We are not post-racist

Julia Robinson's son died April 3 after being pepper-sprayed by police in Norfolk, Va.

Being from the class of privilege, I sometimes overlook racism without even realizing it. I don’t have to think about the color of my skin and what it means to law enforcement and other power structures.

Yesterday, I went to the Truth and Hope Tour of Poverty in North Carolina as the bus stopped at the Union Grove Baptist Church in a predominately African-American neighborhood in Hendersonville, NC. The tour is sponsored by the NC Chapter of the NAACP, the NC Justice Center, AARP, the  UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity and the Institute For Civic Engagement and Social Change at North Carolina Central University, whose representatives have traveled the state by bus to hear stories from people living in financially struggling communities.

There I met Julia Robinson, whose 20-year-old son, Derrick Hemphill Jr., died in police custody April 3 after being pepper-sprayed.

Derrick had been in the Navy and was discharged in March (the Navy reports he received a general discharge under honorable conditions). Julia isn’t sure what happened, but police said he was suicidal and resisting arrest, so they put him in handcuffs and leg irons and sprayed him. He died on the way to the hospital.

Family members say Derrick was a good student and a happy kid. No one in his family knew he had left the Navy, and no one knew he was suicidal.

Would he have been sprayed if he were white and suicidal? I don’t know. I only know that Julia Robinson is looking for answers to a lot of questions and she isn’t finding them.

She believes her son died because of an injustice.

“He wasn’t armed,” she told me. “He wasn’t capable of killing them. Why did they have to spray him?”

If you’ve ever dealt with someone who has a psychiatric illness — and people who are well don’t threaten suicide — you know pepper spray is an over-reaction. There are better ways of subduing someone.

Julia and I hugged and cried over our lost sons. She wanted to know if she would ever get over it and I had to assure her she won’t. The feeling of lost potential will always be there. Parents should never have to bury their children. If Derrick was ill, he should have received treatment, not a discharge.

But Julia’s was only one story I heard yesterday.

Before the meeting started, we all had the chance to see the bullet marks in the side of the church building, where on March 8, police opened fire on a man who was running away from them. Officers chased the man, firing about 50 shots. Some went into the wall of the church; others hit the walls and windows of four homes near the church. Fortunately, no one was killed, but that’s just pure luck if you see where the bullets landed. The suspect was shot in the arm.

Barbara Smith was at home with her 14-year-old son and 1-year-old grandson when the shooting started on March 8.

Barbara Smith was at home with her 14-year-old son and her 1-year-old grandson when the shooting started.

“My first thought was the safety of the children,” she said. “But now, I want to see those officers fired.”

The officers are on paid leave pending an investigation.

This wouldn’t have happened in my neighborhood, I guarantee it. But in a poor, predominately African-American community, police thought it was OK to open fire next to the homes of innocent people.

“What they were saying was that they didn’t care about this community,” said community resident Tony Strickland. “I don’t care who you are, you don’t deserve to be tracked down like a dog. He didn’t have a weapon; his only choice was to run. The police knew where he lived so they could have picked him up any time.”

People in the tight-knit Green Meadows community want to know why it’s OK to open fire on an unarmed man while children sleep nearby.

State NAACP president Rev. William Barber said he thought it must have looked like a scene from a violent video game.

“It’s OK to shoot like that in a video game,” Barber said. “But you don’t do that in real life.”

Was it because Green Meadows is a mostly African-American community? Well, as I said before, it wouldn’t happen in my mostly white, middle-class neighborhood.

When things like this happen, it doesn’t matter that we have elected an African-American man as president, we are not a post-racist society.

 

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