Michael Brown, 18 year old resident of Ferguson, Missouri, shot several times by police and left in the street for over two hours. Same old story, new person. As a Black man in my late 30’s, I have unfortunately become accustomed to hearing that something like this has happened. I am not desensitized to the loss of life, but I have too many instances of things like this happening to look back on. Because I look the way I do, my father made sure to give me the “ins and outs” on how to operate around police. Because he grew up during the Civil Rights movement and had borne witness to Black men and women ending up dead over the slightest (or imagined) infractions, he had to prep me for the reality of my skin color. This was the necessary “programming” to survive as a black male. So, by the time I reached the peak of my highest potential to be a statistic, my teenage years, I was ready…or so I thought.
Yeah, I had been followed by folks in stores before and had police spend extra time looking at me in public, but my friends and I always laughed it off as business as usual. Legendary Hip Hop groups like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions schooled us on what being Black in America looked like. In 1989, we were all angry in solidarity with the brothers and sisters in New York, when Yusef Hawkins was murdered for walking through Bensonhurst while Black. We were furious in the spring of 1991, watching Rodney King get beat to a pulp in the street by LAPD. We rocked our Africa and Nefertiti medallions because we were “down.” Yet, nothing had happened to us.
In the summer of 1991, my friends and I went to our little mall in my hometown of Elizabeth City, North Carolina. There was about five or six of us and we were “chilling” and having fun like teenagers do. We walked into the JC Penny store to exit because I wanted to see if my aunt was working that day. After learning that she wasn’t there, we walked outside and one of my friends said something stupid to me like was I going to cry because I didn’t see my family. So, I playfully pushed him and we all started goofing off and play fighting like friends do, in the parking lot. As I stood there on the receiving end of a “noogie” I happened to look up and saw three police cars descend on us out of nowhere. Five officers jumped out of the car with their hands on their holsters and told us all to freeze. We quickly got into the position we were all taught: Hands up or out. Palms facing the officer. Eyes squarely on their eyes so they knew we were complying. We quickly started explaining that we were all friends and were just playing around. After we confirmed this about two more times, they began to ease up and those hands, that I kept looking at, slowly moved away from the guns. They told us to get in our cars and go home and they eventually left.
We all stood there for a minute, dumbfounded about what just happened. To us, it was clear that we were playing. Nobody jumps up in the air to deliver an elbow drop (à la Dusty Rhodes) in a real fight. It then dawned on us that someone inside the store called the cops because they thought they were witnessing an actual brawl. Naturally, we got mad and started talking trash way after the police were gone, but something stuck with me. When we were confronted by those officers, we successfully jumped right into “the programming” and nothing happened. We were definitely ready, especially after watching what happened to Rodney King in LA. We weren’t arrested or accosted, but I saw something in one of those officer’s eyes. Fear. Fear of a 16 year old kid. Fear that could have manifested in one of us ending up hurt or worse, if we hadn’t conducted ourselves in the right way. I felt angry and scared that something so benign could have gotten me shot.
Just like I had gone through “the programming,” that officer had received programming too. The difference being that we had all gone through that programming as American citizens in regards to Black people.
During the last two years of high school, I remember being angry at what was happening around me. Right before the summer leading into my senior year, the cops who beat King were acquitted and the LA riots happened. I didn’t want to see our people loot and riot, but a large part of me understood. I harbored some of that same pain they felt. Feeling like there was no justice for people that looked like me. Feeling like the authorities could do anything they wanted to me and nothing would happen to them. Feeling like my being black, was reason enough to kill me in America. I got it, and unfortunately I cheered some of it on. Ice Cube became our soundtrack as he talked about retaliation and even though I had a good upbringing and my family instilled good things in me and I had never been in trouble…I was mad enough to do something stupid. Fortunately, common sense and the healthy fear of Russell Ward III (my father) kept me in line.
As an adult who spends an inordinate amount of time talking to young people about the value of peace and how nonviolence turned the tide in the Civil Rights Movement, I sometimes have to reconcile my feelings about police after I see what’s happening now. I have the opportunity to talk to a lot of teachers during workshops at BCRI. When the discussion moves to my opinion of race relations, I am as honest as possible. I notice the looks of horror on grown people’s faces after I explain to them that I still “jump into the programming” when I encounter police officers in public. Hands out to the side. Palms facing the officer. Eyes on their eyes. I will probably do that until I leave this Earth. Sad but true. What’s equally sad is the idea that, according to the eye witnesses in the Ferguson shooting, Michael Brown assumed that position after being hit in the back…and before five more shots were fired.
Over the last month we have witnessed at least several different instances of black people finding themselves in violent interactions with law enforcement:
July 17 – Eric Garner is killed after a New York police officer places him in a chokehold (which are illegal according to NYPD policy) in an effort to bring him to the ground. Garner was breaking up a fight when officers approached him and accused him of selling untaxed cigarettes. The entire interaction was videotaped by onlookers.The city medical examiner later ruled Garner's death a homicide, saying neck compression from the chokehold killed him. But the officers involved in the arrest may not face charges if the homicide is found to be justifiable. Garner was unarmed.
July 27 – Rosan Miller who is seven-months pregnant is placed in a chokehold by a NYPD officer after a confrontation about Miller “illegally grilling” in her yard. Miller’s seven year old daughter witnesses the entire episode. Miller was unarmed.
August 2 – NYPD arrives at a Brownsville apartment building after being called to check on disturbance. 48 year old Denise Stewart informs them that they have the wrong apartment and attempts to close the door. NYPD force open the door and pull her out into the hallway. Mrs. Stewart had just taken a shower and her towel comes off during the raid. She is detained in the hallway topless for nearly three minutes before a female officer covered her with a towel. Stewart, who has asthma, fainted during the arrest, according to the Daily News. The NYPD arrested Denise Stewart and charged her with assaulting a police officer — she bit an officer’s finger during the scuffle. Stewart was unarmed.
August 6 – John Crawford enters a Wal-Mart in Beavercreek, Ohio and picks up an air rifle. Police are called to investigate a man waving a rifle in the store. Crawford is shot in the chest and killed after officers say he did not put the weapon down in a timely manner. The family’s requests to view the video footage from the store, has been ignored although Wal-Mart did turn over footage to authorities. The family’s lawyer, Michael Wright asked the question: "Why did John Crawford, a Wal-Mart customer, get shot and killed carrying a BB gun in a store that sells BB guns?"
There are other instances in the same time period, notably Ezell Ford, who may have been shot by LAPD while face down and complying with officers.
Citizens in Ferguson, MO became angry and rioted following the killing of Michael Brown, resulting in damage and looting of stores in their own communities. I still do not and will not condone looting. However, there are thousands of people protesting peacefully in the country who are angry. There are 16 year olds across America who are watching what is taking place and realizing that they could be killed at any time, by people that are tasked with protecting them. Mostly due to part of the “programming” of American law enforcement, that seems to train them to see that same 16 year old as inherently prone to violence and needing to be feared. Given that, if someone can get into “the programming” and still be killed, what does that mean for all that training I received and am now trying to give to others? It’s enough to get people angry enough to do something and sadly, part of me understands.
Man, I wish I didn’t understand.
Ahmad Ward is the Head of Education and Exhibitions at BCRI