op-ed: looking for humanity in the wake of violence

March 12, 2015

This morning, shots were fired on two officers in Ferguson during a protest surrounding the resignation of embattled Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson. The revelatory DOJ report issued last week found concrete evidence of a system of racial bias in Ferguson policing, giving weight to the protests that have erupted nationally since the shooting death of Michael Brown Jr. this summer. Checking the #FergusonShooting hashtag for actual information on the shooting is a mess of trigger words like “thug” and “violent.” The racists came out to play this morning, because in the shooting they saw confirmation of what they went looking to see. An errant act of unthinkable violence committed by one person is suddenly the fault of the entire black community. It’s suddenly the fault of the entire protest movement. It’s suddenly justification for the systems of oppression the protest movement is protesting against.

By Nathan Leigh, AFROPUNK Contributor


Over drinks with my dear friend and collaborator Avery McCarthy last week, we found ourselves reflecting on the difficulty of looking at tragedies through cold hard numbers. Because every life does matter, and it’s always tragic when someone loses their life, whether by accident, by bad in-the-moment decision making, or by premeditated assault. The trolls who spent the fall insisting #AllLivesMatter weren’t wrong, they were just assholes trying to change a conversation to put themselves in the middle of it. They were missing the context that numbers and statistics give. And here we are again with this morning’s tragic shooting in Ferguson. But looking at tragedies through the lens of cold numbers, trends, statistics, and history, gives you perspective. It’s not that some lives matter less than others, or that some tragedies are less tragic than others. It’s that some tragedies represent a larger trend of historical oppression, and some tragedies represent an individual with a mental health problem.

This is where the cold hard numbers become important. 27 cops were shot on duty in 2014. So far 3 have been shot in 2015. That is in the entire country. This is not to diminish the loss of the families of those officers which is absolutely unquantifiable and unimaginable. I can not begin to process the grief they must be feeling right now. I can not begin to imagine how they must feel waiting by the phone for updates on their loved ones, who are as of now in critical condition. This is merely to say, the deaths of these officers don’t represent a larger problem in society. There were over 900,000 sworn officers serving in 2014. Meanwhile, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement reports in exhaustive detail that black men and women are killed every 28 hours by law enforcement. In 2014, at least 1,101 citizens were killed by the police. So far in 2015, there have been 214 deaths by police.

The job of a police officer is to serve and protect their citizens. When a cop shoots a civilian, they are literally failing at their jobs; they are failing to protect. We entrust the police with power and privilege. When they shoot a civilian, they are abusing that power. When we blame “the police” for racially biased shootings, we are blaming a system set up to disenfranchise the black community, particularly young black men. When an individual shoots a cop, it is tragic, yes, but it is not a manifestation of systemic oppression. Darren Wilson is not Ismaaiyl Brinsley. Both are killers. Both took lives that can never be replaced. But the reason Darren Wilson killing Michael Brown ignited a national outrage is because he was entrusted with keeping the citizens of Ferguson safe, and he failed to do so. His responsibility was to ensure the safety of everyone in Ferguson, up to and including Michael Brown. Ismaaiyl Brinsley, and the shooter of the officers in Ferguson this morning had no such responsibility. They are killers, and if the shooter this morning is caught, he deserves to be brought to justice. But he does not indicate any larger trend. He is one person who dealt with his personal demons in the most tragic way possible.


Most notably this morning, I’ve watched the cavalcade of major black politicians, activists, and police reform organizers to condemn the shooting. It should, obviously, be condemned. But what they’re saying isn’t about the shooting. Not really. What they’re saying is “that wasn’t me.” All I’ve been able to think about all morning is the track “Patriot Act” from Heems’ brilliant new record Eat Pray Thug:


Then the towers fell in front of my eyes

And I remember the principal said they wouldn’t

And for a month they used my high school as a triage

And so we went to school in Brooklyn

And the city’s board of Ed hired shrinks for the students

And maybe I should have seen one

And from then on they called us all Osama

This old Sikh man on the bus was Osama

I was Osama, we were Osama

Are you Osama?


And so we rushed to buy flags for our doors

Bright American flags that read “I am not Osama”

And we ironed our polo shirts and we combed our hair

And we proudly paid our taxes

And we immediately donated to a local white politician

And we yelled “I’m just like you” as quietly and calmly as we could

So as not to raise too much attention and be labeled a troublemaker and lose one’s job

Like when my name is too long to pronounce at work and raised too much attention

And I was labeled a troublemaker, so I changed it


And we scrubbed words like bomb from our vocabulary

And airports changed to us forever

Where another blue uniform came to represent oppression or undressing

And another blue uniform came to represent stops and frisks, depressing

And our parents began to fear for our lives whenever we walked out the door

Because you can’t blame an entire population for the crimes of one individual from within that population. And it’s not reasonable to expect everyone in the black community, everyone with a historic involvement with civil rights activism, or involved with the #BlackLivesMatters movement, to personally apologize or release compulsory statements of sympathy. If anything, the compulsory nature of these statements diminishes the ability to express sincere sympathy for the families of the officers shot. When everyone is condemning something or expressing sympathy because they feel like they have to, we’re creating a culture of fake sympathy. And I know people will say, “but isn’t that what you’re doing when you hold the police accountable for Mike Brown and Eric Garner’s deaths?” But there’s a difference again between holding a power system accountable for abusing its power, and holding a community accountable for the actions of one individual. We’re not holding the individual police officers accountable. No one is saying “all 900,000 of you, you are responsible for the death of Eric Garner.” We’re holding The Police, the institution accountable. We’re saying “the organization that you work for, the power structure you represent is accountable.” Those are very different things.


So the talking heads and twitterati who are so quick to say “See! This is what I’ve been saying all along,” think about the larger context before you spill your bile. Think about the stats. Don’t look for what you’re looking to find, fight your own confirmation bias. Because these things, while similar, while rotating around the same issue, are not the same. To conflate the deaths of Eric Garner and Mike Brown with the shootings this morning in Ferguson is to diminish both. These are all tragedies, but they are different tragedies. If we want to see the humans at the heart of these tragedies, we need to look first at the cold hard numbers for context, and then try to make sense of them, interpret them through history, through experience, and through compassion. We don’t end either the killing of unarmed black and brown men and women by police or the killing of police by people with mental illness by talking about them in the same way. And shouldn’t our priority be ending violence in any context? We won’t get there by turning human tragedies into team sports.