In the last quarter of 2014 the issues of institutionalized racism, unequal treatment of Blacks by the police, and unequal sentencing for people of color in comparison to whites, were all brought to the forefront of the American conversation, on the news as well as social media: blogs, Facebook and Twitter. But nothing happens in a vacuum. Despite thousands – perhaps tens of thousands – of contentious conversations online, we should not, and cannot treat the deaths of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice’s or Eric Garner like isolated incidents. It does us little good to argue over whether Brown’s Body should be classified as a weapon, whether it was “stupid” or illegal to remove the orange safety tip from a toy gun or whether selling loose cigarettes and “resisting arrest” should be a capital offense. We need to look at these incidents in light of a broader context. Take a trip with me down memory lane, to the not so distant past:
The Lie of a Post-Racial Society
On December 28, 1998, Tyisha Miller, a 19-year-old African American woman from Rubidoux, Riverside, California was opened fire on by four police officers, three white and one Hispanic. 23 shots were fired, hitting Miller with at least 12 bullets, including four in the head. She had a series of car problems that evening. A 15 year old passenger and friend of the family went to get help when a spare tire used to replace a flat turned out also to be flat. Family called the police when they found Miller in her car unconscious with the doors locked. Observing that Miller needed medical attention, one of the officers broke the window to get her out. When that noticed she had a hand gun in the car they opened fire. Miller had GHB in her system. The narrative of course was, she was a drug addict so the penalty was deserved. Yet Miller never fired a shot. During the heat of civil rights and federal investigations, the four officers involved in the incident were fired for violating department policies. In January 2002, arbitrator Robert Steinberg of Culver City found that the officers had been wrongly fired and that the decision to terminate their employment constituted an “abuse of administrative discretion”. He awarded them full back-pay, but did not order them to be reinstated, citing “racial politics.”
On February 4, 1999 at the age of 23 Guinea immigrant, Amadou Diallo was shot and killed in Bronx, NYC. Plain-clothed officers: Sean Carroll, Richard Murphy, Edward McMellon and Kenneth Boss believed that Diallo “fit the description” of a serial rapist involved in the rape or attempted rape of 29 victims. It was dark, 12:40 a.m. The officers identified themselves. When Diallo reached for his wallet, the officers fired a combined total of 41 shots, 19 of which struck Diallo. He was not the rapist they were looking for. In fact he had no criminal history. A Bronx grand jury indicted the four officers on charges of second-degree murder and reckless endangerment. But the officers were all acquitted.
On March 16, 2000 at the age 26, a young black man from Brooklyn, Patrick Moses Dorismond was killed by undercover officer Anthony Vasquez. One bullet hit Dorismond’s aorta. Mayor Rudy Giuliani released Dorismond’s sealed juvenile delinquency record saying, “he was no altar boy.” Ironically Dorismond attended the same Catholic high school as Giuliani (Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School) where Dorismond was indeed an altar boy. The grand jury declined to indict Officer Vasquez in the death of Dorismond, announcing that they had found the shooting to be accidental.
On May 5, 2003, 21-year-old African-American woman, Kendra James was shot to death by police officer Scott McCollister. Police pulled over a vehicle in which James was a backseat passenger. The driver, Terry Jackson and a front seat passenger were removed from the vehicle after it was discovered that Jackson had an outstanding warrant. James, a mother, had been partying that night and taking illegal substances. Yes it was foolish that she tried to evade legal repercussions and public exposure by jumping into the front seat and trying to start the car. Yet what happened next was unwarranted and has never been rectified. Officer McCollister testified that his body was 80% inside of the vehicle trying to stop James from getting away when he held his gun to Jame’s head (after failing to use his pepper spray properly). A single shot killed her. McCollister claimed self-defense as he had felt the car begin to move. Yet ballistic evidence confirmed that McCollister’s handgun was at least 30 to 48 inches away from James when discharged. Also, several witness claim it was a shot from one of two other officers standing by that killed James. Still only McCollister faced trial. He was cleared by a federal grand jury. Jame’s name was smeared in the press, especially in public comments sections as a druggie and bad mother.
On May 22, 2003 Ousmane Zongo, Age 43 was shot and killed. Police had targeted the Manhattan storage facility where Zongo worked while investigating a CD/DVD pirating operation. It turned out that Zongo was not involved in the scheme and had no weapon. He used the facility to run his self-owned legitimate business, repairing musical instruments. Bryan Conroy, was disguised as a postal worker and drew his gun and chased Zongo. Conroy was convicted of criminally negligent homicide but did not serve jail time. The judge at the trial said he was “insufficiently trained, insufficiently supervised and insufficiently led.”
