Twenty years ago Timothy McVeigh detonated a bomb outside of an Oklahoma City federal building, killing 168 people and injuring hundreds more. In June 2001, McVeigh was put to death for murder and conspiracy. Terry Nichols, McVeigh’s co-conspirator, was convicted of first-degree murder and is serving a life sentence.
When McVeigh was executed, many believed justice was served. After all, he masterminded one of the most egregious terrorist attacks on domestic soil. Months after McVeigh’s execution, a larger attack occurred. Extremist group al-Qaida carried out September 11th, on which an estimated 3,000 people were killed and countless others were harmed. National security concerns peaked.
Mainstream culture paints McVeigh, Nichols and their ilk unfavorably after they commit atrocities. White men, the first legally recognized people in America, are routinely afforded the humanity of individuality. McVeigh and Nichols are viewed as evil, but not representative of the whole. They aren’t automatically stereotyped as suspect, and therefore disposable, like black and brown people.
Even when it’s unclear whether a person of color broke the law, inappropriate police responses are common.
“We have a culture of policing that is really rubbing salt into longstanding racial wounds,” NAACP President Cornell Williams Brooks told Mother Jones. The Jackson State University and Yale Law School alumnus told the publication that people thought to have committed minor crimes receive “overwhelmingly major, often lethal, use of force.”
Racism solidifies this caste system in which certain people cannot earn, study or work toward freedom. It juxtaposes elitism and everyday. So it goes. The first black president and his prominent black comrades, coincide with the whip of state-sanctioned violence against black laypeople.
USA Today reported that about twice weekly, a white police officer killed a black person during a seven-year-period ending in 2012. ProPublica’s deadly force risk analysis showed that black teenage males are 21 times more likely than their white male counterparts to be shot dead by police.
Intersectionality means black women and girls, who suffer racism and patriarchy, often garner less sympathy when killed by police. It means most of these headlines and current obituaries include black people; however, America has always left room to discriminate against blacks and other people of color in tandem. Both Native Americans and Latinos face heightened risk of being killed by police.
And yet, black officers can kill black people, do kill black people and unnecessarily risk killing black people. A black officer drew a gun on Grambling State University alumnus, memoirist and New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s son, Tahj, an unarmed Yale student.
The problem is not that every police officer wants to kill us, but that too many actually do. The problem is less about the race of the officer than the race of his target. America’s “thin blue line” obsession compromises due process and stampedes over human rights. It creates an us-versus-them scenario in which people on the right side of history are classified as terrorists.
CNN’s Freedom of Information Act request demonstrated the Missouri National Guard’s perception of protestors. The National Guard, deployed in Ferguson following officer Darren Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown, called demonstrators “enemy forces” and “adversaries.”
Similarly, California counter-terrorism police tracked #BlackLivesMatter tweets and advised officers not to indicate the observation to social media users, lest users go silent.
The National Guard and counter-terrorism officers have it twisted. Targeting protestors, not the source of the protests, is complicity. Using militarized language and responses against marginalized communities increases domestic distrust. Many contemporary targets come from long lines of people brought to this land through involuntary human trafficking. After all that our ancestors endured, we deserve to be here, if we want, free from state-supported harm.
Time will truly tell if change is afoot. Prosecutors, with notable discretion, can file charges. Jurors can stop privileging officer misjudgments over the right of victims to live. Police can adopt best practices, require ongoing training, and be punished proportionately for violating public trust. They can expect resistance.
Until marginalized people are acknowledged and affirmed, pandemonium will continue.
Legislators can do the right thing. Instead of obstructionism, the sort that delayed Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s confirmation, they can oppose police brutality. They better define appropriate use of force in American communities.
Meanwhile, black and brown folks will do what we have always done. Leaders and loved ones will teach de-escalation tactics and suggestions to keep us alive.
HBCU speakers will offer suggestions. As Dartmouth, Emory, Penn State and other majoritarian institutions incorporate Black Lives Matter teachings into their courses, HBCUs – uniquely positioned as they are – can contribute scholarship. HBCU law schools are mission-oriented, and can infuse lived experiences into legal study. Campus police can be liaisons between communities and officers.
We can support activists like the Dream Defenders. We can and should film police. We can and should continue targeted marches, speeches, letters, sit-ins, economic boycotts and an overall call-out culture, as employed during the Civil Rights Movement. We can and should reach untold audiences on social media by chronicling injustice.
We should be able to lean on allies, who are not directly in the line of fire, to accept and teach the necessity of countering white supremacy. They gotta get out of their feelings and into meaningful discourses about why it is not acceptable for police to kill black people with impunity. One should note that individualized discomfort does not trump the institutional credence lent to bad actors through inaction.
Without brave citizen journalists and good neighbors recording police, these occurrences would not be as widely known. As with Michael Slager’s killing of Walter Scott, untruths would have prevailed, full stop.
This nation means liberty and possibility for some, and precariousness for others. Unless timely intervention occurs, America will sustain a correlation: Officers kill us, with little or no consequence, to render us little and of no consequence.