Hands Up, Don’t Shoot…The All too Familiar Struggle for Black Humanity
By: John Sloan, III
Two years after the death of Michael Brown, the floodlights of America’s thirty-second news cycle once again flash over lifeless Black bodies. On Monday, September 19, the nation awoke to yet another grainy video of an unarmed Black person gunned down in the street; his arms unceremoniously thudding the concrete from where they had recently waited — high in the air above his head.
With a single shot, Terence Crutcher was killed.
The subsequent sights and sounds are exceedingly familiar; mind-numbingly familiar. If we just close our eyes, the pixilated figures of four white police officers will taunt, bawdily, before us — guns drawn. We hear the crackled voice over a police radio: “He looks like a bad dude.”; smell the stench of gunpowder in the air, and feel the indifference of the officers — taking their time before even stopping to check for vitals.
We know what this looks like. We’ve seen it before.
By Tuesday morning Scott Wood, defense attorney for Ofc. Betty Shelby, was already mounting her defense. While on MSNBC he proclaimed her a “drug recognition expert” due to a “5 or 6 week course” taken a few years earlier. “…She believed he could have had a weapon in the pocket. She was pretty sure he was on PCP.”
And, so it began: the all too familiar choruses of victim blaming. Each refrain adorned with constant repetitions of “…if he had just complied…”
No weapons were found in Mr. Crutcher’s possession, and the results of a toxicology report are still pending. However, at this moment, none of that seems relevant. The Tulsa County District Attorney had charged Shelby with first-degree manslaughter by Thursday afternoon. Yet, still there seems to be a void.
In the years since Michael Brown’s murder, two thousand Americans have been killed by police. And, with increased access to social media, the pornographic viewing of Black death has become as monotonous as the breaking news banners regularly awaiting the next Donald Trump appearance — the cries of their loved ones a commonplace accompaniment.
In each instance, the individuals charged with policing are themselves guilty of operating through a biased lens; criminalizing African-Americans to such an extent as to strip us of our humanity.
According to a study by The Guardian:
“…in 2015, Black people were killed at twice the rate of white, Hispanic and Native Americans….Despite making up only 2% of the total US population, African American males between the ages of 15 and 34 comprised more than 15% of all deaths…Their rate of police-involved deaths was five times higher than for white men of the same age…Paired with official government mortality data, this new finding indicates that about one in every 65 deaths of a young African American man in the US is a killing by police.”
But these statistics should not be surprising. Generations of societal indoctrinization and oppression have subjected Black and Brown bodies to overt dehumanization; the ripples evident in the perceptions — both conscious and implicit — held by law enforcement.
In January of 2015, the Washington Post ran a story highlighting the practices of the North Miami Police Department, and their use of mugshots during target practice. While the chief of police noted their use of pictures from all races, the only mugshots found were of Black men — holes riddled through their faces.
The official comment: “Our policies were not violated…there is no discipline forthcoming…[the department] could have used better judgment.”
Our policies were not violated; He looks like a bad dude; She was pretty sure…
Across the nation officers are trained to target people of color to a disproportionate extent; taught to view Black and brown bodies as inherently more violent and staggeringly less human. How then, can we be surprised when a man is shot to death with his hands held high above his head — guilty only of a stalled car in the middle of the road?
Attempts have been made to reclaim Terence Crutcher’s humanity; countering the narrative that he was a drug using, noncompliant thug; a “big bad dude”. Media outlets have highlighted his compassion for his family, religious conviction, or the fact that his twin sister is a medical doctor. All to make his death more unacceptable, and to make Crutcher himself more…respectable.
But what if none of it were true?
What if the individual killed was not a good, God fearing, family man? Would that make his murder more allowable; his death easier to ignore? If the facts remained, but the person was altered, would we react with the same vitriolic outrage or would this be yet another instance chalked up to “bad judgment”; one where a statement that “no policies were violated” was accompanied by a paid administrative leave.
How do we measure worth? Who are the arbiters of human value?
After Dylann Roof was arrested for killing nine church-goers in Charleston, SC, his arresting officers, famously, felt pity on the young American terrorist — stopping to buy him food on the way to jail. They felt pity for him. Despite his admission to the murder of nine innocent Black lives; he was hungry, so they bought him food.
They treated him like a human being.
Who was charged with tending to Terence Crutcher’s humanity? What systems were put in place to ensure that his very identity did not spark a Pavlovian response to violence?
People of color, Black people specifically, grapple with what W.E.B. Du Boise highlighted in his 1903 masterpiece The Souls of Black Folk:
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
But the goal is not false equality; benchmarked by sterile and in-offensive legislation. The beacon that calls to every activist is the light of recognition. We fight for the respect of acknowledgment; the very right to be seen as human.
Terence Crutcher was not afforded that right. And, while it seems his killer may soon be prosecuted, we cannot allow his story to end. This struggle cannot be reduced to “one bad cop” or “unfortunate tragedy”. If America is ever to truly live up to the notions espoused on glass-encased parchment, this struggle must be fought on a systemic battlefield; one where the specters of bias and privilege are beaten back by the sturdy countenance of human acknowledgment and recognition.
We must fight erasure with humanity; lifting our voices and proudly proclaiming:
“We are here!
We are Free!
We are Human!
John Sloan is an organizer with Black Lives Matter Detroit.Follow him @johnsloan3