Listening and Understanding in Racist America: Cary Ball Jr.
by Mark Lance
One after another, for the last three years, we have seen the names and stories of young black folks shot down by police on the streets of US cities. The phenomenon is not new. Blacks have been killed, imprisoned, beaten, and harassed in hugely disproportionate numbers since modern US police forces grew out of slave patrols and organized attempts to put down Native Americans two centuries ago. But widespread public awareness of this systematic violence is new. Largely sparked by the murder of Michael Brown Jr, a movement has arisen. All over the country, police violence is being documented, and the stories told on social media. But the stories fly by us, case after case. We read about the number of bullets, the thin excuses for street execution, the feeble gestures at accountability. Maybe we analyze, or protest, or lobby for changes in police policy. And within a month or so, a case slides from our memory, replaced by more, ever more stories.
And in all this, as we move from one case to the next, we lose all touch with the survivors: the mothers, fathers, friends, children, and lovers who must now go through life with a hole, and wondering if they will be next.
Last November, I had the honor of being a part of an effort to remember, to listen directly to the unfiltered testimony of family and friends of those who have been taken from us by the police. The Truth Telling Project convenes community-based hearings in which family members tell their story to a panel of experts and community elders. The testimony is recorded, and made available to groups around the country who use it to spark living room dialogues, discussions on campus, in churches, and in community buildings, so that our communities can begin to discuss the reality of this violent arm of white supremacy from a perspective defined not by experts, activists, or politicians, but by the people most directly affected.
At that church in Ferguson, Missouri last November, I listened again to the story of Cary Ball Jr. I knew all the basics: young man who had had no trouble with the law since he was a teen, honors student, taking college courses, and working. Police say they followed him for having tinted windows. (Of course it is explicitly against policy to pursue a car for this reason in the jurisdiction, but there you go.) For whatever reason — and when a black man is pursued by police in the South one can think of many — Cary fled and crashed his car. He was also carrying a gun. (When white people carry a gun, it is called “exercising our rights”; when blacks do, it is at best foolish, at worst an aggression that calls for immediate execution.) What happened next is unknown. No evidence was ever presented that he threatened the police in any way. The autopsy showed that he was shot three times in the chest at close range, in his arms, and over and over while on the ground. 21 bullets altogether. Another victim of a police-black person interaction that never needed to happen in the first place.
This much I knew. But these are just facts. As horrible as they are, facts that have little impact in the face of so very many cases like it. But this day, I heard his mother speak of what kind of man he was, of what he meant to her life, of what it was like to live without her son. I heard of her terror at seeing a report on the news, of her growing frustration as the police refused to let her see the body. Of how she passed out, hours later, when she finally forced her way into the morgue. I listened to her recount the hole that has been left in a larger community.
I listened as well to stories of daily harassment, of fear, or what life is like when “policing” is experienced as an occupation.
John Stuart Mill makes a distinction between what he called a “dull and torpid assent” to a proposition — the sort of mere intellectual acknowledgment that it is true — on the one hand, and “taking a truth to heart” — appreciating a truth in all its significance for one’s life, in its rich emotional, moral, and practical import. As I heard this story, and the stories of other survivors, I took to heart the fact that the state is murdering black folks in our cities. Cities are funding themselves off the routine harassment of blacks and other poor folks. Racial profiling is the tip of the White Supremacist iceberg, and this is a campaign of violence and terror. Before that day, I knew these things, on occasion I cried or raged about them, and they led me to engage in action. But on that day, I took Cary’s mom, and Michael’s dad, and Sandra’s sister to heart. And I will never forget. And I will not cease working to make it end.
The Truth Telling Project (thetruthtellingproject.org, @TruthTellersUSA) has spurred presentations and discussions in hundreds of locations, in dozens of cities. It is producing films, educational materials, and discussion guides, all structured around the unfiltered testimony of the survivors. Those discussions are leading to action plans in communities across America. People are protesting, organizing, running for office, building neighborhood cop-watch committees, demanding structural change in their cities, on their campuses, and across the nation.
Watch, listen, learn. Decide which side you are on, because we need you.