I never thought I’d live to see the day when I’d see a man gunned down on television. I never thought I’d see their killer walk free months later to restart their life after a not guilty verdict. This has become so common I can’t imagine what my children will grow up seeing when they are my age.
They told me, “Trust the system.” But the system isn’t working for everyone.
They told me to stay in school and don’t do drugs. That seems to be the last thing that matters when a black or brown person is gunned down on the street like a dog.
Years ago, my father and I were arguing about Michael Vick’s jail time. I said the law is the law. My father said, “They treat animals better than they treat people.” We argued and argued. He told me he wouldn’t want me to find out and test the system. Now, I’d have to agree with him. Looking back at the case in Tusla, Oklahoma, I think my father’s words needed to be stronger. They treat dogs better than groups of people.
I’ve got two children at home that need me and love me deeply. I’ve got a wife a home that needs my support and companionship. I’ve got a brother and a sister that want to see me do more exciting things in life. I’ve got two parents that don’t want to bury their son. I’ve got coworkers that expect my perspective to continue to shape their lives. I’ve got students that still think I live under my desk and these students would be devastated if I was reduced to a hashtag.
What should we do now?
We need to change the justice system. When I first began writing this post, the date was May 18th. Betty Shelby had been found not guilty of first-degree manslaughter. Betty Shelby shot and killed Terrence Crutcher. Many people saw Terrence Crutcher’s last moments alive. He died in the middle of the street. Betty Shelby was cross examined, she was asked, “Is Terence Crutcher’s death his fault?” Betty Shelby replied, “Yes.” According to Betty Shelby’s attorney, “She’s ready to get back to her life.”
Since I began writing this piece Philando Castile’s killer Jeronimo Yanez was also found not guilty. I was eating my lunch, crying in school when I got the news. Philando was someone’s child. What happened to him could have easily happened to me. You see a few weeks ago I had been driving around the neighborhood looking at houses with my wife. We were hoping the children would fall asleep in the car while we questioned should we move or do renovations. One child was fast asleep, the other was wide awake. Being only two streets from home, we cut our losses. I put on my blinker, took a right towards my street, and saw a police cruiser waiting at a stop sign.
Tires burned, blue lights flipped on, and an officer jumped out of his car. I thought back to my best friend who’s in law enforcement. We’ve talked long about isolated police shootings we frequently see in the media. I thought about Philando Castile’s child growing up knowing their father was killed inches away from them. I thought about the killer, Jeronimo Yanez, starting his life over with a “voluntary separation agreement” to help him transition to another career.
With my window completely down, both hands on the steering wheel, I put on my most nonthreatening white voice, smiled, and cashed in every last piece of Karma. The officer informed me my front headlight was out. But I couldn’t stop thinking, do I appear nonthreatening enough? Or was my reaction over sensationalized because of the fake news media? Is it only a matter of time before my luck runs out and my being a 6’2 black, male will appear threatening?
The officer let me go without a warning or a ticket. He said he only wanted me to know my headlight was out. After wishing me goodnight he hopped in his squad car and pulled away. My heart was pounding and I felt like I hadn’t taken a breath during the entire exchange. To break the tension I looked at my wife and said, “He pulled me over for my headlight being out, but he needs to get his own padiddle fixed.”
Is that was saved me? The officer looking back and seeing his own front headlight was out. Should I expect run-ins with the law to always go this smoothly? What if the officer asked for my license and I reached for my wallet in my pocket, what would have happened? No one should be comfortable with these kinds of thoughts. Monday morning quarterbacking interactions with police has become the new normal.
Is the Black Lives Matter Movement the Civil Rights Movement 2.0?
As a teacher, I wonder what I should tell my students. In our reading unit we studied social issues and then we moved on to the Civil Rights Movement. Do I tell them every day I drive to and from work it could be my last? Do I tell them, throughout their lives a few students in the classroom will have different experiences because of their skin color? Or do I tell them life is all cupcakes and rainbows, the real magic is believing in something?
When I was a kid, my fifth grade teacher told me about Rodney King. At the time, I thought my teacher was being a racist. It seemed she was trying to rub it in my face that cops can beat up black people and get away with it. Now I realize she was trying to teach me a lesson. People are treated differently. We shouldn’t pretend it’s not happening. America needs to wake up. We should educate those around us in the hopes they can be better than they were the day before.
Some of the students in my class have been listening and reading between the lines. They have already figured out most everything Freedom Riders, bus boycotters, and the civil rights protesters were fighting for are the very same things protesters are marching for today. Go back and read John Lewis’s speech from the March on Washington. Change the dates, change the names of the cities and realize he could give the speech today with people nodding their head to the proverbial injustices and trampled liberties.
Are we Still Doing This?
People are still marching for voting rights. Gerrymandering has made it simple for politicians to lock people out of power.
People are still fighting to integrate schools. Just a few days ago a student asked me, “Mr. Bruff, why do only black students (METCO) come from Boston? Aren’t there any white students there?”
People are still fighting for black lives to matter to us all. Every time I see a blue ribbon in a muted American flag I wonder. how are people trained to protect and serve walking free after taking a life? Something isn’t right. Death comes for us all and the decision to pull the trigger takes fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, and friends away too soon.
Black Rights are Civil Rights and Human Rights
This past school year my staff read a book, Home of the Brave by Christine Applegate. An important theme was one should have hope no matter how dire the situation. Although the book was about a young refugee finding his place in America, this story reminded me of my son. In the story, the main character Kek said, “If you can walk, you can run.”
The line was inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, Keep Moving this Mountain. King said, “If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl, but by all means, keep moving.”
I wanted to name my son Martin after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Although that didn’t happen, my wife and I settled on the name Jack. We named him after Jack Robinson. Like the integrator of baseball, he’s best known as Jackie. We hope our Jackie stands strong in the face of adversity. We want him to be a shinning example no matter the circumstances. Like Jackie Robinson, I want my son to do what is right. He may not have to give up his seat on a segregated bus or be the first to integrate a sport. But my Jackie will face his own challenges in time.
When my son and daughter are adults, I don’t know if being black in America will be tough. Being wealthy and an amazing sports figure hasn’t made it easier for LeBron James. I have hope every bent knee in silent protest and every man, women, or child taken too soon brings us closer to waking up. John Lewis said at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963, “Wake up America! Wake up! For we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.”
The New York Times (2017). Minnesota Officer Acquitted in Killing of Philando Castile. [online] Available at: https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/06/16/us/police-shooting-trial-philando-castile.html?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=aut&bicmst=1409232722000&bicmet=1419773522000&bicmp=AD&bicmlukp=WT.mc_id&referer=http://m.facebook.com/ [Accessed 16 Jun. 2017].
King, Jr., D. (1960). Keep Moving from This Mountain.
CNN (2017). Tulsa officer on trial tells of killing unarmed black man. [online] Available at: http://www.cnn.com/2017/05/15/us/oklahoma-betty-shelby-officer-trial/index.html [Accessed 16 May 2017].
Lewis, J. (1963). Speech at the March on Washington.
John Lewis’ Speech at the March on Washington
The Washington Post (2017). Sadly, LeBron James is right: ‘Being black in America is tough’. [online] Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2017/06/01/sadly-lebron-james-is-right-being-black-in-america-is-tough/?utm_term=.deafdfd0b896 [Accessed 1 Jun. 2017].