All across America people of color are getting killed. This is nothing new. America has been killing people of color since the inception of slavery in the early 1600’s. It’s been two years since the world watched the killing of Eric Garner by police in New York City, we watched the increasing tension in Ferguson, MO when Mike Brown laid covered in his own blood and we watched as people took to the streets to protest.
Since then countless others have been executed by those who have sworn to protect and serve. Most recently much of America watched in shock as we saw Alton Sterling get killed by police while selling loose cigarettes in front of a convenience store. Not even a full 24 hours later we watched via Facebook the murder of Philando Castile in front of a 4 yr old little girl. From Amadou Diallo to Oscar Grant to Sean Bell to Ramarley Graham to Trayvon Martin to Tamir Rice to Renisha McBride to Michael Brown the news headlines are becoming all too familiar: Shooting Death of ______ (you fill in the blank).
Whether it’s at the hands of the police or a vigilante civilian, people of color are being killed at alarming rates as if we are disposable. As if our lives or the lives of our children do not matter. As if we are unworthy of the same basic rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. When I first wrote this piece that originally appeared in For Harriet after the shooting death of Mike Brown, I waited a few days to write it because I needed time to deal with my emotions and clear my head. I wanted to be as impartial as possible given the situation and not let my emotions cloud my judgment. However, after viewing the treatment of protesters in Ferguson, Baton Rouge, and in cities all across the country my emotions are still high. I am still angry. I am still frustrated. I am still enraged and my heart still aches for the parents, family, and communities mourning the loss of Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and all people of color who have been and continue to be mercilessly killed.
Every morning I watch the sunrise and every evening I watch it set, each time grateful that I have been granted another day of life. Grateful that my Black, 6 ft tall and 220 lb husband has made it back home safely from work. Grateful that my daughters still have their father, I still have my husband, and his parents still have their son. I list his height and weight because when you’re a big Black man in this country the perception is that you must be dangerous. I can pretend that race is not a factor in how one is perceived and treated ─ as most people do ─ or I can talk about the big pink elephant in the room. Despite what people think, race still matters. Perception is everything and it doesn’t matter if you’re walking alone at night wearing a hooded sweatshirt or walking with a friend down the street in the middle of the day you can become a target simply because of how you look and the amount of melanin you were born with.
When Mike Brown was killed and people took to the streets of Ferguson to protest I watched KARG Radio’s live news stream of the protests and what I witnessed was almost unbelievable to me. I could not believe that in 2014, people of color are still fighting for equality and being denied their First Amendment rights. Police dressed in riot gear, aiming loaded rifles at protesters and ordering them to disperse. Reports and images of the use of tear gas and rubber bullets are all over the news. Journalists from the Washington Post and Huffington Post while working inside of a Ferguson McDonald’s were told to turn off their recording devices and evacuate. When they wouldn’t comply quickly enough they were handcuffed and arrested. Washington Post journalist Wesley Lowery recounts the moment leading up to his arrest in a Washington Post article, “My hands are behind my back,” I said. “I’m not resisting. I’m not resisting.” At which point one officer said: “You’re resisting. Stop resisting.” That was when I was most afraid — more afraid than of the tear gas and rubber bullets. As they took me into custody, the officers slammed me into a soda machine, at one point setting off the Coke dispenser. They put plastic cuffs on me, then they led me out the door.”
As I watched the news and read the first eye witness accounts and saw the images on the internet, I too was afraid and horrified at the direction this country is headed. This is all too familiar and very reminiscent to the Civil Rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s. I can sit here and discuss the countless ways our constitutional rights are being violated. I can argue about the lack of accountability in holding these police departments legally responsible for many of these senseless deaths, but the reality is that none of those things matter, at least not when it comes to the targeting and shooting of people of color. If it did there would not be such a brazen abuse of power among police officers not only in large cities like New York and Los Angeles, but all over the country. The fact is these officers hide behind their badge and use their shield as an excuse to be above the law.
During a verbal exchange with the arresting officer, Wesley Lowery tells the officer, “This story’s going to get out there. It’s going to be on the front page of The Washington Post tomorrow.” To which the officer replied, “Yeah, well, you’re going to be in my jail cell tonight.” This “above-the-law” response is indicative of the mounting distrust between the general public and the police. The same individuals who have sworn to protect and serve their communities are doing exactly the opposite. It begs the question, who’s policing the police when they abuse their power? Very often we have to sit idly and await an investigation, wait for “them” to gather all the details, watch offending officers be put on desk duty before we can even know the name of the cop who has murdered yet another civilian. It was more than week after Michael Brown was killed and the Ferguson police department still had not released the name of the shooting officer citing safety reasons. Anonymity is not the right of a public servant who has shot and killed someone.
Of all the police involved shootings on unarmed people of color how many of them are actually ever given, in the words of author Roxane Gay, anything but “the compensated benefit of the doubt?” How many are prosecuted and convicted for their crimes? How many of them sit in a court of law and prove themselves innocent? I’m by no means implying all cops abuse their power because I believe the number of good ones far exceeds the bad ones, but when you see the entire Ferguson Police Department suited up in riot gear and hear the details of Wesley Lowery’s arrest it’s hard to ignore the obvious and finding statistics on police involved shootings of civilians is nearly impossible.
According to Tom Aveni, ex-cop and head of the Police Policy Studies Council, a research, training and consulting corporation based in Spofford, NH “most don’t compile detailed data on their shootings, fearing in some cases (perhaps rightly) that it would be misinterpreted and misused by the media and “agenda activists” if available.” Furthermore, “Of the few departments that do collect deadly force information, even fewer freely share it. If they don’t outright suppress it, they tend to present it in bare-bones, sterilized table formats that have no standardized consistency and that make detailed analysis difficult. The devil is in the details, and the details of police shootings have always been lost”, Aveni claims.
This fact alone may be one reason that these cops feel they are above the law. With no data or formal tracking there is no way to truly know which precincts tolerate, accept, or condone these behaviors. If there is no tracking mechanism or no way of not only holding these officers accountable, but also their superiors what incentive do they have to behave in a manner that is consistent with their oath to serve and protect? Even the FBI, the nation’s leading law enforcement agency, which collects information on crime nationwide does not fare any better.
According to the Las Vegas Review Journal, missing from the bureau’s crime data are “statistics on where, how often, and under what circumstances police use deadly force. In fact, no one anywhere comprehensively tracks the most significant act police can do in the line of duty: take a life.” FBI spokesman, William Carr adds “We don’t have a mandate to do that. It would take a request from Congress for us to collect that data.”
Currently there is no mandate to collect this data, but there should be. There should be clear explicit data available that documents the alarming number of police involved shootings. If we begin documenting the shootings and the abuse, and begin to track and monitor it then we may begin to shift these outcomes in the other direction. Until we force our government and policy makers to pay attention and do something people of color will always be walking targets.
Nancy Arroyo Ruffin is an award winning author, motivational speaker, and 2016 Blogher Voices of The Year Award recipient. She is the acclaimed author of three books, Welcome to Heartbreak (CreativeINK Press, 2011) and Letters to My Daughter (CreativeINK Press, 2014) which was Latino Literacy Now’s 2014 International Latino Book Award finalist for Best Poetry Book, and Coming Undone (CreativeInk Press, 2015). Her work has been published online at The Elephant Journal, Luna Luna, Centro VOICES, La Respuesta, and more. Nancy is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post. She lives in Bergenfield, NJ with her husband and their daughters. For more info visit www.nancyarroyoruffin.com
This article originally appeared on For Harriet in August 2014. It appears here with some edits to reflect the most recent police shootings.