Justice Is a Human Need

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It will be a year, tomorrow, that Michael Brown, a young, unarmed African-American man, was gunned down by Darren Wilson. We may never know what really happened. Wilson’s account was taken as sacrosanct, and without a video to document what happened, Wilson’s account will be the last word. Police officers’ accounts usually trump what mere humans say. What we do know is this: Michael Brown had graduated from high school and was on his way to college. It doesn’t matter that he wasn’t a “saint,” as those critical of his alleged encounter with Wilson pointed out. Few kids are saints at that age, no matter their color. It was insulting to state that Michael was responsible for his own death; it is a pain…

It will be a year, tomorrow, that Michael Brown, a young, unarmed African-American man, was gunned down by Darren Wilson.

We may never know what really happened. Wilson’s account was taken as sacrosanct, and without a video to document what happened, Wilson’s account will be the last word. Police officers’ accounts usually trump what mere humans say.

What we do know is this: Michael Brown had graduated from high school and was on his way to college. It doesn’t matter that he wasn’t a “saint,” as those critical of his alleged encounter with Wilson pointed out. Few kids are saints at that age, no matter their color. It was insulting to state that Michael was responsible for his own death; it is a pain that I still cannot swallow.

But on this anniversary of Michael’s death, when scholars and activists are gathered in St. Louis to remember. I am moved by words by Ta-Nehesi Coates in his book, Between the World and Me. In it, he talks about the fear African-Americans in general, but more specifically the men, carry on a daily basis. “Police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body,” he writes. “It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction… Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed.” (p. 9)

And, he writes, “the destroyers will rarely be held accountable.”

What Coates writes is what we in the African-American community know all too well. We have had moments of hope, when we believed that “seeing” would be believing, like when we saw the video of Rodney King being beaten to a pulp by police officers. But we were wrong; those officers were not held accountable, and our rage erupted into riots on the streets.

Erupting rage is part of the cycle and the circle of life of African-Americans.

The death of Michael Brown in and of itself was heinous; the memory of the way he was demonized even as he lay in the street still makes me get a lump in my throat. When I stood at the site where he had lain last year, I could not stop the tears.

But what is sticking in my craw today is that there has been no justice, no accountability, as Coates notes, for Brown’s death. The desire for justice is a human need. Survivors of those killed by James Holmes, many of them, are angry because Holmes received a sentence of life in prison without parole. It feels like not enough. They wanted him to die, as he caused their loved ones to die. It is human and it is a need.

And yet, in the case of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and so many more, there has been no justice. The parents of those victims are carrying around their grief — and their rage. There is a bone-chilling picture taken last year at Michael’s grave site. His father, who had held it together publicly up to that point, is pictured with his head thrown back, his eyes closed, and his mouth opened, as though he is screaming.

That was his son, for goodness’ sake. His child. That picture shows the pain and the anger of a father who would never see or hear his son again.

There was hope, at that grave site, that the officer would be held accountable, but he was not — and so Michael’s father and his mother are carrying two cups, both overflowing, one of grief and the other of anger. Righteous anger.

If it is understandable that the survivors of the Holmes shooting are angry, feeling like they did not get justice for their losses, even though Holmes was at least convicted and tried, then it is surely understandable that the victims of these shootings by police officers are angry. It is their right. It is impossible not to feel the rage.

Even though technically the United States does not lynch people, these shootings by law enforcement officers feel like state-sanctioned lynchings. Ruby Sales, the founder and director of The SpiritHouse Project, and also a former member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, (SNCC) has been involved in a research project which has documented the cases of black people killed by law enforcement officers just since 2007. (www.spirithouseproject.org) At the end of 2014, over 1000 cases had been uncovered. There were more. We just did not have the capacity to get them all included in the report, which is due out next month.

Sales calls these deaths “state-sanctioned murders.”

Even now, after what happened in Ferguson and Baltimore, the powers that be seem not to care. The Republican candidates for president are more concerned with what is going on in Iran than what is going on — and what has gone on for generations — in this country.

It is like our rage and our pain does not matter, and that makes the pain and rage even worse.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in his book, God is Not a Christian, recalls saying to the leaders of the apartheid regime, “You are not God. You will one day be held accountable.” That promise has to be a part of America’s narrative as well.

But until God works, until God shakes the souls and spirits of Americans who think nothing of taking the lives of unarmed black people, tragedies like the killing of Michael Brown will keep on happening.

And parents and loved ones are going to keep on walking over hot goals of pain, grief and anger, trying to hold themselves and their families together.

The media always seems relieved when black people whose loved ones have been gunned down are ready to forgive. Forgiveness helps the victims survive; it is not intended so much for the killers as it is meant to save those who are left behind.

The young people who began the Black Lives Matter Movement are not in forgiveness mode, however. Their rage has exploded on the streets because their pain imploded within them. They are tired of being afraid, tired of being targeted, and tired of being ignored.

So, what happens now, a year after Michael Brown was gunned down?

Maybe, just maybe, one more soul will understand that justice is a human need.

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Justice Is a Human Need