Death, Riots, and Justice

Freddie Gray is the most recent newsworthy death in a long line of deaths–deaths of young, black men at the hands of police officers.

The media has taken to highlighting all these deaths in recent years and months, focusing on the death itself and the events that follow. While this media coverage is often skewed to suit certain perspectives, either to portray the victim as the villain or to portray police officers as corrupted beings (consumers are free to pick and choose news outlets that cater to their biases), this media coverage is ultimately good, I think, because it forces broader American culture to acknowledge a trend that isn’t recent: That if you are a black male you are more likely to die of violence.

What really gets me about this is, young black man after young black man is murdered by police officers. (I will grant ambiguity where ambiguity is present, in addition to the necessary due process. Please note that before attacking my word choice of “murdered.”) We have video of Eric Garner being smothered and killed. We have reports of witnesses lying to the grand jury in St. Louis. And now we have a 25-year-old man dead from a spinal injury, an injury surrounded by confusion and mystery as to what happened during the 45 minutes after he was arrested and finally taken to the police station and paramedics were called.

After all these reports and more, so many people still have the knee-jerk response to condemn the victim, implying the victim deserved it. I read Facebook statuses after Michael Brown’s death expressing a connection between Brown’s marijuana use and his death, the implication being that since he did marijuana it’s okay he died. I read articles and more Facebook statuses about how honorable and noble police officers are. I am not refuting that police work is an honorable job–it is. We need police officers and it is without question a difficult and dangerous job. But when person after person is killed by police, we can’t simply throw off the term “murder” because the perpetrator was an honorable police officer. Police officers aren’t infallible. And it should go without saying that if a police officer kills a suspect he is acting as officer, attorney, and judge all at once. The killing of young black men is a trend, not an anomaly.

The obvious fact that people are missing is this: Young men are dead. Dead. They are dead at the hands of authority and power, thus there is a tendency to think that the victim had it coming. Because why else would a police officer kill a person? He had to have had it coming. But the truth is, a police officer who kills someone deserves due process just like everyone else. But being a police officer doesn’t remove the possibility of murder, as many people seem to believe it does.

And as for the riots, well, I am not one to condone rioting. I think it causes more harm than anything else, driving existing wedges ever deeper in addition to the physical and emotional harm that results from rioting. But as that great man Martin Luther King, Jr. said:

I contend that the cry of “black power” is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? (Emphasis added.)

At the time MLK said this, he specifically cited the economic plight of the “Negro” and how it had worsened over the years. Decades later, what is it America has failed to hear? Economics are one thing, but what of the reality that just by being black and male you are more likely to be killed? What about the suspicion, doubt, and fear that arise just because of skin color? If Freddie Gray had been white would police officers still be heralded as heroes? Would there be riots? Chances are there would be no need for riots because by virtue of being born white, his voice would have been heard.

So the next time this happens–and unfortunately the chances of an officer killing a black man again is high–try to listen to the victim’s family. Listen to the community. Look under the riots and listen to what the underlying problem is.

Men are dying. Men are dying and their deaths are unnecessary, unjust. To stop this trend, we must listen. We cannot let the voices of these men go unheard.

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