking for had done something …but officers didn’t bother to verify if Leon was the man they were looking for; he was a black man who fit their paltry description. The video on the site shows police officers trying to physically pull Leon out of his car. There is another officer on the passenger side. Police said that it looked like there was something bulging from Leon’s waist, and so the officer on the passenger side of the car jumped into the car as the frightened youth sped off.  Officers shot the young man five times, resulting in his paralysis. Not only is he severely injured, but is facing charges related to the incident that could land him in prison for 20 years. (http://www.theroot.com/articles/culture/2013/12/shot_by_pittsburgh_cops_leon_ford_tells_his_story.html?wpisrc=newsletter_jcr:content)

 

I literally wept when I read the story.

 

I just finished putting together a report for the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference, Inc, led by General Secretary Iva Carruthers,  on the phenomenon of mass incarceration in this country, something that has resulted in more African-Americans being locked up than we even realize. I have done some work with Ruby Sales, the director of the Spirit House Project, talking with parents of youth who have been terrorized, harassed, jailed and yes, killed by white officers and vigilantes. The problem is not getting better! It is getting worse. With the growth of the Prison Industrial Complex and its need to keep prisons filled, there is little incentive for this type of vigilante injustice to stop. Our young men are being drawn to the slaughter…and it is getting worse!

 

There are the names we know: Trayvon Martin, Kendrick Johnson, Oscar Grant, and a woman, Renisha McBride and now, Leon Ford…but for every one of them for whom we know their names and stories, there are probably scores of young black people who have been murdered or imprisoned unjustly. The number grows. Young black men are helping to fuel American corporations – from food pantries to phone companies – and because of the demonization of black people which American society has bought into, nobody says anything.

 

I looked at the faces of the parents of Leon Ford. I met the parents of Kendrick Johnson and remember their faces. I can still see the face of Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother …and it is heartbreaking. It makes me want to scream, “Dammit! OUR KIDS COUNT!” When shootings occur in white schools, news reports say that counselors are sent in to help students cope, but when shootings occur in black schools or black neighborhoods, we don’t hear of that intervention. Who is helping the parents of these young people to cope? Who is helping young Ford cope with his new reality of not being able to walk?

 

Justice work is long and hard. People and institutions in power are not easily moved, and yet, we who believe in justice cannot just sit by. It was Kendrick Johnson earlier this year and Leon Ford last year; tomorrow it may be one of our own children.

 

The danger of being silent when so much injustice is going on cannot be overstated. Politicians can be moved by the power and presence of an energized populace. We elect them, remember? It is time for us to see how we can act and help and bring attention to what is going on. If we are silent, the forces that are bringing such heinous destruction are going to keep on going. The justice system, including juries, are still too eager to buy into the notion that black people are bad and deserve what they get. George Zimmerman was acquitted, remember? And the officers who shot Leon Ford …are still working, on the streets, with pay.

 

Just last evening, I read a statement by the late Ella Baker, who organized the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and who said, as regards the sit-ins that were being conducted by students that the problem was “much bigger than a hamburger and even a giant-sized Coke.”  She said that the students were working to “eliminate racial discrimination and segregation not only at lunch counters but in every aspect of life.”

 

What is clear is that the battle has not yet been won. There has been declared open warfare on black youths …and it must stop. I am afraid that only the constant and persistent attention given to what is going on by people who believe in justice will be the only way the tide will stem. We cannot be silent or unwilling to take this issue on!

 

To be in touch with organizations that are working on this issue, go to http://sdpconference.info/2013-samuel-dewitt-proctor-conference/ or to http://www.spirithouseproject.org/.

 

We who believe in freedom and justice …cannot stop.

 

A candid observation ..

 

Dangerous to be Black in America

The man who is accused of shooting and killing 19-year-old Renisha McBride says he was afraid for his life …and that he shot her in the face “accidentally” with his 12-gauge shotgun.

Sounds painfully familiar. Didn’t George Zimmerman say the same thing when he shot Trayvon Martin? And the police officer who shot Jonathan Ferrell  – didn’t he say he was afraid, which was why he pumped 10 bullets into Ferrell after having shot at him 12 times? What

What is clear is that it is dangerous to be black in America. Because black people have been criminalized and objectified, it is easy for a police officer or citizen or vigilante to claim that the killing of any given black person was “justified,” and that the shooting happened because the shooter …was in fear of his life.

