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I Can’t Breathe

Michael Brown, Ferguson, Missouri
Eric Garner, New York, New York
Tamir Rice, Cleveland, Ohio
Rumain Brisbon, Phoenix, Arizona

Michael BrownThe above three men and one boy (Tamir Rice was 12 years old) were all black, unarmed and killed by white policemen. Eric Garner was strangled to death, the others were shot. Each case was different in detail. In the case of Michael Brown there were conflicting witness statements while the death of Eric Garner was videotaped for all to see. The police had a prolonged struggle with Rumain Brisbon. Tamir Rice was playing with a replica gun in a park when he was shot dead. It must be that in each case police officers felt threatened in some way. Still, all the victims were unarmed African Americans who were not restrained and arrested but instead killed. In the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the police officers responsible for their deaths were cleared of all charges by grand juries. I believe the officers who killed Tamir Rice and Rumain Brisbon have yet to face a grand jury.

While the deaths of these four men are headline news, and the Brown and Garner killings have led to protests and riots due to the respective grand jury decisions, many more black men have been killed by the police. It may be that in the United States an African American male is killed every 28 hours by police, security guards and vigilantes. This statistics seems unbelievable, however, the report suggests that the number of deaths could be higher. (See also AlterNet)

Eric GarnerFacebook and Twitter are full of comments and posters regarding the deaths of Brown, Garner, Rice and Brisbon. Those representing left of center positions support the Hands Up and I Can’t Breathe protests and condemn the police involved in the killings. They emphasise the militarisation that is taking place in police forces all of the country. They give examples of white armed murderers who have been subdued and arrested, not shot and killed, complete with names and photos. They highlight statistics of white versus black crime and arrests.

On the right, the police are given full support and the possible or actual criminality of the men killed (with the possible exception of the young boy Rice) are emphasised. They remind us that not all police are bad and that being a policemen or policewomen in America is not for the faint hearted, that they are sometimes killed while serving you and me. They reminds us that police often have to make split second decisions which can result in injury or death to themselves and others. They also point out that black people kill white people as well, and like the posters from the left, names and photos of the victims are supplied.

Those who know me know that I am left of center on most issues, though how far left does depend on the particularities. I have no difficulty agreeing with the right that police are killed in the line of duty, that it is a very difficult and dangerous job serving our communities, and that most police are good people. And let’s be honest. The United States is a society that is saturated with weapons of all kinds, that the country has an extremely high death rates by shooting, that in many states people can openly carry weapons while in others they can carry concealed weapons, and that in Stand Your Ground states it is quite legal to shoot someone dead in the street because you feel threatened. (For example, the Tampa Bay Times analysed Florida’s stand your ground law). A better name for America is Gunland.  (See The Guardian and Wikipedia on gun ownership and deaths.)

Tamir RiceIt is difficult to dismiss history and statistics. Foundational to the creation and development of the United States are genocide and slavery, mass killing and racism. While it is difficult to articulate the social, economic, legal, psychological, and spiritual impact of such a beginning over 200 years later, it is clear the country has not yet overcome its genesis. It can’t be coincidental that Native Americans and African Americans disproportionately live lives of poverty, racial profiling, discrimination,  incarceration, killing, and injustice in a nation that never tires in telling itself and the world that it is a country of laws. And that it is. The question is, however, is the United States a country where all have equal access to the legal process and justice? The statistics would suggest the answer is no. Law does not guarantee justice.

One of the right of center Facebook posters that does not sit well with me says this: “If you don’t want to be shot by the police, don’t break the law.” This is wrong on so many level. If the United States is a nation grounded in the law, then everyone has a right to the legal process, even if they are suspected of committing a crime or have been caught in the act of committing a crime. Citizens have the right to arrest, trial and verdict, and if found innocent freedom, if found guilty punishment. Obviously there are cases where this is not possible. When police and citizens are in real danger sometimes deadly force is necessary. However, statistics would suggest that white people are more likely than black people to survive long enough to be arrested.

Rumain BrisbonInterestingly (ironically?), the United States now has a African American president. President Obama has been criticised for his formulaic responds to the grand jury decisions in the Brown and Garner killings (the United States is a country of laws, etc.). Cornel West of Princeton University said on CNN that Ferguson marks the end of the era of Obama. Some say as a black man he should have done more, while others say he can’t do more precisely because he is African American. Either way, America is once again deep in racial strife and if Facebook and Twitter are at all representative, the lines are drawn in bold deep colours.

Copyright © 2014 Dale Rominger

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