In the aftermath of the Cincinnati Zoo’s decision to shoot a 17-year-old male gorilla to death in what it says was an act to save the life of a 3-year-old Black boy who fell into an enclosure, one thing’s been made clear: It seems that Black people, even when we’re the victims of trauma, don’t get the benefit of the doubt.
The animal, Harambe, a 450-pound silverback gorilla was put down after the boy wandered into the exhibit and the gorilla pulled him around violently once he was inside. Officials made the decision to kill the animal rather than tranquilize him. The child's mother stood helplessly nearby, telling the boy to be calm and describing the situation to a 911 dispatcher.
But to some, that the child was loved and worried over was not enough. The U.K.’s Daily Mail was the first major media outlet that chose to detail the child’s father’s criminal background. The fact that he—along with the 3-year-old’s mother—may be recovering from such an ordeal was secondary.
Cincinnati police said in a statement that they are “looking at the facts and circumstances that led to the incident. But it is unclear if there will be any charges. “It’s too early to say whether it was recklessness on the part of the parent,” Lt. Steve Saunders told the Cincinnati Enquirer. But whether or not they should be charged is a debate I’m not really interested in. The child, thankfully, is safe after an unfortunate incident.
But the Daily Mail’s decision to spend an ample amount of time detailing the prior offenses of the father, Deonne Dickerson, is something that I am interested in. And unfortunately it isn’t surprising to me.
And that’s sad.
As Black people, we have too many examples of journalism gone wrong to count when it comes to telling our narratives. Not less than three days after Michael Brown was tragically murdered by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, media outlets including the St. Louis Post Dispatch rushed to bring up his juvenile record. Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old who died at the hands of wannabe neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, wasn’t even laid to rest before images of him throwing up supposed gang symbols surfaced online and not just thanks to conservative bloggers and websites.
When 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot to death by a Cleveland police officer, his father’s criminal record was published on Cleveland.com hours before the video of the actual shooting was released.
The father of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee, a Chicago youth who was executed was also probed by the media. And while the reasons were justified given the manner in which Lee lost his life, it still raises the question of whether or not this would happen if the victims and/or their parents were white.
Wanting to know a person’s background when their children’s safety has come into question is understandable. Journalists should do whatever it takes within ethical reason to get to the bottom of a story. But what’s baffling is how Dickerson’s criminal background is supposed to have contributed to his child falling into a zoo enclosure.
What’s even more surprising is the fact that Mr. Dickerson wasn’t even at the zoo when his son fell into the moat. The child was with his mother, Michelle Gregg, at the time of the incident. She was described as a school administrator in the piece published on the Daily Mail.
Unfortunately, Dickerson joins a list of Blacks who are unable to breathe without being criticized. There are certainly enough struggles to fight, but the perception of Black men as “thugs” continues to ring too loudly.