Recently three young innocent men were murdered by members of the police force in the United States.
First came Alton Sterling – an unarmed 37 year old who was held down by policemen and shot several times as he tried to sell CDs outside a store in Louisiana. Then came Philando Castile – a 32 year old supervisor at a school in Minnesota, whose girlfriend live-streamed him bleeding out in their car after being shot by a police officer, even though he declared he had a licensed firearm in the car he did not intend to use. And finally, with echoes of the Trayvon Martin case, came Kouren-Rodney Bernard Thomas – an unarmed 20 year old man who was fatally shot by a self-proclaimed neighbourhood watchman, who claimed to be defending himself against a “bunch of hoodlums”.
None of these men were engaging in criminal activity, nor were they doing anything that could possibly justify their brutal murders.
Sadly this is not the only three in the last few years, and it devastatingly probably won’t be the last. These murders come off the backs of hundreds of innocent black men and women in the last few years alone that have been killed for doing absolutely nothing. These recent deaths are added to an expanding list of names of people who had futures, and hopes, and families, and communities they were a part of. Names like Freddie Grey, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Ezell Ford Jr., Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, and Trayvon Martin. All innocent, all targeted because of reasons that still cannot be fully explained by the people who murdered them. I
f you think these are only recent occurrences you’d be wrong – it’s a tragic thought but these horrific events span back generations to lynchings, public beatings, and racial segregation tactics. The only difference is we now live in an age of social media where there is access to evidence in the form of video recordings that can be shared online at the click of a button for the world to see.
In all of these cases there is rare chance of de-escalation – the person runs away and they get shot; they stay put and they get shot; they put their hands up and they get shot; they comply and they get shot; they resist and they get shot. There is no winning situation. There is also no limit to what “crime” it is that they have supposedly committed – people have been murdered for trying to buy Iced Tea, for trying to sell cigarettes, for walking home from the shops, for talking too loudly, for reaching for their licence when asked to, or for holding a toy gun. In all cases of the police being involved it has resulted in deadly force being used when not necessary. In cases of members of the public being involved it has resulted in them trying to seemingly take down a “threat” which is generally in the form of an unarmed teenager or young man.
These may seem like senseless acts of violence with no real motivation, until you consider the societal norms that we’ve all come to accept, and the every day racism that occurs so often around us that we’ve become desensitised to it. These prejudices have seeped so deeply into the fabric of our society that we barely even react when black people are portrayed as volatile thugs, or hoodlums, or subservient fools in films, on TV, and in the media.
It is the same society that is quick to plaster mugshots of black faces and graphic videos of black lives being slaughtered all over the news in the name of information.
It is the same society that perpetuates the over-blown myth that the majority of the black race is comprised of violent criminals, and that we need to caricaturize or sexualise them in order to make them more accessible.
But look how far we’ve come!, I hear you cry. We have a black president in charge of the United States, black people aren’t segregated anymore, and are allowed to vote – surely that means that racism can’t really still exist? Yes, there have been amazing achievements for black people everywhere over the last 50 years or so. But the problem remains that we’re still living in a world where none of the police enforcement who used lethal force on unarmed black men have been prosecuted or had anything more than a firm slap on the wrist.
The police force are only allowed to use lethal force if they can prove that the assailant (or in these cases, victim) was an imminent threat and that they feared for their lives. But where is the threat in a scared, unarmed man running away? Where is the threat in a man with his hands in plain sight being tackled to the ground by multiple officers and held down until he can’t breath? Why do all the testimonies of other people who were there, and the numerous videos of footage tell a different story? Why is it these people who are rigorously trained to protect and handle difficult situations so frightened and quick to react with violence in what should be a routine operation? Simply put, their fear is rooted in prejudice.
It’s a deep-rooted fear that dwells closely beneath the surface, to the point that they barely admit their own discriminatory mindset to themselves. It’s the same people who say they don’t have a problem with black people but will cross the road when they see a black man walking toward them on the street on a dark night. It’s the same people that deep down have a bubbling disdain for a race that they’ve been subconsciously taught from birth is inferior to theirs. It’s the same people who have bought into a society that seeks to keep black populations in low income, poorly educated areas, or in mass incarceration for fear of them breaking the racial and systematic chains that bind them.
Despite the advances it has made, the cultural remnants of slavery still leave a bitter taste in America’s mouth, and they cannot be washed away so easily.
We genuinely live in a world where some still intensely believe that systematic and institutional racism does not exist, and even if they acknowledge its presence they choose to turn a blind eye to it. This is due to it being easier to turn your head from the harsh realities of the very apparent racism that is still in this world than to face it and confront your own potential prejudices or privilege.
The burying-your-head-in-the-sand method can only work for so long, until we have to all start waking up to the truth that racism can only be tackled by acknowledging the struggles of those that it is oppressing, and talk about how we can overcome it.
Humankind has indeed come a long way since slavery, but it makes my heart ache to say we’ve still got so very, very far to go.