Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Sean Bell. Oscar Grant. Jonathan Ferrell. Kendrec McDade. Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. Patrick Dorismond. Amadou Diallo. Ousmane Zongo. Timothy Stansbury Jr. Orlando Barlow. Aaron Campbell. Victor Steen. Steven Eugene Washington. Alonzo Ashley. Wendell Allen. James Brissette. Ronald Madison.
The names go on, and on, and on, like some horrid, grisly roll call. What they have in common is likely no surprise to you, as you no doubt recognize at least some of these names from news accounts, civil rights protests, and social media outrage. All are unarmed black men recently killed by police. In 2014, as in every decade in American history, black men live with the unjust and unreasonable threat of deadly force—for adjusting a belt, reaching for a wallet, suddenly changing direction while running. Or, in the case of Trayvon Martin, simply being perceived as not having the right to be present at a given place and time, despite not violating any law, and even on a public street.
According to the FBI’s most recent accounts of “justifiable homicide,” in the seven years between 2005 and 2012, a white officer used deadly force against a black person almost two times every week. Of those black persons killed, nearly one in every five was under 21 years of age. For comparison, only 8.7% of white people killed by police officers were younger than 21. If you are an unarmed American male under the age of 21, being black (instead of white) more than doubles your chances of being shot to death by the police.
Of course, the method of execution is not always a firearm. Others, such as Garner, are victims of chokeholds, even though they are against New York Police Department policy, if not against the law. Steen, 17, was riding a bicycle when he was run over by a chasing police officer who fired a Taser at him. Nor are victims always teens or young adults. Chamberlain was shot to death by police who broke down his door in response to his medic alert signal accidentally going off—despite the retired former marine repeatedly telling them that he did not need help. He was 68.
Even more galling, though typical, is how infrequently police officers who kill unarmed black men are actually punished for their acts, whether crimes of malicious intent or deadly incompetence. (The officer who killed Grant in an Oakland train station in 2009 claimed that he accidentally pulled his .40 caliber handgun when he meant to pull his Taser. Grant was lying face down with his hands behind his back, being subdued by another officer, when he was shot.)
The message is loud and clear: the lives of black people, of black men in particular, are disposable and without value. Killing black men, accidentally or intentionally, is of no consequence.
Rejecting that message, even in the face of stonewalling and militaristic tactics of local law enforcement, is the point of the vocal, persistent, and escalating protests that took place in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson in the aftermath of Brown’s death at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9. Rejecting that message was also what we did when I and other New Yorkers demonstrated and went to jail in 1999, in an act of solidarity and civil disobedience, in support of the parents of Amadou Diallo and their attorney, Johnnie L. Cochran.
Each of us must take a stand to reject that message each and every day, to make the point that black lives matter. We must be aware, vocal, and involved in how the law is enforced in our communities, wherever we live. We cannot accept or allow black men’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to be left in a pool of blood on the street. We must hold law enforcement accountable for unjust, incompetent, or intentionally malicious use of deadly force, making it clear that they are not above the law they are sworn to enforce, nor are they allowed to selectively honor their duty to serve, protect, and preserve life.