Recently, my friend Dr. Kevin Cosby commented in a sermon that he would not join in protest marches based on “hands up, don’t shoot . . . because we’re the ones doing the shooting.” The quote that obtuse local media grabbed hold of was Cosby’s humorous quip, “Stop twerking, start working.” I believe it was profoundly unfair to Kevin to announce his argument with that excerpt by running it as the headline. However, the core of his sermon and comments on the subject were certainly consistent with the “personal responsibility” message upon which his socio-political philosophy has rested for years.
Meanwhile, Louisville Metro Councilwoman Mary Woolridge allegedly walked between two police officers posted at a metro council meeting on the minimum wage and gave them the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture. In response, the River City Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) says the officers feel Woolridge “owes a public apology to every officer that wears that uniform for what she did in the council meeting that day.” Maybe she’ll do that as soon as the FOP apologizes to everybody wearing black skin for every unjustified police killing of black folk. Reasonable exchange?
The response of Louisville’s FOP is reminiscent of the St. Louis Police Officers Association (SLPOA) demanding a public apology and NFL player discipline after members of the St. Louis Rams gave the “hands up” gesture before their game against the Oakland Raiders in November. They received neither. Later, the Ethical Society of Police – an organization representing black St. Louis officers – offered a public statement supporting the Rams and denouncing the SLPOA – pointing out that there are no African-American officers on the SLPOA’s governing board. Hmm.
Following the Staten Island grand jury’s decision to not indict the officer responsible for the strangulation of Eric Garner in New York, the protest movement bled out even farther as National Basketball Association players across the country donned “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts to the mild dismay of NBA commissioner Adam Silver.
Though often done, the cases we have seen this year shouldn’t be homogenized. Aspects of the Michael Brown situation were always murky with no visual record of exactly what happened. Contrarily, we can “see” what befell Eric Garner from beginning to brutal end with our own eyes. We are all witnesses. Even with video footage, nothing happened to punish the officers. Video also allows us to clearly observe Cleveland police take twelve-year-old Tamir Rice’s life in less than three seconds. It will be interesting to see if their behavior is deemed “proper” or “justifiable” as well.
Much like footage of dogs being released on black children in 1963 Birmingham jolted national and global consciences, watching a man mercilessly choked to death on the street or a child gunned down in a park is doing the same. This new “optic shock” has bred a national movement no longer cleaved along traditional geographic, racial or class lines. Any reasonable person must admit that it is not limited to ne’er-do-wells, inarticulate ghetto dwellers, criminals, looters, and racialized excuse-makers as Rudy Giuliani and his ilk would have us believe.
To the contrary, Hispanic, white and Asian-descended brothers and sisters are now locking arms with their black kin. It is not restricted to the grassroots or street-people. College students are in, too — and not just tree-hugging, progressive rabble-rousing students. We see attendees of elite schools walking, talking, and stopping traffic. We see medical students, doctors, and professors donning their white lab coats and staging “die-ins” all over the country. We are seeing something very, very different. All these people know SOMETHING is wrong and its not just black people’s misbehavior.
I want to be clear. Dr. Kevin Cosby is a dear friend. If I died today, he would probably officiate my funeral. But I fear he and some others are missing the point of what’s going on right now. Remember, some (not all!) police officers may sometimes wrongfully kill people, but citizens let them do it with impunity. That says something about our society – not the police.
This isn’t just about racial profiling, police brutality, black-on-black crime, personal responsibility, Michael Brown, or Eric Garner anymore. It runs much deeper. This is about a fundamental crisis of faith in American institutions – from the criminal justice system to education to government to the church and beyond. This is about us, once again, interrogating our own humanity. Only time will tell who and what we are and who and what we can become, but the protesters are damn sure asking the questions.
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