Just a few days after my wedding in the summer of 2012 I decided to go for a run through the neighborhood while my husband slept in. I wasn’t gone for long, but I returned to my street to discover that it was blocked off by police. A crowd of people were standing near the blockades and when I asked what was going on, someone said that a young man carrying a gun was walking up and down the street. The street right in front of my home, where my new husband was resting. I didn’t have my phone with me (the point of running is to leave some things behind…) but luckily I was able to borrow a phone and called my husband to learn that he was safely upstairs. He didn’t know what was going on, but there were cops in front of the house. A few minutes later a neighbor who lived on a different street showed up to fetch me—I spent the next hour or so hanging out at their house, playing games with their young daughter.
That hour ended with a loud bang. After about a 90-minute stand-off, a police officer shot and killed 19-year-old Odell W. Brown.
We slowly learned about the facts of the case as they unfolded in news reports. Brown was distraught over a recent breakup. Someone called the police when they saw him in the street with a “gun” that later turned out to be a pellet gun. Brown refused to drop the weapon and eventually aimed it a deputy who then shot him.
“Suicide by cop” they called it.
Those three words haunt me.
The fact that a young African American man was so certain of the police’s response to him that waving around a fake gun was an effective means of suicide says something profoundly disturbing about the state of racism in our country. The fact that I had never before heard of “suicide by cop” says something profoundly disturbing about the privilege I am afforded by my whiteness.
On Sunday, a 12-year-old African American boy was shot and killed by police officers in Cleveland, Ohio while he was playing at a rec center playground. He allegedly had a fake gun that the officers mistook for a real one.
Last night, the grand jury in Ferguson, MO decide not to indict police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown—a black, unarmed 18-year-old.
I could go on—listing story after story of young, unarmed, black men being killed. One study by the Malcom X Grassroots Movement found that in 2012 alone, 313 African Americans were killed by police officers, security guards, or self-appointed vigilantes (think George Zimmerman).
There is a problem in this country and it is not a Pittsburgh problem, a Ferguson problem, or a Cleveland problem. It is a problem that every single one of us need to face and take responsibility to change.
The response in Ferguson last night was understandably one of anger and frustration. And yet, today I keep hearing more about the responses to the decision than the injustice of the decision itself. Obviously, I don’t think looting, causing fires, or throwing objects at people is the best reaction here. But it seems that those who want to avoid conversations about racial profiling, the prison industrial complex, and police brutality are using the bad behavior of a few individuals to justify their own denial. They seek to minimize, suppress, and ignore the thousands of voices of protesters around the nation who are asking for answers and demanding justice and change.
Enough is enough. It is time for white Americans to stop relying on the tired rhetoric of “equality” and instead engage in a heartfelt (and probably heart wrenching) assessment of the entrenched inequities and systems of oppression that persist in this country. It is time for white anti-racists to step up—there is much we can do.
The first step is to listen.
Hands up, don’t shoot. Hands up, don’t shoot. Hands up, don’t shoot.
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