The Police Camera Shows Us #BlackBoyJoy Can’t Exist, Not When Guns Are Drawn

A few days ago the Grand Rapids Police department released a body camera video from an incident involving two officers, and five black boys.

The police were looking for an armed robbery suspect, and apparently these boys fit the description. The description apparently being black male. None of these boys turned out to be who they were looking for. The police officers later visited these boys’ families, apologized, and thanked them for their compliance to the investigation. Not long after, the Police Chief for the Grand Rapids Police Department issued a public statement saying, “The officers showed empathy, they understood the ages of the children….They did their due diligence in terms of not putting themselves in harm’s way but they also showed that they appreciated the fact that these were young men.’’ In other words, if they could do it over again, they would not have changed a thing.

What these police officers, police chief, and supporters of #BlueLives fail to realize is that these were not young men–they were boys, just playing ball on the block. At what point do black boys cease being boys and become men? Black boyhood has always been erased and diminished by the state. No amount of empathy from these police officers could give that innocence back to these kids, not when guns were drawn.

I don’t doubt that there will be people who will see this video and justify it. They will say these boys did the right thing by listening to these police officers. They will say this is the job these #BlueLives men have to do, and we must comply unquestionably. There will be people who will applaud how calm these officers remained, and that they are to thank for the situation not getting out of hand, when in fact these officers were the ones who planted the seed of fear and terror on these children.

It’s a video that reminds us no matter how hard we try, #BlackBoyJoy doesn’t actually exist. We may attempt to wish it into existence, but at any moment the state can strip that bliss from us. The same joy that these boys were channeling, could have been their death. Black boy joy killed Tamir Rice and Trayvon. These boys could have been no different.

 

 

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Black People Dying Ain’t New, It’s the Status Quo of American History

black-lives-matter-atl Last month, a man was shot six times while being restrained at a gas station in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His name was Alton Sterling. He was black, and the cop who chose to kill him was white. Many people would argue that racial identity doesn’t matter in a case like this, but for black people, Alton Sterling wasn’t an exception, he was the rule. For anyone arguing that #AllLivesMatter, they only need to see the video of his killing to know that right now, the word “All” excludes black lives.

For the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the slaying of Alton Sterling was a tipping point. Watching a man be senselessly murdered, shot six times in the head while on the ground—that will wake people up. And what we saw in the days to follow was a growing understanding that this can’t continue.

This past year, we aren’t seeing anything new—the black experience in America has always been defined by violence— but now more people are starting to take it seriously. Black America’s pleas for life are being heard for once, but that isn’t relief, it is frustrating that it took this long. What is equally frustrating is that some people still will not be swayed.

A week later, five cops were killed in Dallas, and any potential momentum from the death of Sterling was met with a wall of resistance. Maybe some will never say #BlackLivesMatter because in their minds, black issues have never been view as urgent. To say #AllLivesMatter is to take the blue pill of American history and pretend that we got to where we are with no tension, no injustices, and no blood shed. To simplify the hurt and fear by black people is to either ignore how real violence has always been in black people’s lives, or to just not care.

white-lynch-mobsAt the height of lynching, around 1890, around six black men were killed every month by white mobs. This is not hearsay, or speculation, this is fact. Nor is this just “black history”. It is American history, as American as the Declaration of Independence and the Hamilton musical. More alarming is that in the heart of Dixieland, the mass murder of African-Americans at the hands of lynch mobs was not just public knowledge, it was public entertainment. Look at archival footage of the lynchings and see white children, white sheriffs, white politicians—all smiling. Members of the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist terrorist organization, were regarded as respected individuals in their communities. To many whites, they weren’t breaking the law or committing murder, they were preserving white dominance. Through the lens of white supremacy, those who participated in lynch mobs were viewed as heroes.

1890 was almost half a century after slaves were emancipated. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments had been passed. African-Americans were free citizens, entitled to the protection of the law, and on paper, black men could vote. Yet 40 years after emancipation, blacks living in the South still were living in a state a fear. Six lynchings a month is not just a number. It is a Trayvon Martin, a Tamir Rice, a Sandra Bland, an Eric Garner, a Michael Brown, an Alton Sterling, every month. Those are the same numbers we are seeing today. 

