Hard to know where to begin on this, but it’s also hard not to say something, either.
Perhaps I should refer to history.
Should I start with the Robert Charles Riots of 1900? Or how about Atlanta 1906? Maybe Chicago 1919? How about Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921? Do we even need to fast forward to the 1960s? Harlem 1964? Watts 1965? Newark 1967? Detroit 1967? Those days are still within living memory. Our parents and grandparents can tell us about those outrages.
There is something that links them all, though: either an injustice committed toward Black people or general fear of Black people.
Hasn’t America learned yet?
People, all people, want that thing, that concept that Thomas Jefferson wrote about in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, you know…”Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” We pretty much figure that when he wrote it, he meant it and that anyone who lives in this country is entitled to it.
Now if Jefferson had written something like “abridged freedom, micromanagement, and general functioning through autocracy,” then there would be no reason for any of the social uprisings I mentioned above…or for Ferguson 2014 to be added to that list.
By now, you know the story…it’s repeated like once a week in this country: Black man has altercation with law enforcement. Law enforcement proceeds to subdue Black man. Law enforcement at some point becomes more forceful, later claiming they were put in that position. Black man dies, unable to tell his side of the story.
The situations, cities, and names of Black men are seemingly interchangeable like building blocks. It is almost formulaic, although I don’t mean to simplify any of this. In this case, the town is Ferguson. The name of the Black man is Michael Brown (pictured). The name of the law enforcement officer is Darren Wilson, a six-year veteran of the police force.
But this essay isn’t about Brown, necessarily. It’s about something bigger than him…even though he’s now become bigger in death than he may ever have been in life.
It’s about due process.
What were Brown’s rights last Saturday? His parents lawyer, Benjamin Crump, who also represented Trayvon Martin‘s parents, says he was simply minding his own business when the cop in question harassed and profiled him, then shot him in broad daylight.
That seems to violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments that guarantee against “cruel and unusual punishments” and denial of “equal protection under the law.”
Was that too much to ask?
Ferguson’s police chief says this happened as a result of a physical altercation between Brown and the cop, in which the 18-year-old attempted to grab the cop’s service weapon, forcing him to defend himself. Now I do realize cops are trained to shoot to kill when they do open fire and that they’d better be damned sure there is a lethal threat to themselves or to others when they do it.
But my problem with this is not a cop defending himself at all. It’s that so often in situations like this, the so-called perpetrator winds up dead rather than having due process administered. Due process isn’t deadly. In fact, it’s healthy. It’s good for society. It leads to justice.
Police-issued Glock 9mm pistols are deadly and they don’t read the U.S. Constitution before they fire.
There’s a list of Black men who died under — at the very least — dubious circumstances at the hands of police. Ramarley Graham in the Bronx; Sean Bell in Queens; Ronald Madison in New Orleans; Oscar Grant in Oakland; Kendrec McDade in Pasadena, Calif.; Eric Garner in Staten Island. And those are within the past few years.
And even though it wasn’t a police shooting…Trayvon Martin left us all weary.
I’ve heard people who were actually pompous enough to ask, “Well, why don’t you just comply and do what the cops say?”
Truth is, in most of those cases, the victims are compliant and somehow wind up beaten, tased, or shot to death. Others make what cops believe to be false moves and wind up dead. But if someone with a gun is barking orders at you, if they’re wearing a uniform or not, you’re going to be nervous, you will forget about rules of engagement and start thinking about ways to preserve your life. In too many of these cases, there is an unarmed victim who doesn’t get protected, but certainly gets served.
Now if these cases were quite rare and few and far between, it would be understandable that the police were making simple but costly mistakes — human error as it were, but with more than 400 people in America being killed by cops, and a black person being killed about twice a week in 2012 alone, the Brothers aren’t the ones screwing up.
Listen, justice goes both ways. The law is the law. You break it, you go to jail. I get it. But our disproportionate numbers of people locked up — dead or with lives ruined — is evidence of a criminal justice system that does not favor us and in fact subjugates us by default.
The reality is police are only part of the equation and police killings are a symptom of a much more severe socioeconomic disease.
On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown succumbed to that disease. He joined a long line of Black men, some whose names we know, many others we will never hear about.
The mood in Ferguson Mo., was more peaceful on Thursday night than it had been in days. Gov. Jay Nixon placing the Missouri State Highway Patrol in charge of security there was apparently a good idea. It was more an atmosphere of revelry than anything else. Looking at video feeds, you’d think it was about the Cardinals winning the World Series rather than a young man being killed by a cop. People were actually hugging policemen and shaking hands with them.
That might be because they were actually being treated like human beings. That is what equal treatment and due process under the law really means: treat Black people like they are people and they will act like it. Treat them savagely and they will act like it.
In every Black demonstration since the Memphis sanitation workers strike in 1968, you can find someone with a sign that reads “I Am A Man.” There’s a reason they hold that sign.
And it’s pretty obvious.
Madison J. Gray is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based multimedia journalist specializing in urban issues and criminal justice. He writes for NewsOne on the subject of Black males in America. Follow him on Twitter: @madisonjgray