Last week, a male friend of mine ran down a list of his enviable accomplishments (awesome career, nice house, two beautiful sons) and ended with “and I’m not supposed to be alive.” While I initially found last part to be a bit of an exaggeration—most of our men do live to be in their 30s, so getting there isn’t rare—the events that took place in Charlotte just days later cause me to rethink my response. There may be more survivors than casualties, one might say that America is working diligently to kill our men.
Jonathan Ferrell was 24 years old. A former Florida A&M football player, he recently moved to North Carolina and was engaged to be married.
Now there will be no wedding, no smiling pictures of him celebrating his milestone quarter century birthday next month.
Ferrell wrecked his car early Saturday morning—to the point where he apparently had to exit from the back window in order to escape. As most of us would, he ran to a nearby home for assistance. When the resident came to the door and saw him, she triggered her safety alarm, called the police and reported an attempted break-in.
And as Jonathan Ferrell ran in the direction of the responding officers—presumably seeking their aid— one of them opened fire and shot him to death. Officer Randall Kerrick has been arrested (and released on bond), charged with voluntary manslaughter. In a statement released late Saturday, authorities said the initial investigation found that “the shooting of Mr. Ferrell was excessive… Officer Kerrick did not have a lawful right to discharge his weapon during this encounter.”
The fact that there have been charges filed at all and admittance from the department that this was an unjustified shooting is a departure from the timeline that follows the typically state-sanctioned murder of Black people at the hands of the police. But the particular horror of this crime reveals another layer of our dystopian relationship to law enforcement.
Our men cannot run to the police for help, because most police aren’t capable of aiding them. Our men may not run from the police in fear, for a Black man with his back turned is no less dangerous. Our men can’t hold arms akimbo or search for their IDs or cell phones or freedom papers to prove that they are, in fact, worthy of NOT BEING KILLED FOR EXISTING.
Their only option, if you can call it that, is to be still. And even stillness isn’t foolproof. Nothing is failsafe when dealing with people who see you as a problem before you can even so much as part your lips to say, “Help,” or “I didn’t do anything” or “F*ck you.”
For even a stock-still Black man is likely to pose a threat to the sort of itchy trigger fingered cops who killed Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant… and the wannabe cop who killed Trayvon Martin. In the presence of someone like Jonathan Ferrell, these gunmen have assessed that some White woman, some piece of property, some unspoken law—the “Don’t Be Black Around Here, Boy” code—was somehow threatened. And these armed cowards proceed with hate. With complete prejudice. With the protection and permissiveness of the law on their sides.
I can’t pretend to know firsthand the psychological weight this condition places upon Black men—nor do I suggest that the relationship between Black women in the police isn’t contentious and often marked by abuse and contempt—but I do feel the trauma of being incapable of protecting my people. That which hurts the men hurts the women. (The reverse should also be true.) The widespread sense of despair, the toll on our individual and collective self-esteem that comes with news of such a tragic loss of life, is choking. How much longer can we live without air?
There needs to be a major shift in the way American police officers are trained, and there needs to be particular attention paid to teaching them—be they White, Black or otherwise—how to serve and protect Black people with the understanding that we are citizens, not suspects by de facto standard. This is the only thing that will affect a needed shift in the dynamic between Blacks and law enforcement. Not by simply educating Black people to be “good,” but by training and retraining officers to deal with us properly and enforced consequences for those who don’t.
I say the above in earnest, while also knowing that this sort of cultural shift won’t occur in my lifetime. And I say it while wondering why it had to take a crime this horrible to offer even a glimmer of hope (is there any “hope” in a world where 24-year-olds are killed for asking for help?) that there might finally be a successful prosecution of an officer for taking a Black life. And, frankly, I say it unconvinced that we are unlikely to hear another story just like this before the Fall leaves give way to snow.
News of Ferrell’s killing broke as I sat in a Paris airport ending my first trip to France. Throughout my weeklong excursion, a line from Jay Z and Kanye’s 2012 hit with the title that you don’t say in mixed company played over in my head: “We ain’t supposed to be here.” I can’t help but to wonder…just where are we supposed to be? For Jonathan Ferrell, it certainly wasn’t North Carolina. It wasn’t knocking on a neighbor’s door and expecting to be treated with some level of human kindness after surviving a car wreck.
Perhaps he wasn’t supposed to be alive after all.
Jamilah Lemieux is the News and Lifestyle Editor for EBONY.com. Views expressed in The Beautiful Struggler are her own. Tweet her @jamilahlemieux