Thursday, May 28, 2020

Existing While Black

We recently watched the movie Just Mercy as a family.  It tells the true story of Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard educated lawyer who travels to Alabama to found the Equal Justice Initiative, a program to help fight for poor people who cannot afford proper legal representation.  Much of his work takes the form of appeals for death row inmates, including Walter "Johnny D" McMillian.  McMillian was an African American man convicted of the 1986 murder of a white woman, Ronda Morrison.  When Stevenson studies McMillian's case, he discovers that the entirety of his conviction hangs on the word of another convicted felon, who traded his testimony for a lighter sentence.  All evidence favorable to McMillian was excluded, including several eye witness testimonies that confirmed that McMillian could not have been involved.  The testimonies were excluded because the witnesses were black.  McMillian was convicted because he had "looked like a criminal" in his mug shot.  And so there is no mistake, he was wrongfully convicted.

He was guilty of existing while black.

Stevenson is also African-American.  The film depicts other instances of Stevenson suffering for existing while black.  He is forced to strip naked before visiting his clients in the prison, something no other attorneys are required to do.  He is pulled over by the cops while driving.  They offer no reason for the stop, but threaten him at gunpoint.  Guilty of the crime of driving while black.

"Driving while black" is the usual way this crime is referenced.  It refers to the tendency of African Americans to be pulled over for no apparent reason.  The thought is the very fact that an African American is driving that type of car, in that neighborhood, at that time of day, and so on and so on, is inherently suspicious.  "Driving while black."

We're seeing that the list of suspicious activities and crimes that African Americans can be stopped for, questioned about, convicted of, and killed for is rapidly increasing.

Now we can add:
In each of the instances above, the person was viewed as inherently more suspicious, more dangerous because they were black.  And in each instance, they were met with an inappropriate response at best and an excessive use of force against them at worst, whether that be calling the cops and lying about their behavior, or being shot, choked, beaten, murdered.

Look at each of the recent cases.  Ahmaud Arbery was a 25 year old who jogged for exercise.  He was shot by an ex-police officer, who along with his son and neighbor, planned and filmed an altercation with Arbery, because they were convinced he was guilty of a couple of theft and trespassing in their area.  Arbery was killed in cold blood, and the only reason the killers were even charged is that the video of the incident surfaced and spread wide.  That took two months.  Before that, the local police department and the District Attorney were not even going to charge the former police officer.

Breonna Taylor was a 26 year old EMT in Louisville, Kentucky.  On the front lines of the Covid-19 epidemic.  She was shot eight times by the police as part of a no-knock raid.  The police had the wrong apartment.  The person the police wanted was in custody before they ever approached Taylor's apartment.  The police burst in without a knock, without announcing who they were.  Taylor and Kenneth Walker, her boyfriend, woke up and called the 9-1-1 to get the cops to come for what they thought was a break in.  The irony.  Walker took his lawfully owned gun and allegedly shot first on what he thought were intruders.  At that point, officers outside the home opened fire, blindly spraying bullets into the resident with a total disregard for human life.    The effects of the bullet fire could be seen on the apartment next door as well.

Walker was arrested for first degree assault and attempted murder of a police officer.  His only goal, his crime was to protect his girlfriend and his home.  And he was jailed for it because of a police mistake.  Because they believed they were in "significant, imminent danger."  He was initially only released because of Covid-19 concerns.  The charges against him have now been dropped.

Christian Cooper's story is thankfully less deadly, but no less concerning.  Christian Cooper is a former Marvel editor, current biomedical editor at Health Science Communications, and avid bird watcher.  He was walking in Central Park and saw a woman who did not have her dog on a leash, in an area where a leash is required.  He politely asked her to leash her dog.  She refused, and proceeded to call the cops on him telling them "an African American man is threatening my life."  Thankfully, he had the incident recorded, so the police could charge the appropriate violator.