Lynching wasn’t what solely defined black existence in the South. There were the Jim Crow laws, which told you if you were black that your skin color, not your merit, will determine life prospects, which school you can go to, what restaurants to avoid, and the occupation you would be allowed to pursue. There was sharecropping, where even if slavery had ended, other systems of servitude could be used  to lawfully maintain a caste system based on race. Laws were enacted that placed black men in prison at disproportionately higher rates than whites, who were then leased to companies for cheap labor. Black men could vote, but poll taxes, literacy tests and other clauses would keep them from the polls. If all these tactics failed to keep black Americans as second class citizens—if blacks still aspired for something more—violence would be used without the least bit of hesitation.

This is what it meant to be black in a Jim-Crow South. Post-slavery, but not even close to post-racist. Violence may not have always been the first resort, but it was never absent as a possibility. If you didn’t step out of the way on a sidewalk for a white person to pass, if you didn’t address a white as “sir” or “ma’am” no matter the age, if you spoke your mind at the wrong time, you might as well have had a death wish.  As soon as black people’s bodies were no longer seen as valuable under slavery, they would be easily disposed of if need be. If you were black and chose not to prescribe to the racial hierarchy, you could be killed.

This barbarism was known throughout the country, including on Capitol Hill, where just as many legislators came from the North as from the South. Any idea that the terror in African-Americans’ lives was unknown to whites in the North needs to be dismissed. People in the North were well aware, and their silence was an acceptance of a way of life in the South, an acceptance that black lives did not matter, that blackness meant a deserved onslaught of oppressive forces, approved by, even if not directly administered, the state.

Only in 2005 did Congress apologize for their inaction during this dark period in American history.

Chicago-1919-preriot_webThat culture of white supremacy fueled the mass exodus of blacks from the South to northern cities. From 1910 to 1970, 6 million African-Americans came north in hopes of better prospects, but found no escape from white supremacy. Black folk leaving Jim-Crow South would arrive only to find new legal systems in place to limit their prospects. Around the same time that northern cities were seeing an increase in African-American migrants, the Federal Housing Administration  began granting home loans at better rates than ever before. The suburbs were being formed and the middle class was expanding, but blacks would have a harder time grabbing hold of these incentives. Many mortgages had racially discriminatory clauses in the contracts, denying any chance of a suburban, middle-class life to anyone who wasn’t white.

As whites moved to the suburbs, blacks remained in the cities, where they continued to be subject to racist policies like redlining. Redlining restricted and decided how funds would be allocated throughout a city and where city would invest its funds. City officials would color code a map. An area colored in green would get the most amount of resources, whereas an area with red would get little-to-none. This is where the term redlining comes from. Most areas colored in red were areas with a high demographic of Blacks.

To make bad situations worse, the construction of Highways in the 1960s would segregate and impoverish black communities even more. City officials would often decide to construct these highways in communities where people of color resided. The construction of these highways would displace the people living in these neighborhoods that would soon be torn up, but they didn’t have much options on where to go from there. The end result was more concentrated and segregated communities based around race and class than before.

This is how the northern ghettos were formed, and the rest of the tragedies and injustices that define the modern black American experience—poor schools, the crack epidemic, mass incarceration, drug trade—became natural consequences of racist policies towards black and brown people. White supremacy existed even with legislation. It is too strong to be held down by law. At the core, it is not American policing that black people want reformed, but the state to finally commit to upholding the dignity of what it never has before: black lives. Just like the days of lynching, the police has terrorized these communities in order to preserve white supremacy. The names we see behind hashtags aren’t a new trend, they are the status quo since Jim Crow south, and they define what it ultimately means to be black in America.

It is easy to condemn the anger of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. But that anger comes from how history has always treated black lives, spat at them and told them “your issues will take second seat”. When the state has perpetually given little regard to not just your humanity, but your fathers, and your father’s father, and a whole line of black men you have descended from, who look like you, and have continually lived life with hopeless outlooks, it is hard to not be jaded and to remain calm and collective at every new death we hear.

