Op-Ed: As police killings show, the African American community needs more change

Protesters hold hands in a prayer circle April 8 after the shooting of Walter Scott.
Protesters hold hands in a prayer circle April 8 after the shooting of Walter Scott.
(Stephen B. Morton / EPA)

The terrible images are sharp and clean, and they seem to show what common sense says has been happening all along: A white police officer — unnecessarily and unlawfully — took aim and killed an unarmed black man. For once, the white officer was quickly charged with murder.

What happened to Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C., on April 4, and what has unfolded there since — a “sickened” police chief, a calm community, a swift arrest — may represent a turning point that shifts “Black Lives Matter” from protesters’ demands to everyday reality. But I’m not sure.

The list of cases keeps growing. The latest is Freddie Gray in Baltimore. I started my count with Trayvon Martin, in 2012. Last year, it was John Crawford III, in Dayton, Ohio; Eric Garner, Staten Island; Michael Brown, Ferguson, Mo.; Tamir Rice ( just 12 years old), Cleveland; Ezell Ford, South Los Angeles. This year, besides Scott and Gray: a homeless man, “Cameroon,” on L.A.'s skid row; Tony Terrell Robinson, in Wisconsin; Eric Harris, in Oklahoma.

Each case is distinct, but this much is the same: A black boy or man is dead, apparently for no good reason, at the hands of police officers, or in the case of Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, a wannabe cop. Eleven killings, and charges filed just three times so far — against Zimmerman (who was acquitted), the reserve deputy who shot Harris (and was allowed to take his Bahamas vacation anyway), and Michael Slager, in the Scott case.


All of this has taken us far from the hope and joy of Nov. 4, 2008, when President Obama was first elected. I stood in Grant Park in Chicago along with thousands of his ecstatic supporters from every imaginable ethnic group. I thought America was finally on a fast track to reconciliation, that we’d overcome our obsession with race. But I was wrong.

Almost as soon as Obama was sworn in, the enmity bubbled up. The racial animus was stunning. “You lie,” a Republican congressman called out as Obama addressed the House and Senate. I’d never seen a sitting president treated with such disdain. I can’t help but believe that the tea party’s venomous anti-Obama narrative contributes to the fear and loathing experienced by black men on the nation’s streets.

The killings are only a part of the picture. Just this week, an LAPD officer was charged in the beating of a 22-year-old black man pulled from his bike last fall. We’ve heard racist chants from fraternity brothers in Oklahoma, seen nooses on college campuses, and more prosaically but just as disturbing, a recent study showed that blacks appear on the TV news as crime suspects far out of proportion to reality. According to Media Matters, in New York City blacks on average make up 54% of those arrested on suspicion of murder; in local TV news in the last half of 2014, the corresponding figure was 74%.

Every fresh incident of bigotry and violence rightly launches outraged sermons from black pulpits, puts protesters on the streets and puts mothers and fathers in the African American community on edge.

As grand juries in the Brown and Garner cases declined to indict last year, my family watched the demonstrations unfold on television. Too often, I saw reports that ignored the reasons for the protests and focused instead on the behavior of the demonstrators. And yet my 8-year-old son could crystalize the point: “Why do police officers keep killing brown people and getting away with it?” he asked in genuine puzzlement.

I did my best to explain. It was gut-wrenching; a conversation no father should have to have with his son. And it’s not over. In a few years, I will have to add to it, repeating the instructions all black families faithfully rehearse: how to behave if a police officer stops you.

This is not theoretical for me. My family is comfortable, far from the margins. But no one in the African American community is immune, no matter his socioeconomic status.

In my experience, in Los Angeles, the blacker the ZIP Code, the more frequent the stops. I’ve been pulled over driving home from church in South L.A. One officer yells, “Put your hands on the steering wheel,” all the while barking orders about my license and registration. His partner approaches slowly on the passenger side, right hand clearly positioned near his gun. Is this really necessary for a guy in a suit who may have tolled past a stop sign on a Sunday afternoon?

If we were north of Wilshire or west of La Cienega, things would be less intimidating: “Sir, may I please see your driver’s license?” No yelling, no one preparing to draw a gun. Among the professional black men I know — lawyers, engineers, bankers, doctors, many of whom are members of the advocacy group Suits in Solidarity — everyone has such a story to tell. For us at least these incidents are merely infuriating, and frightening; they are not lethal.

In Chicago in 2008, Barack Obama proudly said, “Change has come to America.” But for Walter Scott, and so many others, it hasn’t been enough. The minister at Scott’s funeral assured us that his violent death would create a “new consciousness” about justice and race in America. Will it? I believed it in 2008; it’s what I still work for now.

Kerman Maddox is a communications executive in L.A. He is a co-founder, along with L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, of Suits in Solidarity, a group organized to change the narrative about African American men and support the Black Lives Matter movement.

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