The first image I woke up to Christmas Eve was of another black life lost to the system. Antonio Martin, an 18 year old black male from Berkeley, Missouri–only a few towns from Ferguson–will be added to the list of black men gunned down by the police. Depending on whose word you take, the facts are a little blurry. If Martin had been unarmed, like many accounts say, this is a tragedy. If the police officer’s account is true, however, and he was actually armed, it is still a tragedy. It is a tragedy because it was not just Martin, but a whole history that has continued to put black men in a position of hopelessness not many can imagine, yet we remain aloof to the causes of these trends of black men being trapped. The tragedy of Antonio Martin lays in a history of policy that black men have continually fallen victims to. We ignore that we could have shaped that reality, but we are quick to dismiss black men’s humanity. Black lives are black lives, they all deserve to be given a fighting chance. That is how we should measure the success of our democracy–through giving all lives humanity, including black men with guns, not just men in blue suits who claim to do what we are afraid of doing: killing in the name of defending our freedom.
Martin’s death happening in the wake of two police officers being killed, in the wake of Eric Garner being mourned, in the wake of Mike Brown’s murder being dishonored, all holds weight. Just when you think the racial divide couldn’t be any more defined, the death of two cops makes the picture much clearer. When police are killed in the midst of people protesting against an over-militarized state which targets people of color, it is those same people protesting their victimization whom the nation expects to speak up in condemnation of such acts. When a twelve year old is killed for being seen as a threat, however, the nation remains silent, and some may go as far to justify such acts as a means of solidarity with those custodians of freedom who wear blue.
When white criminals bear arms and do serious damage, we blame mental health issues and failing policies around gun ownership. Black men with guns leads us to blame black radicalism, thug culture and discredits a very needed movement towards police reform. To want to reform an institution that historically has its origins in controlling communities of color–many early police forces in the United States grew out of slave patrols–does not mean you cannot mourn the loss of fallen officers to bad people. However, to stand behind the police even when they are wrong, and then criticize black America for mourning another life lost, regardless of the situation, is not just blind, it breaks down to the core of American racism and the double standard it has always held, and the racial context it continues to ignore.
It may seem hard to grasp, but maybe we–myself included–have been actively shaping these institutions we have always been against through our inability to adequately address the real problems. Racism does not mean only holding preconceived notions, it means reinforcing the standards history has set up time and time again. We aren’t far removed from these worlds we are either defending or criticizing, and that’s what America is fighting with right now: that maybe all of this bloodshed is in our hands. To criticize American policies means to criticize the state, and to criticize the state means to criticize democracy–the democracy that has been shaped by all of our voices. Americans have never been good at owning up to the possibility of being wrong, and so this battle may be a losing one, but it’s one worth talking about.
We value attacks on democracy and freedom when it serves a specific agenda, and remain silent–if not blindly critical–when it does not. When you come to terms with the idea that maybe your world is not as distant from the worlds you dismiss, then that is another conversation we should be having. The world that allowed Tamir Rice, a twelve year old boy to be gunned down for carrying a toy gun, is the same world that allows white men to go into restaurants wearing firearms to exercise their constitutional rights. When you see those contradictions, you wonder what were the rights that Trayvon Martin could be allowed to exercise in his own neighborhood? What rights do black Americans have in their own communities? We reserve our humanity for police officers and white men who we deem to be mentally ill, not for black men whose destiny has long been decided by policies shaped by men who never considered the souls of black folk.
A world that could make Antonio Martin feel like he had no other options but to pull a gun out on a cop could be the same world we have repeatedly shaped for young black men, and yet still we deny this fact. We created a country that trapped black people to specific geographic localities through urban policy. We allowed our politicians to create a war on black people in the name of drugs, yet those same policies never touch white communities–those were the leaders we voted for. It was the same world which made Mike Brown feel compelled to charge Darren Wilson, which was perhaps the same world that herds hundreds of thousands of black men to prisons for nonviolent offenses that whites get let off for. We allow these worlds to be made manifest, and then to grow through terror, either through our own advocating for such policies, or through our silence. Regardless, it is our world, and we need take responsibility for it.
We pride ourselves on being a nation of democratic freedom, yet remain far removed when it doesn’t fit our opinions. What defendants of the police state should realize is that we are all Antonio Martin, Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Tamir Rice, and we are also those institutions we look at with contempt, regardless if they fit our agendas or not. That is the cost of democracy: admitting when you are wrong more times than you would like to, in order to eventually get it right.