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Black Lives and the Struggle for Humanity

Protestors of all racial and ethnic groups, socioeconomic classes, across age demographics, and varied sexual orientations and religions have taken to the streets voicing their outrage against the recent acts of injustice. From New York City to Chicago to Berkeley, California, people have made their disgust known. The recent failure of two grand juries to indict police officers Daniel Wilson and Daniel Pantelino for the horrific deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner has moved many. To paraphrase the late, great literary icon, James Baldwin, it has indeed become “the fire this time.”

The protests in Ferguson and throughout the nation have aroused the long complacent spirit that has been an integral part of American history. Who among us does not recoil in horror at hearing Garner being latched down on the pavement in a choke hold as he repeatedly says “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” as his life was rapidly being snuffed out of him. The indifference of police officers to his cries represented a chilling degree of callousness and indifference. It was incomprehensible.

For many people of African descent, particularly lower-income Black Americans, such blatantly brutal behavior at the hands of law enforcement (White men in general) is nothing new. The cold, hard reality is that police brutality and mistreatment at the hands of police officers is one of a long list of many historical indignities that have been afflicted upon the Black community. Lynchings, rape, mass incarceration, racial profiling, economic discrimination, lack of equal access to quality education and other injustices have been the norm.

In addition to Brown and Garner, some of the more notable examples of Black Americans who have died at the hands of police are:

1. Amadou Diallo (1999) ― Unarmed 23-year-old shot 19 times by four police officers

2. Patrick Dorismond (2000) ― Security guard shot fatally in the chest by an undercover officer

3. Ousmane Zongo (2008) ― Unarmed, shot four times by NYPD police

4. Timothy Stansbury (2004) ― Unarmed teen fatally shot by NYPD officer

5. Sean Bell (2006) ― Killed as New York undercover officers fired more than 50 shots into his car

6. Oscar Grant (2009) ― Shot in the back by a San Francisco Bay area officer

7. Aiyana Stanley-Jones (2010) ―7-year-old girl shot while sleeping by Detroit SWAT team

8. Ramarley Graham (2012) – Unarmed teen shot by plain clothes narcotics cops at the door of his family’s bathroom

9. Rekia Boyd (2012) ― Shot in the head by an off duty cop who fired into a crowd of people

10. Kimani Gray (2013) ― Killed by plainclothes NYPD officers

11. Tamir Rice (2014) ― 12-year-old kid murdered by a police officer who claimed he believed that Rice’s pellet gun was real

12. Akai Gurley (2014) ― Shot in the chest by a NYPD police officer in stairwell

There are many others too numerous to list here. With the exception of Rekia Boyd, all of the other officers were acquitted. The cases of Brown and Garner are being investigated by the Justice Department. Gurley’s case is being investigated by the Brooklyn district attorney.

One has to wonder would the average White male or female be the victim of such routine and random police violence? The answer is a resounding, “No!” If middle- and upper-income White people were being murdered by police officers duplicative to the rate of Black and Latino people, there would be mass protests, calls for congressional investigations and public demonstrations that would make recent protests in some of our major cities resemble a small church choir. There would be a cry so loud that it would be politically and economically fatal to any politician or police force who defied such a decisive message. There is no question that, in some cases, police officers have used force that is justified, but more than often the reaction of officers when it relates to people of African decent (at least in the aforementioned examples) is one of significant overreaction.

The fact is that Black bodies have historically been demeaned, attacked and murdered oftentimes without facing any consequences. From their arrival to American shores, Black men, women, families and communities have had to live in terror of the threat of physical, emotional and psychological violence.

Suddenly, at least for the moment, it appears that a sea change has begun to emerge. People from all walks of life have risen up and decided that the practice of murdering Black people with impunity is a something that cannot be accepted as par for the course any longer, White denial, resistance and other factors notwithstanding. Black people are human beings and deserved to be treated with as much dignity and respect as any other group of people.

The fact is that Black lives, like all lives, matter.

Elwood Watson, Ph.D., is a professor of history, Africana studies and gender studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the co-author of Beginning A Career in Academia: A Guide For Graduate Students of Color (Routledge Press, 2014).

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