“The announced function of the police, ‘to protect and serve the people,’ becomes the grotesque caricature of protecting and preserving the interest of our oppressors and serving us nothing but injustice. They are there to intimidate blacks, to persuade us with their violence that we are powerless to alter the condition of our lives.”
The ink has barely dried, and we’re adding yet another name to the growing list of unarmed Black men killed by the police. 25-year-old, Ezell Ford, was only a few blocks away from home when he was stopped by police officers investigating an alleged shooting in the area. According to family members, he was lying on the ground, complying with officers, when he was shot several times in the back.
Ezell joins the long list of victims to anti-black, state sanctioned violence in “post-racial America”. His death coming only days after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri. Hardly a week after Ted Wafer was convicted of 2nd degree murder in the death of Renisha McBride. Only a few weeks after the nation witnessed Eric Garner die from a chokehold at the hands of NYPD. If there was an actual “war on Whites” being waged, as expressed by members of the Tea Party this week, we would be losing.
Like everyone else, I was watching the events unfold in Ferguson on social media when the news of Ezell’s death hit my twitter feed. I decided to reach out to one of the family members, not simply as a community organizer, but also a victim family member. I lost a loved one to police violence several years ago, and that experience is what led me to a career in activism and community organizing. With every name added to the registry of unarmed Black victims the emotional trauma triggers like a tape reel, reminding us that justice isn’t accessible for everyone. I was able to share this experience with Ezell’s uncle, Chauncey Perkins, who told me “It’s sickening to lose them in this manner.”
We’ve been asked, yet again, to defer in our anguish to the justice system. The same justice system that allowed George Zimmerman to walk free. The same system protecting the identity of the police officer who killed Michael Brown. The same system that is levying a war on the people of Ferguson. We are asked to trust the same process that systemically relegates people of color to second class citizenship as we scramble to appeal to the consciousness of America that we deserve the right to life. A country that readily consumes the narrative that black bodies are inherently violent, labeling our slain “drunks”, “thugs”, and “may-be-gang-related-we-really-don’t-know-but-he's-Black-so-It’s-fitting-to-speculate”.
This assumption even informs the way.police departments recruit and train officers, leading to the over policing of black communities. “I spent 20 years in the department, and we were conditioned to profile. It was drilled into us that particular [communities] were just more dangerous…and likely to get us if we didn’t get them first.” offered an Ex-LAPD officer who wishes to remain anonymous. “There wasn’t much training on non-lethal tactics, no. We were taught to shoot to kill.” Another former police officer, Bryan Marshall, retired NYPD, said that the department did have cultural sensitivity training when he came through the academy 20 years ago, but that officers come on with their prejudices. “I think it’s fear, heightened by race. When they saw Eric Garner they saw a large black man. He wasn’t being aggressive, but that was enough to assume he’d be violent.” The reality is that despite viral arguments popping up all over facebook statuses, preaching respectability politics as some sort of revolutionary path to liberation, history tells us that even the most well dressed, saintly, educated black men have been gunned down, armed only with melanin and hope.
The implications of this reality are especially troubling with the Ferguson Police Department outfitting itself in excessive militarized weaponry. Evidence of police departments across America having similar capabilities is especially sobering. If one thing has become abundantly clear, it’s that a war is being waged against our most vulnerable communities.
So what’s next?
It is important to remember that incidents like the killing of Ezell Ford are not isolated events. The tragedies that have unfolded over the last several weeks are indicative of an overarching issue of institutional racism in the criminal justice system. When we hear Ezell’s name we can also call on Troy Davis’s name, both victim’s of state sponsored anti-Black violence. Add this reality to countless other deaths, racial profiling, sentencing disparities, and mass incarceration and we begin to get a very clear picture that the criminal justice system has not failed, it has done exactly what it was designed to do–subjugate people of color to second class citizenship.
We must organize. We must continue to lift these names up, over and over. We have to look into alternatives to policing. We have to ask ourselves really tough questions, like how can we, as a community, respond to non-violent crimes in non-carceral ways? We must also challenge the mechanisms by which we hold police accountable by forming community autonomous civilian reviews boards. We still have to repeal "stand your ground" laws, and pass Trayvon’s Law . And while “Know Your Rights” trainings may not be as useful when dealing with law enforcement who care nothing about rights, it’s still a valuable tool in navigating legal spaces. ACLU-NY has also developed an application called “police tape” that helps discreetly record interactions with police and provides some citizens’ rights information.
As we continue to look on in horror at the human rights violations and arrests in Ferguson, I wonder if we should take a page from our forefathers of the Civil Rights Movement and start bussing folks in. There’s plenty of work being done, and still left to do, like the planned protest in LA this Sunday and #NMOS2014 events across the nation this Thursday . We must continue to connect with each other, and encourage one another. It is because of our struggle that the world knows resilience. It is because of our unwavering voice that the world knows these names: Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Troy Davis, Renisha McBryde, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Rekia Boyd, Jonathan Ferrell, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, and my beloved cousin, Sammie.