For people to have to say and shout, “Black and Brown Lives Matter,” suggests that America is a nation still struggling with its tragic racial past.
Let us not forget the murder of 10-year-old Clifford Glover, weighing 90 pounds, who was shot in the back in 1973 by an NYPD officer. This tragedy occurred in South Jamaica Queens. Police claimed young Glover pointed a pistol at them as he ran away, and hundreds of cops searched for this mystery gun – but they found nothing. Officers were banned from firing their guns at fleeing suspects who posed no “imminent danger.” Officer Thomas Shea, who fired the shot that killed Clifford Glover, was eventually acquitted of murder even though Glover was found to have posed no threat of any kind to Shea. And despite the review of police procedures after Clifford Glover’s was killed, unarmed black and brown New Yorkers continued to be killed by the New York City Police Department.
There have been many, many similar cases since. They include Randolph Evans, Anthony Baez and Michael Stewart. There was Eleanor Bumpers (a 66-year-old arthritic grandmother who was hit with two police gunshot blasts. Amadou Diallo, Nathaniel Gaines, Patrick Dorismond, Sean Bell, Ousmane Zongo, Ramarley Graham and others were all unarmed but now are dead. Daniel Pantaleo and other officers choked the life out of Brother Eric Garner, ignoring his distress as he lay on the sidewalk. To this list we can now add Akai Gurley, killed as he walked innocently in the stairwells of the Pink Houses in Brooklyn. In calling out their names I remember an Ashanti proverb which says that “As long as we continue to call their names, their legacy will never die.”
Even though these police killings have continued throughout the years, people across the socio-economic and political spectrum have reached a tipping point. Local struggles are becoming part of a national movement. We are witnessing a popular upsurge that seeks to reform and change the criminal justice and law enforcement systems, that seeks communities that are truly safe for all people.
The writer James Baldwin said that white fear is the single greatest killer of black people in the United States. That fear can be seen in the grand jury testimony of former Police Officer Darren Wilson, which repeated a legacy of fantastical, frightening, dehumanized images of black men. As he tried to justify why he killed young Michael Brown with a barrage of twelve shots, hitting him six times, Wilson gave a version of events that makes no sense ‒ except as an expression of an unnatural fear of black and brown men that is deeply ingrained in this country’s psyche.
According to Wilson, Brown was “like a demon” with almost superhuman strength: “When I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” Wilson said. At 6’ 4”, Mike Brown was not small ‒ but neither is Darren Wilson, who is 6’ 4” tall himself. Which of them had more cause to be afraid ‒ the one who was unarmed, or the one who carried a gun? We can see the answer in what actually happened: only one of them was armed, and only one is alive today. Yet Wilson, incredibly, claimed that Mike Brown was hardly bothered by the bullets flying at him: “It looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him.” What black teenager runs into a hail of bullets fired from a white cop’s gun? It is not believable ‒ especially when we remember that 16 of 18 witnesses who testified on this point said that Mike Brown had his hands up when he was shot. The only demons in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9 were the ones in Darren Wilson’s head. The bottom line is that Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown because he was black.
In the case of the NYPD, many things have contributed to the deaths of unarmed civilians at the hands of police in recent years: deep-seated structural racism, the failed “Broken Windows” policy, long-running failure to enforce NYPD policies against chokeholds, etc. These all require change. But the NYPD also houses a small minority of officers who have no business being police officers: sociopaths and outright racists for whom no amount of cultural competency and sensitivity training can undo the bigoted way they see young black and brown lives, and the hair-trigger fears they carry as a result. The City needs to aggressively track police officers’ records of civilian complaints, developing an “early warning system” to intervene and, when it’s found necessary after due process, to discharge officers who are dangerous to the public.
The struggle for change is a long one, for racism manifests itself throughout most institutions in America ‒ even in our houses of worship, which meet in what has been called “the most segregated hour in America.” But the gospel (the “good news”) is that today we have a growing cry for change, from a multiethnic, multiracial coalition of people who have protested, demonstrated, stopped traffic and led “die-ins” across America. Ferguson was a watershed moment – and these actions have gone beyond being a “moment” to become a movement. The whole world is paying attention and has watched as these events unfolded across America.
This is a movement that has placed racial profiling, police killings and the criminal justice system on notice. It unites activists and advocates for social justice in newer organizations, such as the Dream Defenders, Millennial Activists United, Color of Change, Gathering for Justice and the Justice League, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Equal Justice and others, together with established civil rights organizations like the NAACP, National Action Network, the Urban League and Black Sororities and Fraternities. As in the 1960s and ‘70s, athletes, artists and politicians are joining in and being led by this movement. It is a movement with new ideas that appreciates the struggles and historical resistance movements of the past.
The movement is fighting for specific legal changes, like reform of the grand jury system (that went so wrong in Ferguson and Staten Island), or appointment of a special prosecutor whenever police kill civilians. It is fighting to end abusive policies like stop-and-frisk or huge fines for minor offenses. It is challenging the over-reliance on police seen in the so-called “war on drugs,” stationing police in the schools, etc. – and the mass incarceration that results.
We are beginning to see masses of people connect the dots of inequality that link police brutality and mass incarceration with poverty and the lack of jobs and affordable housing. So this ongoing conversation and critique about race and policing is at a historical juncture, and it is not over yet.
We are challenging the gate-keepers of power and privilege. It is our right to fight for justice and seek reform as the struggle continues.
Paul Washington is director of outreach at the Medgar Evers College Black Male Initiative; he has been involved in organizing against police violence for more than 30 years.