“Well, hopefully, the Department of Justice will look into it.” Words from a Black radio personality whose name I don’t recall. I was stuck in morning traffic, en route to a concealed weapons class that will lead to my gun license. They were discussing yet another unarmed person of color who had been killed by police and then disrespected by the legal system.
No charges. No indictment. No dignity, not even in death.
The hosts, normally known for comedic cut-ups and outrageous side comments, hollowly ‘amen’-ed and ‘hallelujah’-ed the DOJ as the proper channel of redress for yet another heartbreaking loss. Their optimism reverberated more like exhaustion, uncertainty, resignation. Just one week prior the DOJ had announced that George Zimmerman would receive no federal charges for the killing of 17-year old Trayvon Martin and just a day later they would announce that Darren Wilson, the officer who killed 18-year old Mike Brown, would face no charges because they could not disprove testimony that he feared for his life when he discharged his weapon.
Simultaneously, the DOJ offered a scathing review of the Ferguson Police Department, characterizing it as a roving band of collection agents that mercilessly siphons money from Blacks and poor people through petty traffic tickets in order to keep the city government financially afloat.
Seven racist emails from police headquarters were released. According to National Public Radio: “An October 2011 email included a photo of a bare-chested group of dancing women, apparently in Africa, with the caption, ‘Michelle Obama’s High School Reunion.’”
A May 2011 email stated: “An African-American woman in New Orleans was admitted into the hospital for a pregnancy termination. Two weeks later she received a check for $5,000. She phoned the hospital to ask who it was from. The hospital said, ‘Crimestoppers.'”
After the emails went public, two officers resigned and a court clerk was let go, but only after their names were exposed. Additionally, the DOJ disclosed that between 2010 and 2014, there were 161 use of force complaints –with only one being certified. The officer was never disciplined.
“It’s very difficult when they keep sanitizing the killings of these unarmed people of color,” says Benjamin Crump, attorney for the families of Brown, Martin, and Tamir Rice.
Crump raised an insightful question: if the justice department can so aptly describe the practice of racism and classism as the life-blood of the Ferguson Police Department, wouldn’t it stand to reason that Wilson, a young officer only a few years into his career was being shaped by those values? In an environment where mayors and other elected officials threaten the jobs of police when revenue declines, officers are essentially pitted against the people they are employed to protect and serve, creating hostility, distrust, and perceived threat on both ends.
According to CNN.com, Ferguson is a town of 21,000 that is 67% African-American. According to the DOJ report between 2012 and 2014, 85% of people subject to vehicle stops were Black, 90% of those who received citations were Black, and 93% of people arrested were Black. In 88% of the cases in which Ferguson police officers reported using force, it was against African-Americans.
On August 9, Darren Wilson was patrolling the streets of Ferguson to earn his keep. Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson were stopped for jaywalking, an offense that would have garnered several hundred dollars for the city of Ferguson. At his age, Brown was supposed to be inducted into a legally-sanctioned debtors prison system, a rite of passage that has befallen thousands of Blacks throughout the St. Louis County area, where both men and women spend their entire lives shelling out thousands per year to avoid jail time, until they begin missing payments. Then they are picked up on warrants and incarcerated, sometimes for weeks on end with no change of clothes.
When Wilson says he feared for his life, he is likely telling the truth. We know that White police have an unreasonable fear of Black people, especially young Black men. Wilson’s grand jury testimony indicates that after he stopped Brown, he felt intimidated and outsized. He likens Brown to a “demon.”
Wilson testified: “And then when it (the bullet) went into him, the demeanor on his face went blank, the aggression was gone, it was gone, I mean, I knew he stopped, the threat was stopped.” And in that, we hear his relief. Brown is dead, but that’s okay because this officer feels safe again.
Never mind the fact that Wilson chose to work in a field where one of the occupational hazards is death. Lucky for him, he chose to serve in a precinct where the Klu Klux Klan has a confirmed presence, racism is rewarded, and police behave however they want with few consequences–unless they are exposed by media, and even then the remedies are both conservative and belated.
Through the lens of White supremacy, we witness the final moments of a young Black man’s life. Not in his words, but in the words of the man who killed him, the man who lived to tell the story, one of many police officers who knew just which racist tropes to draw upon in order to guarantee his continued freedom.
“You can’t just charge anybody because what happened was tragic,” President Obama remarked during a town hall-style appearance at Benedict College, a historically Black college in Columbia, South Carolina. He noted that an “objective, thorough, independent” investigation was conducted and believes that Ferguson is the exception and not the rule.
Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder are contributing to a system that requires Black people to serve as ideal victims while upholding White vigilantism, a system that relies on double talk and double standards. The people who kill our children make rash decisions based upon implicit biases that leave gaping holes in our families and at our dinner tables. They are rarely held accountable. Instead, their actions are pardoned based upon a form of compassionate review that is never granted to the unarmed people they assume to be criminal and, therefore, expendable. Their fears are substantiated as probable cause while our agony is accepted as a necessary byproduct of American racism.
Where was the objectivity when Eric Garner whimpered “I can’t breathe” and the officer clamped down around his neck, cutting off his air supply? Where was the objectivity when an officer jumped out of a moving vehicle and shot dead Tamir Rice, a 12-year old boy who was playing in a park with a toy gun? Where was that objectivity when his aggrieved 14-year old sister was handcuffed and taken into police custody after she rushed to his aid and their mother was told she could either go to the hospital with her son, who was dying, or to the police station with her daughter?
Where is the objectivity when a boy who is walking to his grandmother’s house winds up on the losing end of Darren Wilson’s gun and is blamed for his own death?
As Crump notes, each of these killings are caught on camera, sometimes from multiple angles and then coupled with testimony from witnesses. He invites us to imagine the narrative that would have unfolded, had there been no cameras. Crump also questions whether Wilson has ever been cross-examined, stating that there are inconsistencies in his testimony that must be challenged.
“My personal hero Thurgood Marshall talked about the basis of the American Constitution being that a Black baby has the same amount of rights as a White baby just by virtue of being born in America,” Crump explains. “I challenge anybody to say that’s not the goal worth fighting for. In standing up for the Michael Browns, the Trayvon Martins, the Tamir Rices, and the countless others, by standing up for the least of ye, what we’re really doing is making America live up to its creed.”
While I believe this to be true, I wonder what we will do to call American racism to the carpet, in full. Through our exhaustion, through our tears, through our complacency, through our trauma, I wonder how we will form the words to dissect the manipulative spin of White supremacy that will justify the killing of an unarmed teen by directing our attention to Darren Wilson’s fear instead of encouraging us to consider the very real agony Brown must have experienced when the bullets rang out and his life-force soaked into the asphalt of Canfield Drive on that difficult summer day.
Katina Parker is a filmmaker, photographer, and activist. To follow her documentation work in Ferguson go to www.facebook.com/dontshootsof. To receive updates about her Virtual Freedom School, a space where theory meets action, go to www.facebook.com/virtfreeschool and follow her on Twitter – @katinaparker.