I heard a man say today that he was visiting in-laws in South Korea and they wanted to know what the hell is going on in this country. Why would police shoot an unarmed young man and then leave his body in the street for hours?
Back before the Civil Rights Movement, young black men were lynched and left to sway from the branch of a tree for hours as spectators had their photos taken with the “strange fruit,” as Billie Holiday sang.
Again and again, police who are armed to the teeth, or lone vigilantes, kill unarmed black men and get away with it. These men are shot, choked, beaten, and most have committed no crime, or certainly not a crime that warrants the death penalty.
Yesterday was the 59th anniversary of the lynching in Money, Miss., of 14-year-old Emmett Till, whose mother, Mamie, insisted he have a public funeral, and that the casket be left open so the world could see the mutilated body of her child, savagely beaten and murdered because someone said he whistled at a white woman.
African-Americans still live in fear, a fear few of us white people can understand.
A couple of weeks ago, my friend Evelyn Paul, a middle-aged white woman, was driving with a young black man in her car.
“I didn’t have the cruise control on because we were in town, and I was going over the speed limit,” she told me. “When the officer stopped me, I leaned over to get my registration from the glove compartment.”
Her passenger panicked.
“Sit up and put both hands on the wheel!” he said. “Don’t reach for anything until they tell you to!”
She had never considered that reaching into the glove compartment would be a threatening gesture.
“I’m a 50-year-old white woman,” she said. “I’ve never been considered a threat — except for when I was in the General Assembly Building and was arrested.”
I never had to teach my sons to not reach for anything until asked. I never had to teach my sons to keep their hands visible all the time when encountering a police officer. Hell, I was able to teach my sons that police officers were the people you seek when you’re in trouble.
White privilege is something most of us don’t even see in our lives; we’re oblivious to the slights people of color endure every day.
But the rest of the world is not. They see what happens to young black males. They know we imprison black people at a rate unseen anywhere — even in apartheid South Africa.
We have a school-to-prison pipeline that most whites aren’t even aware of. Kids in poor, primarily black neighborhoods can be sucked into the justice system just for missing school, and once there, they can struggle for years to get out. By then, they have a criminal record, so when they’re discriminated against in the job market, in housing, at the voting booth, the excuse is that they’re criminals.
Michael Brown had made it through high school without being entangled in the “justice” system; he was to have started college in two days when he was gunned down in the street by a police officer who is still being paid while the incident is being investigated.
As a mother who has lost a child, I know some of what these kids’ mothers feel. My son’s death was unjust. It never should have happened. But I imagine it’s worse to have your child gunned down or strung up. I don’t know how these mothers stay on their feet. My heart breaks for them.
I propose we all start calling these deaths what they are. Let’s be honest, they are lynchings.