The words of Martin Luther King Jr. cry out from the grave, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Although these words were published more than 50 years ago in King’s letter from Birmingham jail (April 16, 1963), they are quite appropriate for the turmoil and injustice that is occurring to people of color throughout our nation.
Why is there such a continued pattern of injustice in the way people of color are treated by police versus their white counterparts?
The injustices that occurred to Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York, were deplorable. In both instances, their last words have become a rallying cry for protesters: “Hands up — don’t shoot!” and “I can’t breathe.”
The current rallying cry of protesters, however, is not new to blacks.
Historically and metaphorically, we have walked under this mantle of injustice — both verbally as dictated to us by those who felt the need to “throw it in our faces” or nonverbally by the actions of those who followed us as we moved through stores, in theaters, etc. — everyplace except in church. As a black female, I can remember being followed throughout department stores because the white clerk assumed that I would steal something; then, there were times I was totally ignored and had to seek out a clerk willing to help me. Unfortunately, it seems that this mentality still exists in our nation.
The message of “don’t shoot” has long existed and operated in the lives of black males, even without any legitimate reason of suspicion except for the obvious fact of race and the erroneous or untrue assumptions made about them such as they are dishonest, low-income and should be feared.
More recently, before returning to Happy Valley, we lived in a predominantly white neighborhood in North Carolina. As a black father, I remember walking our older son home one night from his high school basketball game two blocks away and we were slowly followed by a police car. After we walked into our home, the white police officer rang our doorbell to inquire if we “lived” there and gave his reason as there having been break-ins in the neighborhood. That incident had to become a “teachable moment” for our son so that he would understand how the “system” worked against black men so that he would know how to protect himself from any potential harm — even from white police officers assigned to protect us.
A good point to remember is that most police officers do a good job of operating within the confines of the oath of protecting all citizens, but an increasing number of them, as we have witnessed, are guilty of using excessive force on people of color. As comedian Chris Rock would say, “that ain’t right,” and protesters across our nation are demonstrating because they know that no one should be subjected to inhumane treatment by police officers.
Historically, since the days of the civil rights movement diversity remains among the protesters. The gestures, acts of defiance, and behaviors have presented an unusual, though welcomed, outpouring of support in letting the world know that “all lives matter!”
It may be because they realize that injustice to one person is injustice to all. As King further mentioned in his letter from Birmingham jail, “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
King spoke out against injustice in America, and we should too. Your speaking out does not have to be in the form of lying in the street, or marching for miles along a designated path, or thinking less of law enforcement. Your voice and presence and actions have the potential of significant impact in making all lives matter; find your way of making a positive difference in the right treatment of others not like you. More importantly, speaking out against injustice should not be considered a threat to anyone, particularly police officers, because it is their sworn duty to protect citizens from injustice.
Recently, the Black Student Association at Penn State staged several demonstrations on campus to protest the injustices that have been occurring in Ferguson and New York. An act of support for the students’ protests occurred from Penn State President Eric Barron as well as State College Mayor Elizabeth Goreham, who stated that “To me, this is about equality and justice: basic precepts that are so dear to all Americans; it’s important that we insist that everyone has them, because otherwise — in a way — no one does.”
If we are a nation of laws, then no individual or group is above the law. Unfortunately, it seems that the scale of justice is not balanced when it comes to people of color. How can we restore trust and confidence in police officers when we frequently witness mistreatment? A case in point is a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics that stated: “citizens complained in 2002 more than 26,550 times about police use of excessive force. In 2015, can we expect something different?
In looking at potential solutions to counter this excessive force dilemma, technology is playing a major role in exposing injustices. The use of body cameras on police officers may help, but it is not a panacea or cure-all solution to a deeper problem of inhumane treatment for certain groups of human beings, especially black men. A case in point, according to a ProPublica investigation in October, revealed that young black men (ages 15-19) are shot dead by police at 21 times the rate of young white men in the same age category. This is a shocking statistic for concerned citizens to consider. As concerned citizens, how can we become part of the solution to communicate that all lives matter?
Something to consider moving forward as a nation is the need for more education and community development training of law enforcement personnel to show respect for all human beings, regardless of their race or ethnicity. More importantly, we need to have open dialogues on law enforcement reforms to bring about significant changes in our respective communities. Furthermore, consideration should be given to establishing a national database of all police officers to allow local police departments to conduct thorough background checks before hiring new personnel.
As a citizen in good standing in your beloved community, your voice is important to the ongoing controversy. Keeping silent will not solve this dilemma.
Today, our nation will celebrate a national holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr., who gave his life serving humanity. Let us remember that his life and peaceful protest demonstrations were against injustice for all people — because all lives matter.