Whenever I am in a strange neighborhood which also happens to be predominantly white, I am nervous. If I have to pull into someone’s driveway to turn around, again, I am nervous.  I realize that fear and racism, mixed together, make for deadly consequences. There has been, says Ruby Sales, founder and director of the SpiritHouse Project, a “rampant return of white vigilante violence that has resulted in black bodies being thought of as disposable and black people thought of as human waste.”  Instinctively, I know that that feeling is pervasive, and I have seen black people try unsuccessfully to defend themselves or loved ones in cases where there has been a tragic shooting.

Nobody listens to or believes the black accused.

In New York just this week, a 20-year old black male was released from prison after he had been accused of , tried, and convicted for a robbery. From the moment he was “snatched” off the streets in the Bronx, where Kalief Browder was walking home from a party, he protested his innocence …but nobody listened to him. Nearly in tears, he told reporters that he had missed his last years of high school, his graduation and momentous events in his life. In his face there is still a look of shocked and pained incredulity. (http://abclocal.go.com/wabc/story?section=news%2Finvestigators&id=9317078)

Somebody needs to say something. I mean, not just somebody, but a lot of somebodies, black parents and relatives who are, as Fannie Lou Hamer said, are “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”  The late Gordon Cosby, pastor of Church of the Savior, remembers Sales, would say today, in light of the shootings and killings that are happening at the hands of police and vigilantes, that it is not enough to be outraged. People who care, Cosby would say, would be “compelled to change” what is going on.

The question is, “how does one change something that is so completely systemic, insidious and basically ignored by “the law?” How does one change something that “the law,” in fact, seems to implicitly support? It seems part and parcel of the same attitude that accepts violence in black neighborhoods and schools, even as children are gunned down, without a word, and, in fact, assists in the criminalization of even the youngest students by arresting kids for things that used to get kids sent to the principal’s office.

Change can only come if those who are outraged speak up and speak out,  making more and more people aware of what is going on. Onie Johns, the founder of The Caritas Village in Memphis, Tennessee, has set up a “ministry of presence” there. She moved from the comfort of the suburbs to a house in the inner city where she sees and lives how “the least of these” lives daily. The mission of Caritas is to “break down the walls of hostility between the races and build bridges of love and trust between the rich and those made poor.”

Such a “ministry of presence,” practiced by those who are content and willing to accept the outlandish story of the man who allegedly shot Renisha McBride in the face, might help cut down this senseless, cruel and racist trend – and far too frequent trend –  of fearing for one’s life when a black person is in distress, seeking help. It might make people show compassion and concern, instead of cruelty and viciousness, supported by that fear.

Black parents know the drill in teaching their kids how to interact with a police officer, should he or she ever be stopped. Funny, we haven’t so much given the same drill, instruction on how to act when confronted by a vigilante, or what to do if they get into trouble and need help if they are in a white neighborhood.  We haven’t been teaching our kids on how to act, live and survive in a world where, apparently, far too many people look at us as “the boogie man.”

Perhaps we ought to begin. I am so tired of white people being afraid of black people …just because we’re black.

A candid observation …

Behold the Innocent Murdered …

Behold the innocent murdered …

I am involved in the work of SpiritHouse Project, which has been investigating cases of systemic violence against black people for some time now.

The names keep popping up: Trayvon Martin, Kendrick Johnson, Jonathan Ferrell …and now, a 19-year old black woman, Renisha McBride – young, innocent black people who have been gunned down or beaten to death, victims of systemic violence in this nation.

Why does it keep on happening?  Why are the innocent continuously slaughtered – either by police or vigilantes – and so few people express outrage?

It is clear that nobody can fight injustice alone. No, there is needed a cadre of people with different skills and gifts and talents, in order to challenge “the system,” to shake it at its core. There is needed people who are in “the struggle” for the long haul, who are willing to do what it takes to make policy makers know that “we the people” are their bosses. “We the people” have power, the power, to change corrupt and/or apathetic governments and lawmakers.

We just don’t realize it.

Part of what made people aware of how despicable lynching was was the refusal of Emmett Till‘s mother, Mamie Tills, to let authorities sweep the issue under the rug. She made people see the face of her battered son, and people began to be moved. Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, pushed the system, which did not want to finagle with a trial against George Zimmerman. The parents of Kendrick Johnson, along with supporters, have been sitting outside municipal offices in Valdosta, Georgia, pushing “the system” to listen to them. The United States Justice Department has decided to further investigate Johnson’s death.

In the work I am doing with SpiritHouse, I am talking with mothers and relatives of murdered young people, getting the facts and the stories, wiping away my own tears as I watch tears fall from the eyes of distressed parents. One woman, the mother of a young man slain in Florida, and left to die on the side of the road by law enforcement officers, says her own health has suffered as she pushes against “the system.” She has seizures now …and is sometimes hospitalized …but she will not give up.

