“Hell No!” That’s what Esaw Garner said in refusing to accept the apology of the policeman who killed her husband Eric in New York City. And that is what I am saying today. I would like to write something erudite and wise, but those facilities fail me just now. I am feeling great empathy for the rage Louis Head (Michael Brown’s stepfather) unleashed in Ferguson, Missouri when he yelled, “Burn this b**** down!”
Metaphorically channeling the 1969 recording by Miles Davis that “sent a shiver through a country already quaking,” I am at a loss for words to fully capture my “Bitches Brew” of feelings. Miles led the revolution for jazz. I see it as a soundtrack for society—the one where, in 1969, I was a mere five years into the modicum of Civil Rights that forbade denial of equal protection under the law. In 2014, I continue to yearn for those rights to be applied—equally.
Perhaps what hurts most right now is my lack of surprise about what should be surprising events. Eric Garner and Michael Brown are merely two names on a very long list; to which I hasten to add the more than two dozen black women who have also been killed by law enforcement officers in recent years. It wasn’t a surprise when Darren Wilson was not indicted in Missouri. Nor was it a surprise when Daniel Pantaleo was not indicted in New York. It is not a surprise that an unarmed black person is shot every 28 hours by police, nor that black men are incarcerated at ten times the rate of whites.
In the 395 years since the first captive Africans were brought to North America, black people have endured slavery, “Jim Crow,” rioting (by whites), lynching, financial insecurity, social instability, medical experimentation, ethnic cleansing, the murders of our heroes, defamation, dehumanization, criminalization, and massive incarceration—at epic levels.
In 1857, the United States Supreme Court heard the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford, who was suing for his freedom. In committing the majority opinion that denied his plea to paper, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney said the authors of the Constitution had viewed all blacks as “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
Based on these historical precedents, the only thing that does surprise me is that so many white people continue to bask in an oblivious bubble of greed, selfishness, and privilege, refusing to accept what is so painfully obvious to people like me.
In coming days, another thing that will not surprise me is the blowback from deluded white folks and their black sycophants. It is already at fever pitch. They’re quick to point out that Mike Brown smoked marijuana; Eric Garner sold illegal cigarettes; black folks kill each other at higher rates than the police; black police officers were present when Eric Garner went down, so why didn’t they stop it? We can’t even grieve our lost children without cyberspace erupting with hateful commentary on how victims deserved whatever happened to them at the hands of dutiful “keepers of the peace” who “serve and protect”...who, exactly? Eric Garner wouldn’t be dead if he wasn’t fat and using up his breath to say “I can’t breathe.” Louis Head is being investigated for “inciting a riot” that everyone in America who has a television and some common sense knows was a direct result of community rage and how the police handled the aftermath of the Ferguson Grand Jury decision. Why don’t they stop it?!!
Darren Wilson was paid half a million dollars to do an interview on ABC-TV. Mike Ditka, the legendary coach of the Chicago Bears, said “This policeman’s life is ruined.” Well, what about Mike Brown and too many others? They are DEAD and things can’t get any more ruined than that.
So how much can we expect from a Justice Department when we have seen the blatant disrespect they have shown over the last six years for President Obama? It hardly put salve on the wound when Eric Holder announced the finding that Cleveland police have a history of using excessive force. Duh?!! Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge tortured more than 200 criminal suspects to force confessions over a 20 year period before he was brought to “justice” in 2010. He walked out of prison a free man with full pension last month after a slap on the wrist for “obstruction of justice and perjury.” His black victims remain incarcerated. Neither Obama nor Holder can fix America’s brokenness. Neither police training nor spending a zillion dollars on body cameras is an adequate solution. A video camera didn’t save Eric Garner; the man who shot the video was arrested AND indicted by the same grand jury that let Daniel Pantaleo walk.
Even as protests continue, white folk will get rich selling legalized marijuana while black folk continue to languish in jail for selling the same thing. When white people riot after a football game, they are “letting off steam.” Policeman will get fired—immediately—for choke-holding white students. If a white man waves a gun, he will be “talked down and escorted home.” Forty-four percent of white people own guns (often more than one); 27 percent of black people do (only one). Against those statistics, who is more dangerous? Why is it is that white people so often receive a “get out of jail free” card while black people go directly to dead without passing “go”?
Civil rights advocate and writer, Michelle Alexander, reminds us that “Today, fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Acts and the supposed demise of the old Jim Crow, we have the mayor of New York City acknowledging that we are, once again, at a point in our history where black people must raise signs saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ because it is so blatantly obvious that the lessons of our history have yet to be learned.”
I side with comedian Chris Rock when he says with all seriousness:
“...we treat racism in this country like it’s a style that America went through. Like flared legs and lava lamps. Oh, that crazy thing we did.... We treat it like a fad instead of a disease that eradicates millions of people. You’ve got to get it at a lab, and study it, and see its origins, and see what it’s immune to and what breaks it down.”
What we need to perceive from the cumulative litany of so much wrong done for so long is that it is not just the police who need to be brought into check, it is ALL of us. Black communities need to mobilize against crime in our own communities. America needs to wake up to the realities that history has wrought and be aware that, if police abuse is allowed to continue, it will eventually come their way too.
Our hearts and minds must change—which is something no law or police intervention can achieve. It is only possible through conscious, individual choice combined with concerted, committed ACTION. And that action needs to address, not just police excess, but ALL of the inequities that are built into the American social fabric.
My closing comment is a reverberation of a blog post by Albert Berneko in The Concourse:
“The American Justice System Is Not Broken. It is doing precisely what it is designed to do. The sooner we wake up to this reality, the sooner we can get to work building the kind of movement that holds real promise of transforming not only our ‘justice’ system but the American culture that created it. The system does not need to be ‘fixed’... It needs to be dismantled and replaced or utterly transformed. The only remaining question—after all that we’ve seen—is whether we are willing to speak the truth, face our history, and finally put an end to our nation’s history and cycle of creating these caste-like, dehumanizing, race-based systems in America.”
I am inspired to see people of all races, nationalities, genders, religious persuasions, and ages on the move. I am proud to see them marching in their thousands, closing down highways and bridges across America. I am humbled to see protesters laying their bodies down in the streets, chanting “No justice, no peace.” I am relieved to see white people carrying signs that read “White silence = White consent.” And I pray it does not stop; that they, like Esaw Garner, will keep shouting, “Hell No!”
Sharon Leslie Morgan is a marketing communications consultant, a nationally recognized pioneer in multicultural marketing, a founder of the National Black Public Relations Society, and co-author of Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade. An avid genealogist, she blogs extensively, leads workshops on African American family history, and is the webmaster for OurBlackAncestry.com.