When I first read about the shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year old black male from Ferguson, Missouri, I couldn’t help but remember some of the deaths of other unarmed African Americans. Let’s take for example the death of Erik Garner of Staten Island, who was choked to death by an NYPD officer after Garner was suspected of selling loose cigarettes. Or Oscar Grant, a 22-year old man from Oakland killed on New Year’s Eve in 2009.
These shootings and their recurrence make me wonder whether we’ve progressed much since the Civil Rights Movement – whether instead of going forward as a society, we are moving backwards. I know that since the 1960s, laws have been created to punish officers who violate civil rights. But how often are they enforced? From the numerous accounts and analyses I’ve read, the consensus is that the officer who shot Michael Brown will not be indicted. Same for the officer who killed Garner. The cop who shot Grant was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in 2010, but served only two years in jail before he was released.
Photo credit: Oregon Department of Transportation (CC)
And for me, there are many more questions that still haven’t been addressed — like why is it that African Americans are still so poorly represented in law enforcement? Ferguson’s population is 60 percent African American, yet most of its police force (including the chief) is white. Would hiring more black cops prevent the shooting of unarmed black males? And what about the protesters in Ferguson? Why are tear gas and military style vehicles and weapons the new response to crowds demanding justice? What about Michael Brown’s family? Will they see justice? And my biggest question: what is going on in America? Are we going back to the days when a cop can shoot an unarmed black man without answering for his crime?
Such questions make me recall the first time I experienced this type of injustice in person. One night some time ago, a group of friends and myself were out having a good time when suddenly a drunk stranger tried to confront us (who knows for what reason). A Las Vegas Metro police car pulled up right away, presumably to stop the confrontation. The officer who arrived at the scene immediately pointed at my friend, the single black person in our group, and asked him to walk over to him. The police officer proceeded to handcuff my friend while simultaneously letting the person who started the confrontation walk away. After we protested the situation, everyone was released with a warning. Now that I look back at that time, I thank God no one was shot that night. But that’s when I first started wondering: Why did the officer go after the only black person in the group? Is there a reason the officer automatically assumed my black friend must be the one at fault? And what would have happened if the rest of us hadn’t been there to explain the situation? Would my friend have been shot if he “resisted arrest”?
I don’t have answers to these questions, though I continue to think about them daily. What I do know is that I have hope. I hope that Michael Brown’s family and other such victims’ families find justice. I hope that we as a society stop seeing threats in terms of black and white and that we learn to live in harmony with each other. Most importantly, I hope that we, as a society, are not moving backwards.