When I look at photos of her, I see the innocent faces of my three daughters. As we drove home Sunday from the monthly black family dinner gathering we attend with old friends, where Jefferson’s death had been a topic of conversation, I kept seeing my girls in the rearview mirror, scanning their faces, listening to their laughter, their gentle ribbing of each other and me. I looked at them and saw, as I always do, all of their beautiful possibility. I saw their grace, their long braids, their loving eyes. My wife, Michele, and I followed our usual evening routine with them and our newborn: bath, teeth-brushing, prayers. Then we tucked each girl into her bed.
As soon as we closed the last bedroom door, I broke down. I wept for Atatiana Jefferson, known to everyone as Tay. I wept for Marquis Jefferson, the father who couldn’t protect his beloved daughter from the unique brutality of American police violence. I wept for the boy whose aunt was killed in front of him. I wept for James Smith, the neighbor who called police only because he wanted to make sure Jefferson and her nephew were okay.
I wept for all of us — black daughters, mothers, sisters, nieces, aunts, wives; black sons, fathers, brothers, nephews, uncles, husbands — who have to live in fear that our children will become the next Aiyana Jones, Tanisha Anderson, Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd or Miriam Carey. When each of my daughters was born, I made a silent vow to do everything in my power to protect them. But when I watched the video of Jefferson’s execution, I despaired of my ability to keep that vow, even in my own home.
Tay Jefferson, like so many black women all across America, was doing everything right. She was a pre-med graduate of Xavier University of Louisiana, working in pharmaceutical equipment sales with the hope of going to medical school. She was the caretaker for her ailing mother. She was the cool aunt who played video games with the nephew she adored. But her education, her aspirations, her dedication, her caring — none of that protected her from police violence. And what disturbs me even more is that we black men have not been vociferous enough in our outrage at the victimization of black women — the high rates of maternal mortality, the racism and sexism that fuel domestic abuse, the police violence. We have not been focused enough on how and why so many black women die before their time.
While we don’t yet know the officer’s service record, we do know that he shot Jefferson in a split second, without identifying himself as a police officer, through a window. We know he was just a year and a half on the job, and we can plainly see that he knew nothing about protecting and serving the black people in his community. We know that, yet again, a black American lost her life because of an irrational fear of black skin, a fear that has claimed the lives of so many black men, women and children.
In May, the Montgomery County Council passed a law that I wrote requiring an independent investigation and full public report in the case of any police-involved death. Fort Worth has no such law. Instead, the mayor of Fort Worth is having the police department conduct the investigation. This risks greatly damaging public trust and obscuring a real understanding of what the officer’s motivations were when he fired his weapon — an outcome that would serve neither the police nor the public. (The officer was charged with murder on Monday evening.)
As a black man and father, I continue to hope that more states adopt legislation that moves us closer to transparency and accountability. But I also know that this change, important as it is, is not enough.
Today, we mourn and we pray as two more black parents ask why their child is gone. Let us create a chorus of voices to say their child’s name. As black men, let us lift the voices of black women who are calling to end racism, sexism and police violence against black people. Let us honor the memory of Atatiana Jefferson by fighting to have her be the last black woman killed by police for no reason. Even as we know she will not be.