What we don’t see ourselves, we distance ourselves from. But these murders, which have never stopped happening, seem to be getting more and more frequent. Is it really the case that a black person had better not knock on the door of a home if he/she needs help if that home happens to be in a white neighborhood?  And will the justice system really keep jamming in the faces of “us” the people that certain people just do not matter?

I hope not. I hope there is justice in the case of Jonathan Ferrell, Kendrick Johnson, and now, Renisha McBride. I hope the families with which Ruby Sales and SpiritHouse Project and myself are working will get justice.

It is time. It is so time that America, which fights for human rights everywhere else, fights as hard for human rights right here on the mainland.

Behold the innocent, murdered. And God help us if we don’t push for justice. There but for the grace of God go ourselves, our children, our lives …

A candid observation …

No Justice for Black Men

It is beyond the pale of understanding, what happens sometimes in the name of justice.

We are all still reeling from the Trayvon Martin case. Had it not been for the pushing of Sybrina Fulton that her son’s death be investigated and that there be a trial, young Martin would have just been another black kid who bit the dust, who had been shot by a vigilante, for sure, but who had probably deserved his own death. If I am not mistaken, I think something to that effect was suggested in the trial of George Zimmerman by Zimmerman’s defense team – that Martin was responsible for his own death.

Martin’s death and the subsequent trial, with the nearly all-white jury acquitting Zimmerman, was hard to swallow.  It was another instance of justice denied…but Martin’s situation was in no way an isolated event.

Most recently, there was a 43-year-old black man, Jack Lamar Roberson, who was shot and killed in his home in Waycross, Georgia, as he walked out of his kitchen with, apparently, two butter knives. An emergency squad was called by Roberson’s fiancée after Roberson took too much of his medication for his diabetes and was acting strange.  The news report said, however, that police responded to her call. When they came into the Roberson home, they saw him coming out of the kitchen “with weapons in his hands.” Police said he “raised his hand in a threatening manner,” (another report said he lunged at them) and they shot and killed him.

Diane Roberson, Roberson’s mother, said the police are lying, a charge that is not hard to believe. Police have far too often shot and either wounded or killed black men and have gotten off with the story that they felt threatened. America accepts their explanations far too often, and the cost, of course, is black lives snuffed out with hardly a word about it.

Black people have been criminalized, there is no doubt. It is a process that began after Reconstruction, when white people in the South, angry that they had lost good and free labor when slavery was abolished, came up with a system of enslaving blacks in another way. The Convict Lease system was carefully built and supported by charging black men for minor offenses and jailing them when they could not pay fees (which were purposely set too high for them to afford). They were leased out to farmers and businesses, where they worked for little to nothing, and could be re-sentenced if, at the end of one sentence, they couldn’t pay the fees to become totally free. Little by little, white America began to see that black people were always in jail, with the claim that black people were not suited to be free. The image and the message circulated was that black people were bad, were criminals …and that began to breed a fear of black people that has only grown.

The fact that Mark O’Mara, George Zimmerman’s attorney, could and would suggest that Trayvon Martin caused his own death still infuriates me. The fact that law enforcement was not going to investigate Martin’s death but was going to just take Zimmerman’s word, is infuriating.  In Waycross, Georgia, there is the case of young Kendrick Johnson, whose death law enforcement ruled an “accident.” He was found in a wrestling mat, and the story was that he died reaching for a shoe. Justice? Really? His parents said the story reeked and asked for his body to be exhumed and a second autopsy be done, and that autopsy revealed that Johnson died of blunt force trauma to the neck.

There are so many cases of black men being killed by law enforcement or by vigilantes and nobody says anything …or, if they do, their voices are snuffed out. Black mothers, if they are smart, are still telling their sons to be careful, and are still telling them how to engage with police officers.  Police officers are supposed to be the protectors of the innocent, but in the case of black men, they are very often the aggressors whose actions are accepted and sanctioned.

Ruby Sales, a veteran civil rights worker and the founder and co-director of the Spirit House Project, has begun in earnest to look into these murders. Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow, has broken open the disparities inherent in the incarceration of black people in this nation. Iva Carruthers, general secretary of the Samuel Dewitt Conference, Inc., has held hearings all over the country, getting testimony from people from whom justice has been withheld.

Slowly, but surely, these cases are coming to light. There is no need in saying that America is a democracy when in fact the justice system is not interested in “liberty and justice for all.” Too many black men are dying under suspicious circumstances …and “we the people” need to know it and work to end it.

A candid observation …