“Time for a Taser…That looks like a bad dude, too. Probably on something.”
How could a police officer operating a helicopter from over 500 feet in the air be able to make that level of assessment on an unarmed 40-year-old African American male named Terence Crutcher, who was recently killed by Officer Betty Shelby in Tulsa, OK?
What made Crutcher a “bad dude” in the eyes of these members of law enforcement? What was the set of criteria they used to determine that?
Tulsa Police Department released video footage showing Crutcher walking back to his stalled SUV with both of his hands raised in the air, while Officer Shelby, who is White, and Officer Tyler Turnbough, who is White, follow closely behind him with their weapons drawn. As Crutcher approaches his vehicle, still with his hands in the air, Officer Turnbough deploys his Taser and Officer Shelby unloads a single shot that eventually kills him.
Crutcher had no weapon. No crime had been reported, and no crime had been committed involving Crutcher, yet he became an immediate target by members of law enforcement, and subsequently became the subject of a system of profiling based off of some set of criteria that no one has been able to provide an explanation for to date.
When Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson testified before a grand jury in Missouri, he told them that the unarmed 18-year old African American male he shot and killed, Michael Brown, appeared to be menacing and overpowering. Wilson testified, “And when I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan. That’s just how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm…he had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”
As we look at the above cases, along with countless others, the overarching perception amongst many people in this country is that African Americans, particularly Black males, are considered overly aggressive criminals, evil, menacing, harmful, guilty and inherently up to no good.
Many activists and citizens have become disenchanted with law enforcement agencies and a judicial system that does not protect African Americans, and that contributes to the legal victimization of Blacks in this country, by legally trained and licensed perpetrators who consistently avoid accountability for their rogue actions.
As we see athletes and citizens from all across the United States follow in the footsteps of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has received tons of backlash and criticism for his ongoing decision to protest and not stand for the “Star-Spangled Banner,” many Americans have failed to acknowledge the reason behind his protest or seek to address the issues he has brought to light as the central purpose of the movement. Kaepernick said that while he has great respect for the men and women in the U.S. military, which he said included members of his family and some friends, he felt like he could no longer stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that continues to oppress Black people and people of color, especially when you look at incidents like Crutcher and many other incidents that have taken center stage over the years.
As Americans, the “Star-Spangled Banner” is sung with pride as a form of patriotism to this country, although it has a significant racist past, thanks in part to the lyrics of the author who penned it, Francis Scott Key, who was an anti-Black, pro-slavery and anti-abolitionist soldier who had a disdain for Black slaves, and who had a belief that Blacks were mentally inferior than Whites.
Fast forward to 2016, and we see that many Americans continue to sing the song with great pride, while many others are hoping to feel the same level of pride and experience the same joy that those who proudly sing the anthem do.
“Oh, say can you see,” are the first five words of the song, and if you look at the current state of America, it appears the majority of Americans refuse to “see” what African Americans go through in this country on a daily basis, or choose not to “see” the issues that are plaguing African Americans, even when those issues are put on full display right before their very eyes.
African Americans have been painfully consistent with lodging complaints, reporting incidents, and have been abundantly clear with the realities of what is happening to them as they have repeated the same things to those in authority about police brutality for decades. Black people have been getting racially profiled and targeted since America was founded, and although substantial gains have been made, Black people continue to be racially profiled today.
There is an old popular French saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Look at how the majority of Americans, especially non-Blacks, respond to the deaths of African Americans in this country when they are killed by police, even when those deaths are caught on video camera and they are unarmed. The silence is startling to many.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”
The myriad of high-profiled law enforcement killings of African Americans in this country, especially of young Black males, is reminiscent of another high profile case that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In 1955, Mamie Bradley sent her 14-year-old son, Emmett Till, from Chicago to rural Mississippi to spend his summer holiday with family. As she packed his suitcase, she gave him some instructions on how to handle himself in the South. She said, “If you have to get on your knees and bow when a White person goes past, do it willingly.”
