When people ask me what I focus on in my writing, my answer is simple and will surprise no one who actually reads me. I tell them I write about national politics, black stuff and gay stuff. So, there’s no shortage of things to write about. But sometimes the flow of news can be overwhelming to the point of paralysis. And that’s exactly the state I’m in with the veritable flood of deaths of unarmed African American men and boys.
Ever since the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin, I basically have been on watch. Watch for yet another black male losing his life for doing the seemingly ordinary. Or making the youthful mistakes and errors in judgment that used to earn parental punishment but now result in death. Trayvon was walking in the rain back to the Florida apartment where he was staying when neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman deemed him a “real suspicious guy.”
What makes Trayvon’s killing different from the others we know about is that no part of it was caught on video. Neither was Michael Brown’s Aug. 9, 2014, killing, but his death lit the match on a powder keg waiting to blow in Ferguson, Mo. Still, his killing at the hands of a police officer came three weeks after the nation was horrified to watch Eric Garner being brought down by police officers on Staten Island and fueled a movement.
That we could see what happened to Garner changed the game. It was a clear case of injustice. And folks could see with their own eyes a case of the excessive force African Americans had bemoaned for decades. But it wouldn’t be the last such incident. The Aug. 5 killing of John Crawford at a Wal-Mart in Ohio was caught on video. The Nov. 22 killing of Tamir Rice, 12, in a Cleveland park was caught on video. The Sept. 4 shooting of Levar Jones by a South Carolina state trooper was caught on video. He survived. Walter Scott did not.
The April 4, 2015, killing of Scott by a North Charleston, S.C., police officer was caught on tape by a Good Samaritan named Feidin Santana. And that was the last time I wrote about the death of a black man at the hands of police. But there are more names. On April 2, a reserve deputy (read volunteer) in Tulsa, Okla., thought his gun was his Taser and shot Eric Harris during a botched undercover operation on illegal guns that was caught on video. Harris died an hour later. On April 12, Freddie Gray’s questionable arrest by Baltimore police was caught on video. After a week in a coma, he died on April 19. The lawyer for the Gray family said the 25-year-old’s spine was nearly severed at the neck.
The bright side of such horrible news, the positive aspect of having the world bear witness to violent ends is that excessive force complaints by African Americans can neither be dismissed nor ignored. But Jamil Smith issued a sobering declaration. “Videos of police killings are numbing us to the spectacle of black death,” he says in his latest piece for the New Republic. “We keep pouring on the visuals and re-traumatizing ourselves, hoping it’ll break through similarly reflexive defenses of law enforcement and inspire real reform,” Smith writes. “Activists, journalists, and concerned citizens continue to spread these images throughout social media to alarm and inspire. But to what end?”
Each video reminds us how tenuous life is, especially for African American men. Each video brings a rush of “there but for the grace of God go I” dread. Each video adds another name to a tragic membership list that not only brings heartache to the families left behind, but also haunts those of us who feel duty bound to maintain the roll. Truth be told, I’m not numb. I’m overcome.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj