Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Dante Parker, Ezell Ford, Kajieme Powell, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, Noel Polanco, Jersey Green, Barrington Williams, Kyam Livingston, Clinton Allen, Aaron Brown, Derek Williams, David Raya, Manuel Diaz, Richard “Pedie” Perez, Ramiro James Villegas, Darien Hunt, Darren Rainey, Amadou Diallo. These are just some of the unarmed Black males killed by law enforcement in the United States between 1999 and 2014.
The year 2015 promises to keep pace with previous years. While Black and Brown males are the subject at hand in this piece, it is important to recognize that Black and Brown women are also more likely to be killed and abused by the police than white women.
April 12, Freddie Gray of Baltimore was arrested illegally. His spine was somehow broken. The police refused to give his handcuffed, limp body any medical attention, although he cried out for it several times before lapsing into a coma. A week later, Gray succumbed to his injuries in the hospital. Since then, more unarmed Black men have been killed by law enforcement.
To many of you reading this, the photos of all the people who have died at the hands of police probably look like images of what you have learned dangerous people look like—even 12-year-old Tamir Rice, shot and killed in a park in Cleveland, seconds after the police arrived on the scene.
All these faces are examples of bullets I’ve missed or beatings I’ve dodged. Time and time again, I look at these names and faces and think how, any day, one of them could be me.
After spending a number of days in Baltimore, including Sandtown, the neighborhood in which Gray grew up, I realized two things: (1) It would be incredibly difficult to remain objective as again and again I heard the same accounts of abuse by the police. Even the methods mirrored each other in the various stories. (2) It is easy to hurt, cause damage to or even kill a person who is not viewed as a full human being.
Dehumanizing a group of people can allow one to commit any range of horrid acts against them and be able to go home, play with the children, pay the bills on time, make love to the spouse and when going to sleep at night, still consider oneself a good person.
Repeatedly, history shows us how far we can go once we take away the humanity of a people. Examples include Apartheid South Africa, 1940s Germany, 1990s Balkans and the occupation of Palestine. The typical next step is to blame these same disenfranchised people for the hell brought down on them by the authority.
I grew up in Maryland, worked in Baltimore for years on “The Wire” and have also been fortunate enough to live in the U.K. The worst British council estate I’ve seen does not even come close to what parts of Baltimore have been allowed to become over the decades: blocks of abandoned buildings with random residences half-occupied. In certain neighborhoods, there are holes in the streets, the buildings and the bodies and souls of the citizens. Although they are brutally treated by police and a system that supports the police, the inhabitants of these neighborhoods are not ignorant of how they live.
One clear red flag that a group of people are being dehumanized is the classic trope “they want to live that way.” After interviewing dozens of people from the poorest parts of Baltimore, I can assure you they would rather live happy, safe lives and have stable jobs.
In the United States, the average life expectancy is 78.8 years. In the neighborhood where Gray grew up, life expectancy is 65.3 years at birth. On average in the U.S., for every 1,000 young people, 39.4 have been arrested. In Sandtown, 211 have been arrested out of every 1,000. Nationally, unemployment stands at 5.5 percent. In Sandtown, it is 21 percent. The outcomes for people born in that neighborhood are almost certain. Although it is true that people are responsible for their actions, the lives we are born into say a lot about the lives we will lead and the range of choices we have in actuality.
Neighborhoods such as Sandtown are the result of these disparities and perpetuate a system habitually violent to segments of its own population. This is why Black and Brown men and women, but especially men, continue to be killed by those wielding the authority of the state. Unfortunately, there is little mystery as to how we got this way.
Black people were always meant to experience violence in the United States. Brought over from their own lands and put in chains, tortured and beaten into slavery, Blacks in America were not seen as human, so dehumanizing acts were part of the culture of dealing with them. These cultural norms have withstood the end of slavery, desegregation, the Civil Rights Act and even the constitutional amendment giving Blacks the rights of a full human being as opposed to being three-fifths human as originally written.
Many people blame the police. I don’t. I don’t even blame racist police. I place fault with our “shoot to kill” fear-driven policing policies that care about class more than justice. Law enforcement’s motto is to serve and protect, but from what the citizens in the streets of Baltimore have experienced, they do neither.
The murders of these unarmed men of color are an obvious tragedy. White people are simply not killed in the same way. Living in a society where different rules apply to different citizens can be maddening to those getting the shorter end of the stick, especially if some of those differences result in death. People are angry, and they should be. Things are going to get worse, as the divide between those who make the laws and those subject to the laws grows.
Here’s the part where I’m supposed to say that everything is going to get better and peace will prevail. But I can’t say that. Ending stop-and-frisk, promoting affirmative-action laws and sensitivity training for police will only serve as inadequate dressing on the gaping wounds of classism and white supremacy. Things will not get better as long as we are looking for equality under a system that was built on inequality. Although there may be moments of peace, under a system such as this one, there simply cannot be justice.
But is it possible to create change and destroy this system? Absolutely. People created this mess, and we have the beauty and strength in us to fix it. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Gbenga Akinnagbe is best known for his role as Chris Partlow in “The Wire,” an ice-cold killer who patrolled the streets of Baltimore. Akinnagbe has lived in Baltimore and founded Liberated People, a lifestyle brand that promotes social change and fairness.