Killings So Common They Don’t Have to Be Explained . . .

In the back of my mind there’s always a song or voice or quote floating around.  In the past few weeks the blend of lyrics are from Michael Jackson’s, “They Don’t Care About Us” and Sweet Honey in the Rock’s, “Ella’s Song.”  The voices include James Baldwin’s, Ruby Sales’, and Vincent Harding’s.

This mash-up of songs and voices has come as I continue to learn about the extrajudicial killings and mysterious deaths of young Black and Latino men and women across the United States. (“Extrajudicial killing” is the killing of a person by authorities without the sanction of any legal process or judicial proceeding.)

Did you know “a Black man, woman or child is killed every 36 hours by law enforcement or someone working under the guise of laws such as “Stand Your Ground”? (This according to the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement.)

Every 36 hours.

Most of what I know about these cases has come through the work of Ruby Sales, her student freedom fighter interns, and the witnesses of the SpiritHouse Project.  Ruby Sales, a veteran of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, is a nationally-recognized human-rights activist and social critic whose articles have appeared in many journals and online sites. SpiritHouse is a national organization that uses the arts, research, education, and action to bring diverse peoples together to work for racial, economic, and social justice, as well as to cultivate spiritual maturity.

The SpiritHouse Project has been on the cutting edge reporting about these cases for many years.

I have to admit, the more I learn about all this, the further I fall into despair. I want to lash out in anger.  As I read the story of what happened to 19 year-old Renisha McBride, a young women who was shot in the back of the head while seeking help after having car trouble (and whose admitted killer, as of today, has not been taken into custody), I start to hear Jackson singing, “All I wanna say is that, They don’t really care about us… All I wanna say is that, They don’t really care about us…”

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My mind flashes back to the story of Miriam Carey who was killed last month in Washington, DC. The family has never been told why lethal force was necessary.  “All I wanna say is that, They don’t really care about us… All I wanna say is that, They don’t really care about us…”

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I think of the death of Jonathan Ferrell in September. Ferrell was shot by white police officers after he (like McBride) sought help at a white home following a late night car accident.

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What kind of times are we living in that such an epidemic is taking place and there is so little persistent outcry from whites? Ruby Sales is right. She compares how eerily similar things are now to the time just following Reconstruction. Then lynching was everywhere and white protest nowhere.

How eerie that Bishop Atticus G Haygood’s words from 1893 could still ring true today:

“Now-a-days, it seems the killing of Negroes is not so extraordinary an occurrence as to need explanation; it has become so common that it no longer surprises. We read such things as we read of fires that burn a cabin or town.”  (From James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree)

What is even more disturbing is that these extrajudicial killings don’t even include mysterious death cases like those of Jason Smith, Kendrick Johnson, or Ryan Singleton. And that most of us have never even heard these names.

Every 36 hours.

Have we reached a point again that the killing of Black folks is so not extraordinary an occurrence that it doesn’t even surprise us? Or move us to begin to organize?  Or at least publicly cry out?

As I sit and think about the overwhelming tasks ahead I start to hear the voices of Sweet Honey in the Rock singing, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest, We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes, Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons…”

One thing that we can do is to make the stories known, to make the stories real by talking about them with family, friends, faith community, colleagues and anyone who will listen.  Much of what’s happening is due to a tragic disconnect about the kinship we all share.  This is where I hear James Baldwin crying out, “I am saying that when a person, when a people, are able to persuade themselves that another group or breed of [humans] are less than [human], they themselves become less than [human] and have made it almost impossible for themselves to confront reality and to change it.”

Another thing that we can do is question what we read and hear from the media.  Too often the media is not on the side of getting to justice, but instead on the side of corporate greed exploiting the lives of those they report on in order to sell more copy.

The final voice that runs through my mind is that of Vincent Harding. He asks all of us who are white:

“Will use your whiteness, your relative economic and physical security, and your access to persons of conventional power to re-engage and deepen the struggle for the expansion of democracy, the quest for justice and truth — or will you try to hide from a storm that is ultimately relentless in its movement, avoiding a powerful love and justice which seeks only healing?”

Let us choose to speak up and speak out, even though it means taking risks.  People’s lives are at stake…

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Dean Johnson is an activist-scholar and community organizer. In addition, he and his partner, Melissa Bennett, are anti-oppression trainers.  Johnson currently works at West Chester University of Pennsylvania as Assistant Professor of Philosophy.  He teaches classes in peace and conflict studies as well as religious studies.

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