Today would have been Michael Brown’s first day at Vatterott College. As you read this, he should be sitting in a classroom, pondering the cost of textbooks, making a new friend. Instead, his future was taken from him just two days shy embarking upon on what many of us consider to be life’s best years. Instead, he is now part of a legacy of violence and aggression against Black people in America, and specifically against young Black boys. A cop’s gun has turned him from a young man to a memory in just moments, and left us all with the stinging shock that this has happened to one of our own. Again.
As an officer of the court, I suppose I am obligated to say something about notions of justice, and encourage patience for the "facts: to come out as we listen to the same rhetoric about how race played no role here and that this was somehow the result of Brown’s own actions. However, as a Black man who is again forced to deal with another example of unchecked deadly force being used by police against one of our own, I simply can’t do it. Incidents like these expose a sensitive layer of double-consciousness that I feel as an attorney who, one hand relies on the law as my weapon of choice, but as a Black man, also understands that weapon is not enough.
As we morn Michael Brown, we face a sobering and unspoken reality: just as he was not the first unarmed Black man to lose his life after being killed by police, he is unlikely to be the last. When one is incapable of seeing Blacks as human in the same manner that they see themselves, they are equally incapable of affording them the full and equal benefits of personhood. The killings of Brown, Davis, Martin, and countless others whose stories have not made national news all reflect a mindset that Blacks are threatening, overly-aggressive, and filled with rage. This mindset, incubated throughout the ranks of law enforcement (and sometimes within our own communities) promotes the idea that we simply must be controlled at all costs, and that the use of force against us knows no bounds so long as it is exercised in the purported interest of maintaining that control and keeping order. Because, without such control of us–not humans but rather some type of wild animal species let out of cages–we are the biggest threat to "order". How else can one explain the over-policing of communities of color that we see across the country? Surely it cannot be simply about crime prevention. If that were so, then there would hardly be as many incidents resulting in death to unarmed, and often innocent victims.
In the wake of Brown’s killing, media outlets across the country have callously addressed the justifiable rage of Ferguson residents with little attention to the young man who has been lost and how such a death would impact a community. The images of what have been labeled “angry mobs” of “rioters and looters” only further promulgate the notion that we are unruly and police dogs and riot gear are all necessary to keep us from getting further out of hand.
National outrage around law enforcement’s abuse of discretion will not likely occur unless and until police start shooting youths of other ethnicities. When families from other communities are unable to sympathetically remark about such tragedy from the comfort of their living rooms in passing conversation, but must deal first-hand with the reality of burying a loved one because of a policeman’s gun, something tells me things will change. Quickly. Alas, that reality is a far off one, if only because members of law enforcement are keenly aware of the consequences—both professionally and personally—for violating White bodies.
My friends of other races may not understand the depths of emotion that I and so many like me may feel in coping with Brown’s killing. For some, they see me as “different” than Brown. That’s the part that they don’t get. I, and other Black males like me, are no safer from a cop’s bullet than Brown was when he was killed. Fancy titles and degrees aside, to that badge, I pose the same threat and will be dealt with using the same force. Even in doing everything “right,” in being unarmed, in breaking no laws, it can still happen to me. (It should be noted that there is strong reason to believe that Brown, too, had done everything “right.”) The reason why we are all so angry is that we know it can just as easily happen to any one of us.
So what about justice? The old adage tells us that justice is blind. But, right now it seems I am the one having trouble figuring out what she looks like. Admittedly, justice doesn’t seem like burning down or destroying what little that we have in expressing our anger and frustration only for more people to end up hurt or in jail. It certainly doesn’t seem like an officer being on paid leave after shooting and killing an unarmed teenager. Right now, justice would seem like Michael Brown walking into class after leaving his dorm room, excited to experience what college is all about.
But, we know that won’t happen.
I don’t know where justice is. Or, when she will show up. I just keep praying for us all that she gets here soon.
Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a former Brooklyn, NY prosecutor and current federal civil rights trial attorney. Follow him on Twitter @CFCOLEMANJr