The shooting death of eighteen year old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on Saturday, August 9, 2014, is tragic but not new. Far too frequently, black and brown men have their lives snuffed out by over-aggressive police personnel who seemingly construct scenarios after the fact to justify their use of deadly force. What I find most frightening is the fact that once the public outrage subsides, it is business as usual until the next police shooting or unprofessional conduct. Let's be clear about this: I am just as saddened by the loss of black life at the hands of other blacks as I am at the loss of life at the hands of police personnel. Police, however, have a sworn duty to serve and protect the lives of all citizens irrespective of race or ethnicity.
As a black father, I worry constantly about the safety of my 35 year old son who lives abroad and has worked for the United Nations World Food Program for nearly a decade and often finds himself in places around the world with an array of safety and security challenges. Sadly, I worry just as much, if not more, about his safety when he's home for occasional visits with us here in the United States. I also worry about the safety of my nieces and nephews, who, every day, face the potential of negative and dangerous interactions with police personnel and young people who often do not value life to the extent of many others in a civil society. When 200 members of my immediate and extended family assemble for the 63rd consecutive year of my family's reunion during the Labor Day weekend, my brothers/sisters and I will have a candid conversation with our children about safety in the context of their interactions with police personnel. It's my prayer that they'll take to heart our advice and admonitions.
The shooting death of Michael Brown and the death of countless and nameless others, remind me of my days growing up in the Arkansas delta in the 1950s and 1960s, and the warnings from my mother about not giving "the law" (local city police chief or county sheriff) a reason to arrest or worse yet, shoot us. It was the combination of my mother's constant admonition, prayer and our obedience that contributed to our safety. The shooting death of a fourteen year-old friend of mine in 1960, by a Crittenden County Arkansas deputy sheriff had a chilling and frightening effect on the residents throughout the rural black community along the Buck Lake Road. Although that incident occurred more than fifty years ago, it still invokes in me a combination of fear and sadness. No matter how hard I try, I have not succeeded in erasing this event from my mind. My mama never failed to use that event to remind my siblings and me of what could happen even if we weren't doing anything wrong.
Like many parents and people of goodwill of all ethnicities, those incidents of black men being killed by police personnel in Ferguson, New York City and Los Angeles and other places during the past two weeks have left me shaken emotionally and asking what can I do to ensure that fairness and equity are practiced rather than simply preached by our civic leaders and others in positions of authority. First, we can each take a more active interest in the civic affairs of the communities in which we live by serving on various committees, commissions and boards charged with oversight for public safety and other areas that contribute toward a civil and safe community. Second, we can insist that best/effective practices be used by public safety officials. Third, as citizens with the power to vote officials in or out of office, we can vote in every election, local and national, rather than sitting out some elections. While citizens generally do not vote for public safety personnel, except for sheriff, they do vote for those who appoint persons to lead community protective services. The bottom line is this, we do not have to wring our hands; we can do something. The question is whether we'll wring our hands or commit ourselves to making our communities places of inclusive excellence where all citizens are respected and every life is valued.
My mama was correct when she proclaimed that we could change the world.
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