On January 24, 2004 Timothy Stansbury age 19 decided he wanted to go outside on top of the roof top of his Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment complex. Officer Richard S. Neri Jr was patrolling the rooftop of a housing project when he fired his Glock 19 at Stansbury who “startled him” by pushing open the rooftop door. Stansbury was unarmed. The Grand Jury did not indict, claiming it to be an accident.
On November 25, 2006, 23 year old Sean Bell of Queens and two friends (who both survived) underwent a firestorm of 50 shots from 5 officers. Surveillance cameras at the Port Authority’s Jamaica AirTrain station a half block away from the shooting site recorded one of the bullets shattering the station’s glass window, narrowly missing a bystander and two Port Authority patrolmen. The Grand jury indicted 3 of the 5. But were found not guilty on charges of Manslaughter, assault, reckless endangerment. It was to be Bell’s wedding day. The media made much of the fact that he was intoxicated and leaving a strip club after his bachelor party. Transgressions certainly worthy of death by firing squad?
On Jan. 4, 2008, in Lima Ohio Sgt. Joe Chavalia shot and killed a 26-year-old Tarika Wilson, and also shot and injured her 14 month old son (one of six children). Wilson’s boyfriend, Anthony Terry, the man police were focused on in the raid, eventually pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges and was sentenced to seven years in prison. Sgt. Chavalia was charged with, and later acquitted of, two misdemeanors, negligent homicide and negligent assault.
On New Year’s Day 2009, Oscar Grant of Oakland, California was shot and killed by transit-police Officer Johannes Mehserle. Mehserle said that he accidentally used his gun instead of his Taser when he shot Grant on a train platform on . The 22-year-old was lying facedown with his hands behind his back, being subdued by another police officer, when he was killed. Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to only two years for taking Grant’s life. He was released after 11 months.
On May 16, 2010, seven-year-old Aiyana Mo’Nay Stanley Jones was shot and killed during a raid conducted by the Detroit Police Department’s Special Response Team. Police had a warrant to search the building premises where a teenage murder suspect was believed to be hiding. Officers threw a flash grenade through the front window to serve as “a distraction.” Officer Joseph Weekley was the first one through the door of Jones’ home. His claim was that her grandmother tried to remove his weapon and it discharged, hitting the young girl. Police arrested the grandmother, Mertilla Jones and administered tests for drugs and gunpowder, and released her later that day. At Weekley’s second trial it was disclosed that Mertilla’s fingerprints were not found on Weekley’s gun. Weekley was tried twice. Both times ended in a mistrial.
On March 7, 2012, in New Orleans, in a drug raid that went seriously awry, former officer Joshua Colclough shot and killed 20-year-old Wendell Allen. Allen was unarmed, and his five children were home at the time of his death. As is rare in these cases, Colclough resigned from the force, apologized to Allen’s mother and plead guilty to manslaughter. He is currently serving 4 years in prison.
Is the Dream Still Alive?
Let us not forget that in America we have a long, deep history of using the indiscretions of even some of the most rightly venerated black lives, to justify their execution and label them “thugs” after they Die. On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, let us not forget that while he was still living Dr. King was under constant FBI surveillance via wiretapping. While the FBI, quite to their consternation, were never able to find any evidence that King was a communist, they did capture evidence of a couple of extramarital affairs. While the transcripts from those wiretaps are officially until 2027 many memos were made public as part of high-profile congressional investigations into the FBI’s harassment of King as far back as 1978. To this day the information about the affairs is used on overtly racist websites owned by hate groups to label King a thug and sexual deviant. As if his impropriety in this one area of his life justified his assassination and somehow nullified his many great achievements and outstanding character in so many areas of life: standing in opposition to the Vietnam War, teaching and practicing the difficult task of non-violent resistance, crossing racial and religious boundaries to stand with a diversity of voices to speak out against racism as well as classism in America. He also spoke up for Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Native Americans, and Appalachian whites.
It is really quite similar to what the media – and some conversations on social media – have done to so many of the names above.
Rapper and actor Tupac Shakur, once said, “Measure a man by his actions fully, from the beginning to the end. Don’t take a piece out of my life or a song out of my music and say this is what I’m about, because you know better than that.”
I think that is the kind of thing Dr. King had in mind when he famously said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Is his dream still alive? Perhaps the better, scarier question….
Will it always be just a dream in America?