Yes, Black people are angry, but Black rage can’t exist without a history of white hate. This history has always been known to black people, only now are white people perhaps beginning to realize they never had to know this history, and that makes them uneasy. The case for #AllLivesMatter is only validated by people who either choose to minimize the history of violence in black people’s lives or completely ignore it. The slogan is for people who want to continue to be comfortable in a bubble that lets them ignore the issues pertaining to black people, but the movement won’t stop for whites’ uneasiness over addressing racism. If it wasn’t for the brave souls who stood up, made white people uncomfortable, blacks would still be in chains. You don’t get progress without a little bit of tension, of making the status quo be questioned, and the power group feel uncomfortable. This idea that the only way we can achieve true unity is through never fully acknowledging all the horrible things that have been done is nonsense. Black people are dying, have died, and will continue to die regardless if we chose to confront reality head on or wipe it under the rug. Some people can choose whether or not they want to acknowledge this history, but their choices will continue the extermination of black people.

Throughout history, what the state has never done is value black lives. We need to accept this as fact before anything else. Progress is only predicated on honesty.

 

In The Case For Alton Sterling, Excuses Are For White Supremacy

Alton-Sterling-Hollywood-ReactionsAround 12 A.M. Tuesday, Alton Sterling was selling CDs outside of a convenience store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It was around the same time that the Baton Rouge Police Department received a call that an African-American male in a red shirt was seen pointing a gun at someone outside of the same convenience store. Police showed up, and found Alton Sterling, in a red shirt, selling CDs. He fit the description–if only partially.

The video above shows what happened next. Two officers pinning Sterling to the ground, at which point one of them realizes he may be armed. One of the officers proceeds to pull out his gun, even though Sterling is clearly immobile, and shoots him 6 times. He died shortly after.

People will make justifications in this case. Yes, Sterling was armed, was selling CDs illegally, and had a list of prior convictions extending back 20 years. However, there is no debating this case. It was wrong. When we put into account his prior mistakes to justify his death, not only is it misleading, it’s irrelevant.

I have trouble believing one’s criminal past can justify the error in judgement by the police officer, but I have never held America to a standard that would make it so justice could be carried out with clear judgement. Sterling’s plight comes from a legacy of injustice that traces itself back to the origins of this country, through the lynchings in antebellum south, Jim Crow, up to this past Tuesday morning.

No matter how disheartening it is to see this video, it will never be surprising to me. The era of lynchings  has never escaped us, and that is what this movement is telling the world. That from the days of Ida B. Wells, up until today, in 2016, black folk are still living “Without Sanctuary.”

This video is all the evidence we need to know that Black Lives are still not valued in this country.  In my mind and heart, there is no debate. Alton Sterling deserved better. Freddy Gray deserved better. Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Jordan Davis, Sandra Day–they all deserved better. Black lives have always deserved better. Excuses are for white supremacy.

Barack Obama Responds to the Four African American 6th Graders’ Letter on #BlackLivesMatter

Sixth-Grade-Boys-Pen-Letter-To-Obama-660x450

It’s been almost 3 months since I first shared the letter from the four African American 6th graders–Zayd, Phoenix, Keidy, and Bryson–addressed to President Barack Obama. In the letter, they point to the depressing statistics facing African American youth today, and inform Obama that as an African American in the highest elected office, he has a duty to helping find solutions to institutional racism.

The letter has since touched many hearts, and received thousands of shares over social media sites. National news sites, blogs, and TV stations have all kept these boys’ words alive. Since the letter has been posted, these boys have been asked to speak on panels, recite their letter in public, and answer questions so many people now have for them. They were even nominated and won the Human Rights Heroes award in their hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts.

And just last week, four large envelopes appeared at Wildwood Elementary School. Each addressed to one of the boys, with a return address of none other: the White House. These four 6th grade boys wrote a letter to President Barack Obama, and the President wrote back.

LetterFromObamaThese kids, are just that–kids. But they are black, and thus have to learn harsher lessons of what adulthood means earlier on, because society doesn’t put their childhood into account. They found this out the hard way when racist comments began trolling the various websites their letter was posted on.

But more importantly, they are learning that the power of words transcends racist bigots, and can go all the way to the White House.

I’m proud of what these boys have been able to achieve, and look forward to seeing what more they have to say, because this is just the beginning.

Here is the full letter from President Barack Obama to the boys:

Dear, Keidy, Zayd, Pheonix, and Bryson

Thank you for your powerful letter. I appreciate hearing from you, and I admire your courage in speaking out on the important issues our Nation faces. When any part of our American family doesn’t feel fairly treated, that’s a problem for all of us–it means we are not as strong as a country as we could be. All young people deserve to live, learn and grow in safe and supportive environments, and providing your generation with every chance to realise your full potential is a priority for me in everything I do as President.

