Ever since the tragic murder of Trayvon Martin, a once popular yet unknown aspect of Black culture was brought to the forefront of American culture: The Talk™. Not the talk about the birds and the bees and where babies come from. The Talk™ I’m referring to is the one that many Black families and other POC have with their young children concerning how to survive an interaction with the police.
I received The Talk™ when I was around 8 or 9 years old. I remember it because of the context that I received it in. I’ve always been forgetful and for a long time I wore both my bus pass holder and home key around my neck underneath my clothing. I remember my Mom telling me that if I was stopped by a police officer and he asked for some sort of proof of identification, like my bus pass, that I should never reach for it myself. Tell the officer where the identification he requested was located on my person and keep my hands in clear view. This seemed silly to me but my mom was so serious that my normal 9 year old pushback was immediately silenced. Mommy seems scared and if she’s scared then I’m scared.
This brings me to the latest Blue on Black crime to hit social media. A dashcam video of a September 4, 2014 shooting of an unarmed Black man named Levar Jones.
Jones can be seen leaving his vehicle at the 39 second mark of the video. The now former state Trooper Sean Groubert stops his car and asks “Can I see your license, please.” Jones, not making any sudden movements, pats the back of his pants for his license. When he realizes he doesn’t have it in his pocket he turns around to reach inside his car so that he can fulfill the officer’s request. As I watched the video I could hear my own mother’s warning to never reach for anything. Within a second or 2 the police officer starts screaming “Get out of the car, get out of the car!” and fires 3 shots at Jones. Jones attempts to move away from the car and puts his hands up and is shot again.
Hands up? Shot at by a police officer? Sounds familiar, right?
The video is evidence of a reality that many within the Black community know far too intimately. Black bodies are criminalized at birth in the United States. Recently Ben Stein commented on the unarmed killing of Michael Brown and stated:
“To call him unarmed is like calling Sonny Liston unarmed or Cassius Clay unarmed. I mean he wasn’t unarmed; he was armed with his undoubtedly strong, scary self.”
It doesn’t matter what we’re doing. It doesn’t matter what we’re in possession of. We’re deemed a threat by virtue of our very existence. Former state trooper Groubert didn’t see a human being reaching for the license that he just requested. He saw a dangerous criminal that he needed to protect himself from. Groubert could serve 20 years in prison for this shooting–which probably wouldn’t be a possibility if there wasn’t video footage of the incident–but the problem isn’t just this cop. This is also why cameras won’t solve this problem. American society has spent centuries demonizing Black bodies. Through every means possible the narrative around the Black community has always been one that criminalizes and paints the very culture itself one that needs to be monitored, tracked, and put down if need be. Even when we’re victims we have to be the right type of victim or the tragic snuffing out of our lives doesn’t count. Notice after Jones was shot at 4 times, laid out on the floor, cuffed and couldn’t feel his own leg what his response was to the cop.
“What did I do, sir?”
Jones had every right to be be 17 different levels of angry. Had he spent several minutes expressing his displeasure with language befitting being shot at 4 times for following a direct police request he would’ve had every right to but the conversation around this whole incident would be different. Now he could be labeled a thug. Now he can be labeled a problem. At one point during this altercation Groubert and Jones have this exchange.
Jones: “Why did you shoot me?” Groubert: “Buddy, you dove headfirst back into your car…” Jones: “I’m sorry.”
In the fact of injustice and complete and total abuse of power, we still need to be polite and reasonable or risk forfeiting our freedom or worse, our life.
Some may see the arrest and firing of Groubert as a win. Justice in action. But this is not justice. This is the opposite of justice and for once the abuse of power and assault on Black life is being dealt with immediately. That’s not something to be praised. That’s basic. Justice would’ve been Groubert asking for Jones’s license, Jones then giving him his license and everyone going home. But justice can’t be served if a basic guideline of humanity isn’t established. Humanity can’t be predicated on clothing, vernacular, or skin tone.
Is humanity something we have to earn or are we born with it?