“Democracy cannot breathe, and will die, if those enjoined to protect and uphold the law snuff it out unjustly and without consequence. Justice cannot breathe when Black men and boys and women and girls are routinely profiled, abused, arrested, and killed with impunity by police officers.”
— Marion Wright Edelman
My car alarm went off one day recently. It happens all the time. I have a funky old 1994 Toyota Tercel with windows you have to crank up and down by hand and an alarm with a broken remote button. The only way to turn off the alarm is to put the key in the ignition. If I’m not fast enough, the blaring starts. It’s really annoying. But this time it could have been life-threatening.
My brother–in-law and nephew were visiting – the end point of a wonderful father-son road trip down the Oregon and California Coast Highway. Bob is a retired math educator who now takes incredible photos of wild birds. Wes is a songwriter and musician, just starting grad school. That Saturday afternoon we had stopped at home on our way from one place to another and I went in the house for something. Wes came in also, while Bob waited in the car. The keys were in my pocket.
Wes went back out ahead of me and a few seconds later I heard the car alarm go off when he opened the door. Oh, NO! My first thought was what a bummer to be sitting in a car helpless to turn off the alarm. Then came a fleeting image of Bob and Wes — two black men, unfamiliar to my neighbors — in my familiar car with the alarm going off. I raced out the door and across the street, jumped into the driver’s seat and switched off the alarm.
Sudden silence. Bob said quietly, “It’s not good to be black men in a car with an alarm going off.” At that point, a number of things could have happened. I could have fallen all over myself apologizing, inviting them to reassure me it wasn’t my fault. Or I could have protested, oh, there’s no danger here. This is a “good” middle class, pretty liberal neighborhood. Why, the neighbor whose house we’re parked in front of is a person of color – a Chinese woman – and next to her lives an African-American couple. I could have dismissed their fear as unfounded. Some years ago, I might have done just that — or at least had the impulse to. White people do it all the time. But the full impact of Bob’s words hit me in the heart. The fear was real. And the danger was real. I said simply, “I know.”
Since Michael Brown’s murder by police in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014, there has been story after story of situations where an unarmed black person, whether breaking a law or not, ended up dead in a matter of seconds. This has been happening for years, of course, but now the pattern has become more visible, partly because so many people have cameras in their phones and the internet allows images to be communicated far and wide. I remember the shock, back in 2009, of watching the grainy, chaotic video of BART officer Johannes Mehserle pulling out his gun and shooting Oscar Grant in the back. Then the shock of learning that Oscar Grant had worked at Farmer Joe’s meat counter, where I shop a couple of times a month. He could have been the smiling guy who cut up chicken for me or wrapped a couple of pork chops in butcher paper, asking, “Anything else for you today?” Then there was the further shock (to my still idealistic self who believes justice is possible, especially when there’s an actual video of the crime), but not really a shock (to my more realistic self who knows that justice is rarely served in these situations), that Mehserle would only serve 11 months of a mere two year prison sentence.
There followed Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, twelve-year-old Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Sitting here, feeling these lives lost, the words of Bob Dylan’s song come into my mind – “How many deaths will it take til we know that too many people have died?” But we do know that. Too many people of color have been pulled from cars, beaten up, thrown to the ground, shot in the back, killed while unarmed, died in custody, died alone without their family or friends. This is not news to the black community. But for me as a white person, how do I hold this news not as a series of single tragic events or travesties of justice? How do I let the impact sink in to body, heart and spirit?
Tamir Rice was killed one year ago, on November 22, 2014. As each of these stories hits the media, we hear about it over a period of time – days, weeks, maybe — and the momentum of our lives makes it easy to forget, or not really register the impact in a personal way. Especially if we are white. I remember hearing a news story about the police killing Tamir who was playing in a park and had a toy gun. My immediate reaction was outrage, disgust, helplessness. Then the news moved on. My life moved on. But Tamir’s life had not moved on. The impact on people who loved him will never really move on.
This summer I heard read aloud the powerful column, “Ten Rules to Help Black Boys Survive“ by Marian Wright Edelman. She opens by saying, “Democracy cannot breathe, and will die, if those enjoined to protect and uphold the law snuff it out unjustly and without consequence.” She vividly recounts how Tamir lay bleeding on the ground, how the police not only did not administer any first aid but actually restrained his sister and his mother from going to help or comfort him as he lay dying. Edelman repeatedly asks, “Who was there to protect Tamir?” Hearing this story stunned me, put me right there at the scene. Especially, I could imagine being Tamir’s sister or mother, distraught, helpless — and then the further outrage of being treated as criminals themselves. Where was the humanity of those police officers?
Like many others, Tamir’s death was also caught on video — it took only two seconds for the police car to pull up and start shooting. There was no assessment whatsoever of the situation, even though the caller who reported someone in the park with a gun had said that it might be a toy and the the person might be a teenager. In June an Ohio judge ruled that the police officers should face murder charges. So has justice been served? One year after Tamir’s death, prosecutor Tim McGinty has not filed criminal charges against the Cleveland police officers who killed Tamir and has released “expert” testimony that leans towards exonerating the officers. The grand jury hearing is underway at this moment. Want to do something? Right now? A movement led by Tamir’s mother and sponsored by Color of Change is underway to call for McGinty to step down and a special prosecutor be assigned. You can join me in signing the petition here. You can watch or listen for news of how this trial unfolds. Watch and listen to your own thoughts, where and how your attention moves. How you are touched or not. What you might be moved to do. That’s what I’m planning to do. Not let this one get lost in the momentum of life.
I had almost forgotten what happened in the car with Bob and Wes. Because from one point of view, “nothing really happened.” No one called the cops, as had happened to Bob in a similar situation before. No random police car drove by and stopped to investigate “suspicious” individuals, as has happened countless times in other moments and places. But what did happen was a stark moment of truth — of the contrast between the world Bob and Wes walk in and the one I walk in every day. And how easily they could have become the next tragic news story.
As we drove off in my dinged-up old Tercel, Wes commented wryly, “Well at least it’s not the first car on the block anyone would think of stealing!” We laughed and turned our minds to the trip ahead to Amoeba Music to find vintage Jimi Hendrix albums.
Someone just gave us a “Black Lives Matter” poster and today I put it up. There are not many of these posters visible in our neighborhood. It’s just a small act, a small statement in the big scheme of things. But it will help me remember and pay attention. Sometimes small gestures, like small moments, can make a difference. It happens all the time.
Awesome video: “Get Home Safely: 10 Rules of Survival If Stopped by the Police” Between the World and Me by Ta Nehisi Coates (The Atlantic article & book)
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander