Without memory, our existence would be barren and opaque, like a prison cell into which no light penetrates; like a tomb which rejects the living . . . [I]f anything can, it is memory that will save humanity. For me, hope without memory is like memory without hope.
– Elie Wiesel
The news came out yesterday that there will be no indictments in the shooting death of Tamir Rice, and with it came hearts broken all across America.
As if any further evidence was needed, we once again saw how utterly broken our legal system is, and how it continues to overlook, minimize, and trivialize Black life.
I can’t see how the “devil’s advocates” among us find any ground to stand on in this case. This was a twelve year old boy – TWELVE YEARS OLD – that was playing with a toy gun in a group of other children. What males among us didn’t play with guns at some point during our childhood? This was pure innocence.
Police were called in, and within two seconds they gunned down this precious little boy. The murder happened at the hands of Officer Timothy Loehmann, who had been deemed an “emotionally unstable recruit and unfit for duty” by his former employers. Of course, the Cleveland Police Department later admitted that they never reviewed Loehmann’s personnel file before hiring him (and these are all documented facts – feel free to double check at Wikipedia or any other site).
If the story is not tragic enough, we also have the brutal tale of Tamir’s sister, Tajai. She was in a nearby recreation center when she said she heard a gunshot. Someone told her it was Tamir that had been shot, and she raced out to see him. But she never got there. The police officers tackled and handcuffed her, and she just watched as Tamir died in front of her very eyes (he went almost four minutes with no medical intervention, an outrage in its own). Tamir deserved and needed to be able to see someone that loved him peer into his eyes as he was dying, but this innocent Black boy got not even that.
The whole sequence of events is outrageous, unjust, and heartbreaking.
A lot of commentators have been comparing the death of Tamir Rice to that of Emmett Till, and I think that is right on. I want to say a bit on this connection, if I may, as well as the larger connection between present police brutality and historical lynching.
Last week I meticulously read the report from Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, entitled Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror. I would highly recommend you read it as well. It requires us to come in contact with our own history – especially those of us who have found a way to avoid it up until now.
At front and center is the breathtaking number of Black people killed by lynching. Equal Justice Initiative has documented 3959 lynchings in twelve Southern states between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950. That’s almost 4,000 people! We lost just under 3,000 in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and rightly remember them every year. Yet these precious 4,000 souls lost to the terrorism of lynching go largely unnamed by majority culture.
And I’m using the word terrorism here on purpose. One of the key insights that jumped out to me from this report is the proposal that terrorism is the only way to truly think about lynchings. Making this point, the report says:
The lynchings we document were acts of terrorism because these murders were carried out with impunity, sometimes in broad daylight, often “on the courthouse lawn.” These lynchings were not “frontier justice,” because they generally took place in communities where there was a functioning criminal justice system that was deemed too good for African Americans… Terror lynchings were horrific acts of violence whose perpetrators were never held accountable. Indeed, some “public spectacle lynchings” were attended by the entire white community and conducted as celebratory acts of racial control and domination.
That is where the direct connection between our un-reconciled history of slavery, lynching, and our present day dilemma begins to emerge. Bryan Stevenson makes the compelling case that a narrative has been present since the foundation of our country, and that it continues to disease us today. Consider his words:
We can’t ignore the fact that our criminal justice system has been unbelievably devastating to people of color. There is a presumption of guilt and dangerousness that we assign to black and brown people in this country… In every community in this country, we have black and brown people who are being presumed dangerous and guilty. And it’s following them into schools, where they suffer higher suspension and expulsion rates. It follows them into department stores. It follows them into the streets. And that burden of being presumed dangerous and guilty is extremely frustrating and angering.
I think we have all inherited – we have all been infected by our legacy of racial inequality. It has compromised us. It has diseased us. It has distorted our ability to be full human beings, because that is what this narrative will do.
We do not actually understand what slavery was and what it did. I don’t think the great evil of American slavery was involuntary servitude or forced labor. I think the great evil of American slavery was the narrative of racial difference that we created to legitimate it – the ideology of white supremacy that we made up to make slavery seem acceptable.
It doesn’t require much to make the logical leap to how this narrative was powerfully enacted to justify slavery. The next jump is to see how it then infected our country when it came to allowing for lynching.
The report from EJI shows that nearly 25 percent of the lynchings of African Americans in the South (read: almost 1,000 human executions) were based on charges of sexual assault. This is particularly noteworthy, because it was built on the narrative of presumption of guilt. Because most white people rejected the idea that a white woman would willingly consent to sex with an African American man, there was no proof required when an allegation was made. If a white person said a black person did it, then they were likely going to be killed by a lynch mob.
The report then makes this important observation:
Whites defended lynching as necessary to protect their property, families, and Southern way of life from dangerous black criminals, both in response to allegations of criminal behavior and as a preemptive strike against the threat of black violent crime. Although the Constitution’s presumption of innocence is a bedrock principle of American criminal justice, African Americans were assigned a presumption of guilt.
And this is where it comes full circle with Tamir Rice. EJI notes that even the “threat” of black violent crime was enough reason to take a “preemptive strike” against the person who represented the perceived threat. Back then the outcome of this perceived threat was a lynch mob. Today the outcome of a perceived threat is a dead Black boy, gunned down because he somehow appeared to be a threat to the officers who had pulled up two seconds before.
This is the moral dilemma that America remains trapped in. We have a Constitution that holds as a bedrock toe presumption of innocence for all people. But when it comes to Black America, we reserve the right to preemptively strike if there appears to be any perceived threat. It’s immoral on every level.
My hope and prayer is that every person will have the spiritual eyes to see the presence of this ongoing, deadly narrative, and decide that we will not tolerate it any longer. We can and must each take our own steps of action to name it, confront it, interrupt it, and eventually dismantle it.
There is no other acceptable outcome.