This year in America, midway through October, more than 900 citizens have been killed by the police. In some of those cases we can remember their names, recall their tragic stories, and even relive the vivid imagery of their violent demise.
Yet there remains many names who are never memorialized in hashtags, murals, and mass nationwide protests. Despite our collective commitment to fighting for the unfairly targeted, the unarmed, and the mentally ill, many victims vanquished in the dark haze of state-sponsored violence will never receive any just sorrow.
Individually, we’ve each attempted to deconstruct that truth with various different answers. Some believe the most logical answer is simply that there are too many victims to go around. As the United States currently averages over three police murders a day, it’s impossible to show each death an equal amount of scrutiny and care. Others theorize that the more we see graphic images of the destruction of the Black body, the more desensitized we become to it, which is subsequently followed by less outrage.
While both theories have a basis in truth, I believe the overarching reality is a combination of those ideologies along with one other important truism: there are some citizens we deem too “imperfect” to mourn.
Yesterday, Shaun King wrote a piece decrying the white supremacist system which demands that Black victims of police violence have to live and behave in a thoroughly pristine manner in order to “possibly” be considered undeserving of a summary execution. But what if the people in our own community who’ve internalized that very same ideology?
While it may comfort us to view that person as Sheriff David Clarke, the scary reality is that this could be the very same person protesting excessive force and advocating for the #BlackLivesMatter movement. If we’ve collectively learned anything from the Korryn Gaines murder, it’s that even those who advocate for the importance of Black lives, don’t necessarily view all Black lives as equal in death.
And there may be no sector of society more familiar with that fact than prisoners ensnared in America’s carceral wasteland. Prisoners like Michael Sabbie, whose video recorded death has yet to evoke a visceral, nationwide response.
For those unfamiliar with Michael Sabbie’s story, he was a 35-year-old father of four, who was arrested by police on July 19, 2015 on a misdemeanor third-degree domestic assault charge for threatening his wife during an argument about money. On July 22, Sabbie, an obese man who had been complaining to jail staff about having problems breathing, died after a violent encounter with the prison guards.
Despite Sabbie pleading with the guards that he was experiencing a medical crisis, he was thrown to the ground, assaulted, and pepper-sprayed all while uttering the one phrase that sends chills down the spine of all Black Americans: “I can’t breathe.” He said that 19 times over a 9-minute period before being left without adequate medical care and dying hours later.
This was just nine days after the death of Sandra Bland, whom some may believe directly opposes the ideology that we collectively care less about inmates, but Bland’s situation was uniquely different in one major way: we got to see her unjust arrest.
As Sandra Bland’s mother adroitly mentions, in the 17 days following her daughter’s death, at least four other Black women died in jail. In fact, since Bland’s death, more than 800 prisoners have died in American jails with Black people being disproportionately represented. Yet, how many of those names are recognizable to us? How many of their stories are we familiar with?
In America, where 5% of the world’s population lives, and 25% of the world’s prisoners rest behind bars, we’ve all become far too comfortable with the idea that those in prison did something wrong to get there, almost assisting us in chalking up their demise to possibly being karmic in nature.
A brilliant lawyer once told me, “You cannot live in a society that is systemically anti-Black and manage to not internalize anti-Black racism. You cannot swim in water and not get wet.”
In many ways, that statement is true for all of us, regardless of our individual races. As Ava DuVernay’s new documentary 13TH pointedly reveals, Black bodies are being weaponized and criminalized for the continuation of state-controlled power over our being. While we as a society are making massive leaps towards deconstructing the formation of a police state, we still need to work through our own internalized biases so we can truly begin propagating the reality that #AllBlackLivesMatter even those that are incarcerated.
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