As the story goes, Emmett was senselessly murdered by two White men in August, 1955. His crime was ‘allegedly’ flirting with a White woman named Carolyn Bryant. Bryant’s husband, Roy, and his half-brother J.W. Milam went to Emmett’s great uncle’s home, kidnapped him, took him to a barn and beat him mercilessly. Both Bryant and Milam gouged out one of Emmett’s eyes, shot him in the head and threw his body in the Tallahatchie River with a 70-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. His body was discovered and retrieved from the river three days later. Bryant and Milam were indicted for kidnapping and murder, but were acquitted for the kidnap and murder of Emmett, despite all of the evidence presented. Several jurors acknowledged that they knew Bryant and Milam were guilty, but chose to exercise their civic duty as a juror to vote to acquit them because they felt life imprisonment or the death penalty were not fitting for a White man taking a Black man’s life. The Emmett Till case became an international event, with news articles and editorials across the country and overseas condemning the verdict, and even after Bryant and Milam confessed to the murder of Emmett Till in a national magazine, justice was still not rendered.
Bradley turned to the federal government for help, and tried to meet with President Dwight Eisenhower, but he refused. She reached out to the infamous FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and received no assistance. Thousands of letters protesting the verdict were sent to the White House, but nothing materialized until Bradley reached out to communities across the country, giving speeches to large crowds and beginning to galvanize Black people. African Americans responded and began to get engaged, in that they began to organize and membership in the NAACP began to skyrocket. African Americans made a decision to come together in unity, driven by their anger and disgust with Emmett Till’s killing, as well as by the legal injustice they witnessed and the sense of loss they felt on behalf of Bradley, who lost her only child at the hands of racist White murderers with no accountability. As a result of the Till case, the Civil Rights movement was officially born, and regardless of background or status, being Black in America meant that African Americans had to join together in unity to fight against the blatant and legal injustice they were subjected to.
As a matter of fact, Bradley gained a new revelation about Black issues in America after the death of her son, stating: “Two months ago I had a nice apartment in Chicago. I had a good job. I had a son. When something happened to the Negroes in the South I said, ‘That’s their business, not mine.’ Now I know how wrong I was. The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all.”
Fast forward to 2016, and America finds itself at a crossroads, with African Americans directly in the middle of it. Like Bradley shared with her son Emmett, when it comes to the issue of dealing with law enforcement in America in 2016, Black parents are having to provide their children with an unwritten segregated instruction manual, and told to do “these things” in order to avoid being assaulted by, or even killed by a member of law enforcement.
The issue of police brutality has been a major topic of discussion amongst many members of the African American community for some time. The recent deaths of Black people at the hands of law enforcement officials over the past several weeks, coupled with the number of Blacks who have been killed by police over the last several years, has become a widespread epidemic that has led to a response from Black people that is reminiscent to that of the Civil Rights movement and other movements in America that sought to bring about change for Black people.
African Americans are typically labeled as angry, over-exaggerating and over-the-top whiners when it comes to addressing the issues that negatively impact them, such as police brutality. These stereotypes are lobbed at African Americans mostly by non-Black people; however, there are many African Americans who have joined in on the chorus of accusations as well.
In order to deal with the issue of the sanctioned and legalized murders of Black people in this country by select members of law enforcement, Black people can no longer be the only group talking about it. Americans of all races, including Black people, must stop turning a blind eye to the real issues plaguing African Americans in this country. It takes everybody to address these issues. Since the founding of this country, Black people have been the recipients of ill-treatment, but there were always a remnant of White people and other non-Blacks who got involved to help make a difference and bring about change. There were White abolitionists, like John Brown, who believed he had a personal responsibility to overthrow slavery during the mid-1850s. He was just one of the many White concerned Americans who considered it their personal responsibility to speak out against the vile and barbaric system of slavery, and to bring about change by any means necessary.
As has happened before with White abolitionists like John Brown, America needs every one of its citizens to consider it their personal responsibility to speak out against vile actions and unjust systems in place today, which disparately impact Blacks more than any other group in America.
The future of America depends on it.