George Floyd is the latest tragedy.  The police were called regarding a man suspected of forgery - passing a counterfeit $20 bill.  When they arrived, the saw Floyd sitting on his car, thought he matched the description, and "believed he was under the influence."  They ordered him out of the car and according to the police report he resisted.  Three officers pinned him down, and got him handcuffed.  They supposedly noted he was in physical distress and called for an ambulance.  The video footage from a bystander revealed that one of the police officers was pressing his knee into Floyd's neck.  Floyd is heard saying "I can't breathe," and "Please, I can't breathe."  Even after Floyd stops moving, the office continues to press his knee into Floyd's neck.  When the ambulance arrives, Floyd is of course already dead.  We've only seen bystander footage, the bodycam footage has not been seen.  Another death, all for $20.

There is so much to talk about in this it's hard to know where to begin.  We could talk about the militarization of our police.  When we arm them to the teeth like they are heading into Fallujah in the middle of the War on Terror, it's not surprising they want to use that gear.  When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  When you have military weapons, everything looks like a war.  

We could talk about the fetishization of our police force.  The overboard "Blue Lives Matter" campaigns. The unquestioning loyalty among Conservative circles.  A broad community enabling the next point.

We could talk about the lack of accountability- it's notable these incidents only capture our attention because there is a video or an outcry.  The tendency for them to circle the wagons and protect their own.  How difficult it is to prosecute an officer, even with egregious misconduct.  We desperately have the need to hold police accountable at a civilian level. 

We can talk about the fact that no-knock raids should be unconstitutional in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

At the end of the day, though, the issue keeps coming down to us seeing African-Americans as more threatening.  Inherently more dangerous.  This applies to all of us.  Not just the police, not jus those in power.  How there is an inherent bias for us as Americans to see those with darker skin as less of a person and more of a liability.  

Just look at the difference in police response to anti-lockdown protestors and the protestors of Floyd's murder.  The anti-lockdown protestors were carrying assault rifles around police, screaming in their faces and the police largely took it.  The protestors of Floyd's murder have been met with riot gear, rubber bullets, tear gas.  Why?  Well, we can only assume it's because the anti-lockdown protestors were largely white and the protestors now are largely black. 

I know some now will point to the looting and the rioting among the protestor's in Minneapolis as evidence enough for the police's response.  But it seems to pose a chicken and egg conundrum - does the police response perpetuate the looting and rioting?  Are we seeing that we really view the world as James Baldwin said?  "When white men rise up against oppression, they are heroes: when black men rise, they have reverted to their native savagery."  Baldwin's summation was a condemnation of how we treat the races differently.  Is it now supposed to be the status quo?

I don't mean to be reductivist, but it's hard to see any other differences.

Think about it.  What got more outcry among your particular circle - Kaepernick taking a knee in protest or the knee on George Floyd's throat?

It would seem there is still plenty of reason for Kaepernick to be kneeling.

As I've searched on this topic, I've stumbled across a few African American voices who have articulated that they feel like America still views them as 3/5 of a person and it's hard to disagree.  When will we break through this cycle of bias?  When will we stop judging danger by the color of a person's skin?  

When will we get angry enough to fix things?  When will our anger rise to levels that we have seen expressed from being on quarantine?  When will we be outraged about the right things?

When will we let African Americans be free to exist while black in America, with no fear of danger, no fear of police, no fear of harm, just because of the color of their skin?

When can existing while black be a good thing?

When we get to know each other better.

We get it as kids, we've got to do better as adults.  After the Ahmuad Arbery murder came out and there was a call for a Run With Ahmaud on the celebration of his birthday, we participated in that 2.23 mile run.  Jamie and Avalyn ran, I walked Jude in my arms or on my shoulders the whole way.  Jamie asked Avalyn why people do such hateful things.  Avalyn replied, " I think some people just don't like other people because they're black or they think that they are better but I really think it's because they just don't understand that we're all special to God.  We all get happy.  We all get sad and angry.  We're all loved by God."  

Your mouth to God's ears baby girl.

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