IT COULD HAVE BEEN ME
by Alex M. Johnson
Next time it might be me.
My daily uniform of a suit and tie, my professional degrees, my position – makes me no different from a black man wearing jeans and a polo shirt standing in front of a liquor store earning a living – or a black man wearing a hoodie walking down the street.
But for the grace of God I go. It could have been me.
That’s the paralyzing thought which comes to mind every single time I learn about the killing of another black man at the hands of a police officer. I am witnessing the systematic execution of black people coupled with the equally as constant refrain of “not guilty” that echoes from the courtrooms overseen by lady justice; and that is in the rare instances when the District Attorney’s office has the resolve to actually pursue a case. I am numbed by the persistent violence – the willful, wanton, brazen murders of black people. I have watched with agony the seemingly endless stream of hashtags proclaiming the loss of our brothers and sisters, the cries of the mothers who have lost sons, the incomprehension of children whose parents have been taken away. It is cyclical, routine – it has become normalized.
It was only a few short weeks ago that the actor Jesse Williams electrified the Black Entertainment Television awards in a speech that noted “we know that police somehow manage, to deescalate, disarm and not kill white people every day.” What do we want? To be treated like white people. To be treated as if our lives are worth more than loose cigarettes, broken tail lights and cd’s. What will the tipping point have to be for racial equivalency?
Thanks to the work of the Black Lives Matter movement, a police officer cannot kill a black man today without the nation knowing about it. But yet they can still kill a black man with impunity and depravity and walk away. In my nearly three and a half decades of life I have yet to know a world in which black men aren’t brutalized by police officers. Have you? I’ve struggled with finding words that articulate just how I feel. How do I express the pain that has penetrated my core?
How would you feel if your son, your husband, your brother or sister, your friend, your neighbor were being systematically murdered without recourse? There is a tug of war going on inside me between rational thought and an ever-growing rage. I feel as if my entire race is under an ever present siege. I’m an endangered species but yet birds and wildlife are protected better than me.
The willfully ignorant persist in perpetuating the fallacy that the murders of black people by police officers are somehow separated from race. Let’s get real. The brutality and racist behavior perpetuated against black people in particular began with slavery, continued unabated through Jim Crow, and while slavery is no longer legal – systemic racism, oppression, inequality, and a belief that black people are inferior has persisted from the very moment slavery ended. The attitudes that undergirded the ideal of slavery have only incrementally changed; the fear and subjugation of black people was never abandoned as it has been passed down from generation to generation.
In discussing the intersection of race and slavery with police brutality, some critics have explicitly suggested in essence that I, as a black man, and we as black people, simply need to “get over” slavery. They assert that black people have brought police brutality and the over-saturation of police present in our communities, upon ourselves. They point to black on black crime statistics as evidence of our self-injurious circumstances. They discuss the fact that we are more prone to crime and therefore more prone to being stopped by police. They suggest that we simply need to stop resisting. I don’t have to look far for the correct pejorative acronym to sum up my counter-argument: GTFOH!
In other instances they simply suggest that all lives matter. Let’s dissect that argument. The phrase “all lives matter” while aspirational, omits a fundamental truth; all lives cannot matter if the lives of black people are lessened. The proposition that all lives matter is a false narrative that ignores the ongoing struggle for liberation and freedom within the context of race and racism. To expand the argument even further how can all lives matter when sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and classism exist as mechanisms of oppression. I want to live in a nation where ALL lives actually do matter not just one where we find it simpler to utter words as a counter-narrative to the actual truth than to fully live up to our creed. But I don’t. Until the lives of black and brown people are equally valued in the same way as white people then I reject the notion that all lives matter. Ella Baker makes clear, “Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.”
Yes we have a problem. It’s insidious and it is far more than mere perception. So where do we go from here? Vigilante violence as a means to counter state-sanctioned violence will never be an answer. I wholeheartedly support increased accountability, better police training, enhanced data collection, retooling the notion of community policing, and substantive civilian oversight. The Department of Justice has increasingly taken an active role in investigating police abuse cases, providing an independent venue for assessing the veracity and reliability of police departments.
However, there is a much bigger issue at stake. We must challenge the perception that “criminal” and “dangerous” are synonymous with black people and people of color. We must confront the implicit bias and fear that police officers associate with black men. We must also challenge the very narrative around public safety and the reliance on law enforcement and policing as the sole effective public safety measures for our communities. Let’s look into the significant investments that allow police departments to militarize and weigh that against the disinvestment in our communities. If you are an apologist for the over-policing of black and brown communities while citing the violence that happens among and within communities of color as justification; I dare you to also look at the structural inequities that contribute to crime within communities of color – untreated mental health and lack of access to health care, poverty, unemployment and economic apartheid, lack of educational equity, the revolving door of mass incarceration, and yes racism.
What else is needed?
I want police officers to break the blue wall of silence and hold their fellow officers accountable.
I want an end to blaming the victims of police violence for being the cause of their deaths.
I want to be free to wear the clothes I want, listen to the music I want, drive the car I want, and not be racially profiled.
I want more white people to stand up for justice and not let this be a black people’s movement – we welcome you with open arms. Being progressive is more than simply nodding from afar. Speak up for us even when there are no black people in the room.
I want police out of schools. Bottom line.
As most police officers who are prosecuted opt for a bench trial, a non-jury trial, I want the California Judicial Council, the California Commissions on Judicial Performance and Judicial Appointments, and the State Bar of California to review the process in which we elect and appoint judges.
I want bad police officers fired from police departments and not simply given a slap on the wrist.
I want special independent prosecutors assigned to police shooting cases in which the victim is unarmed.
I want my dignity and worth to be valued.
I want to go to work in the morning and return to my bed at night.
I want to believe that when I lawfully comply with an officer’s demand they will not still find a reason to shoot me.
The other day another black man was killed. Tomorrow it could be me.
Alex Johnson is the Executive Director for the Children’s Defense Fund-California (CDF-CA). Prior to coming to CDF-CA, Alex served as Assistant Senior Deputy for Education and Public Safety to LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. Among his other positions, Alex worked with school instructional leaders in the New York City Department of Education, taught constitutional law and civics to high school students as a Fellow with the Marshall Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project, served as an Assistant District Attorney in Bronx, New York where he advocated for victims of domestic violence.Alex is a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Education and the Governing Council for the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network (AIYN)
This essay first appeared in the Huffington Post.