Michael Brown. Trayvon Martin. Oscar Grant. Rodney King. They are the victims at the center of great racial upheavals of the last 20 years and, in each case, we forget what binds them in history:
A lack of community and what can be interpreted as a palpable fear of young, African American men.
In each case, that fear led to force to subdue them. In each case, a sad reality hardened in our culture like concrete on a Sacramento afternoon in July.
We’re gripping tighter our own worst fears. We spew venom on social media that wasn’t available when the King beating by Los Angeles police captivated the news cycles in the early 1990s. But intolerance now has multiple platforms.
People were calling Brown, Martin and Grant thugs on Facebook before we knew much of anything about them or their cases. All Mayor Kevin Johnson had to do was express his regret that a Missouri grand jury on Monday would not indict the cop who killed Brown, and it was open season on the first African American mayor of Sacramento on Tuesday.
On the Facebook page of a local TV personality, commenters used words such as “thug politician” to describe Johnson, as if his expression of concern over whether justice was being done were some treasonous act.
Divisions were just as deep when Martin was killed in 2012 by a Florida neighborhood watch volunteer, and in 2009 when Grant was killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit cop in Oakland on New Year’s Day.
What’s wrong with wondering if there could have been another way?
The young cop who shot Brown to death doesn’t believe there was. On Tuesday, Ferguson, Mo., Officer Darren Wilson calmly said on television that he is certain he did his job properly and that his “conscience is clear.”
Wilson’s comments to Missouri grand jurors spoke of being terrified of Brown and of the struggling neighborhood where he fatally confronted him last August. “There’s a lot of violence in that area, there’s a lot of gun activity, drug activity, it is just not a very well-liked community. That community doesn’t like the police,” Wilson told the grand jury.
The law gives wide latitude to cops for using deadly force in confrontations. But the final verdict on whether Wilson displayed solid police work is far from settled. Just because you have the right to use deadly force doesn’t mean you should.
Maybe if Brown had encountered a different authority figure, one with different views of the people he policed, he’d be alive today. Maybe.
Brown. Martin. Grant. None of these men were angels, but riots followed their deaths because they didn’t have to die. Racial divisions also followed because enough people believed they deserved it even before the facts were in.
This is not what anyone could call progress.
Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.