As a nation, we have made enormous progress in race relations over the course of the past several decades. I have witnessed that in my own life. Still, important work remains to be done. That is why my administration is working to build better relations between law enforcement and those they serve, and we will keep striving everyday to help communities heal and recover so students like you can reach for your highest aspiration.

As you continue to build on your unique talents and skills, I hope you never forget that ours is a country where, with hard work and determination, you can accomplish anything you can imagine. So dream big, always look to help others, and put your best effort into everything you do–because I’m counting on your generation to chart our Nation’s course.

Again, thank you for writing. I hope you will remain committed in both thought and action toward the solutions needed to help shape a brighter tomorrow. Please remember your President expects great things from you.

Sincerely,

Barack Obama

‘Ali Bomaye!’: Thank You For Being Unapologetically Black

AliI was 12 years old when my father took me to see ‘Ali’ in theaters. A 12-year-old black boy, staring at who I wanted to become. what black boy wouldn’t want to be the champ?

I got chills with his speech on why he wouldn’t go fight in Vietnam:

“I ain’t going no 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people. If I want to die, I’ll die right here, right now, fightin’ you, if I want to die. You my enemy, not no Chinese, no Vietcong, no Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. Want me to go somewhere and fight for you? You won’t even stand up for me right here in America, for my rights and my religious beliefs. You won’t even stand up for my right here at home.”

At 12 years old, I had never felt so proud to be black.

In Ali, I saw greatness in the ring, and unapologetic blackness outside of it. His blackness was in his loyalty towards the Nation of Islam, and how it became what defined him and his politics. His blackness was in the way he walked, talked, and lived–black, and unapologetic.  He wasn’t just an athlete, he was a black messiah (speaking up for his people), as well as a soon-to-be  black martyr–crucified for being brutally honest and politically aware about the contradictions of American racism. When he was drafted to fight in the war, his response:

My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”

ALIpressHe called things how he saw them. He didn’t care what the backlash could–or inevitably would–be. He was convinced in what he believed in, and he never was afraid to say so.

By today’s standards, Ali doesn’t exist. We have yet to have another black athlete that has carried the same voice and with the same platform Ali had.  In a day when most athletes lose their integrity in order to be the best, Ali’s greatness was in his unwavering integrity.

Through all his public antics, the world was witnessing the emancipation of the black athlete in real-time. The world saw a black man take control over what he wanted to say, and how he would say it. Even when his title was stripped from him over his anti-war statements, Ali remained in control.

In a way most athletes have trouble doing, Ali took control of his own destiny through choice. He chose to join the Nation of Islam. He chose to be an outspoken critique on American racism. He chose to speak out against the U.S. involvement in Vietnam as contradictory to the unresolved racial tensions in America. He chose to avoid the draft because he was so committed to his beliefs. And because of such decisions, one could make the case that being stripped of the title was his own choice.

ALIsmileAli was freer than most black athletes have ever been, and  the freedom was in his courage to not back down, and to be the black man he always was, and that the world needed to see. Racism had defined his life, like it did for so many other black athletes and celebrities of that time. Ali just chose to embrace it.

Muhammad Ali came at a time when black people needed a voice to validate their concerns and anger, but also to be unapologetically black. He was that voice that told  you to be as bold and black as you could be in every possible situation–never back down.

So, to Ali: Thank you for everything you did. For inspiring me to also be unapologetically black, and to never be afraid to speak truth to power.

 

Meet the Four African American 6th Graders Who Penned the Heartbreaking Letter to President Obama

Four 6th Graders decided to do a research project on the Black Lives Matter Movement. The statistics they found on the bleak hope of black youth today are what prompted them to write a letter to president Obama on the urgency of addressing racism. Since posting the letter to my blog, the kids have been gaining notoriety and were asked to read it live at a Black Lives Matter Panel in Amherst, MA. Here is the video.
To read the full letter, click here.

The Importance of Black History

Last month, I was invited to speak at Amherst Regional High School as the keynote speaker for their Black History Month Teach-In, here is the full talk.