Is fear of a black man justified?

September 26, 2013

Willie Ferrell, left, talks about his relationship with his older brother, Jonathan Ferrell, at a news conference, as attorney Christopher Chestnut, center, his mother, Georgia Ferrell, right, listen on Monday, Sept. 16, 2013, in Charlotte, N.C. Police were called Sept. 14, after the former Florida A&M University football player knocked on the door of a home near the car crash he was in. Ferrell was hit with a Taser as he approached officers and then shot, resulting in a voluntary manslaughter charge against one of the officers. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

The story was about one particular case — a sad one, to be sure – but one that involved individuals, each with a name and story. When Jonathan Ferrell was killed in Charlotte, N.C., nearly two weeks ago, it shattered his family –which is now planning his Saturday funeral in Tallahassee, Fla.– and forever affected the life of the police officer accused of voluntary manslaughter in his death, no matter the verdict in his trial.

Many in a community that prides itself on getting along are asking questions and demanding changes – including a strengthened Citizens Review Board – to prevent a repeat of what happened.

Yet for many who commented on my story and NPR appearance that laid out the facts as they are now known, the case is already closed. For them, the woman who responded to Ferrell’s post-car accident knock on her door for help in the middle of the night with a frantic 911 call about a robber was making the only logical assumption. And Officer Randall Kerrick’s decision to fire 12 times at Ferrell, who police say was coming toward him, was more than justified. No more fact-finding is necessary, according to the critics of the charges filed against the officer.

The people that should be made to answer for the death of the unarmed Ferrell are black men – all of them, they told me. Ferrell, who is African American, was a former college student, a chemistry major and football player at Florida A&M, who worked two jobs and looked forward to marrying his fiancée. The 24-year-old loved Winnie the Pooh when he was a little boy, as his mother said when she clutched his childhood stuffed toy and remembered the life he led and imagined a future cut short. But all that information about the man and his life was trumped by his membership in a group– black men.

Though the majority of black men in America are law-abiding individuals, they must all pay the price and anyone who sees things differently must stop “whining” as one e-mailer put it. It’s an argument that, in some form, has been used to justify actions in other incidents  involving racial profiling. In a news conference held by  several Charlotte civil rights groups after the Ferrell shooting, the head of the local NAACP pleaded that young black men be given “the benefit of the doubt” in any encounter that has the potential to go awry.

Many of the comments that came my way say that “benefit of the doubt” has to be earned, and that until crime rates drop and the percentage of black men arrested and charged with crimes reaches a certain threshold, being a law-abiding American citizen is not enough, in certain cases, to be covered by the country’s rules and Constitution.

While U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder looks to improve fairness in reforms to the criminal justice system – by adjusting mandatory-minimum drug sentencing laws, for instance – to examine who populates the country’s prisons and why, others, such as the mayor of New York City, prefer to stand firm on stereotypes.

Despite the fact that nearly 90 percent of those stopped in New York under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy – a majority of them black and brown — are guilty of nothing and are “released without the officer finding any basis for a summons or arrest,” according to the judge who ruled the practice unconstitutional, the mayor and his supporters continue to defend it.

Though Charlotte and Chicago have little in common, the latter was mentioned in some comments on the Ferrell case, as it is with every incident of an unarmed black man shot by a police officer or someone who felt threatened. The question goes, “what about Chicago,” the FBI-designated murder capital of the United States, where a 3-year-old was recently caught in the middle of gang vengeance? Why are activists so outraged by one and not the other? The truth is, people can be horrified by more than one tragedy at a time, and there are plenty of unheralded community organizers, such as those profiled in the film “The Interrupters,” who spend each day in the trenches of Chicago and elsewhere working to reduce violence and bring hope. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is being criticized by African Americans who care about their neighborhoods and asked to address issues of education and violence, as The Root reports.

But Jonathan Ferrell was not in Chicago, carrying a gun, looking for revenge. He was one man whose life deserves respect and whose case demands scrutiny, no matter where the facts lead. That’s what his family and the community are asking for. Right now, it’s best to let the investigation proceed.

Falling back on fear of a black man is a shortcut, unless you’re looking for something simple — like being treated as an individual human being.

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.
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