Black people are disappearing like tears in the rain. Each of these lives lost produces a new story – almost a new story everyday – that the media usually ignores. There are too many to speak on individually, but the sum total can’t be ignored.
One story that encapsulates this phenomenon is the murder of Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr. The White Plains, N.Y. man, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, rolled over and inadvertently pushed the Life Alert button that hung from his neck in his sleep. Once the button is pushed, Life Alert calls the house and, if there is no response, summons police to check on the Life Alert bracelet holder. Because Mr. Chamberlain was asleep he did not answer the phone and the police came to his apartment to check on him.
Mr. Chamberlain woke up to the loud knocks on the door and came to tell them that he was fine. They demanded to come in, but he did not want to let them in. They screamed insults – including officer Steven Hart who called him a nigger – and told him they would break down the door if he did not let them in. The comments they made worried Mr. Chamberlain so much that he called into Life Alert to try to get them to leave and told them he feared they were there to murder him. Some of his relatives that lived there also called the police department to get them to leave.
Eventually the officers took the door off the hinges and, once inside, shot him with a taser, then a bean-bag, and finally officer Anthony Carelli shot him, killing him with one bullet. When the police were tasked with making sure Mr. Chamberlain’s life would be saved, they finished their job by killing him in a situation they intentionally provoked.
While this story is terrible, the spectacle of the singular narrative has a way of closing off the discussion. When we talk about the deaths of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin or White Plains senior citizen Kenneth Chamberlain, the details become sensationalized to the point of seeming to count as exceptions. But the murder of Black people by police is neither exceptional in U.S. history nor is it particularly abnormal in our generation. In fact, from January to June of 2012, police officers, security guards, and vigilantes (like George Zimmerman) have murdered 120 black people.
Yes, you read that number correct.
According to an extensive study by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, 120 Black people across the nation have been murdered “extra-judicially” – or by people such as the police or patrolmen who are immune from being charged with murder and will not experience a public trial – and over half of these people were unarmed when they were murdered (the report can be found here). Also, in nearly half of those cases in which police reported that the victim had a weapon, eyewitnesses disputed the police. This means that an overwhelming majority of those murdered posed no lethal threat to any police officer when they were murdered. The majority of those murdered are under the age of 31, with 13 percent being minors between the ages of 11 and 14. All of this amounts to a simple statistic: every 40 hours a black man, woman, or child is murdered by the police.
If this was happening in another country Amnesty International would be on the scene, many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) would have operations in the country to save the “defenseless” people from being murdered, there would be donation drives on college campuses, and there might even be a United Nations peacekeeping operation assigned.
If an African or Middle Eastern “warlord” were responsible for the death of 120 people in six months, his picture would be plastered on the t-shirts of young liberal students, Facebook walls and the news. The U.S. military might even get involved. But if police and vigilantes murder 120 black people in six months then only a few minutes of time would be devoted to it by electronic media outlets. And there would be no political will spent on it.
The reason that nobody wants to touch this issue is that it calls into question the ethicality of the entire criminal justice system. When we talk about individual cases we can deal with rogue cops acting in ways “unbecoming” for the police. Yet, returning back to the aforementioned Chamberlain case, we can see how focusing on “rogue” cops mystifies the real problem. Originally all eight officers were exonerated by the grand jury, but now only the officer Hart is being charged for calling Chamberlain a “nigger.” What about the other 7 cops, especially Cantrelli who actually shot Chamberlin for no acceptable reason? The murder cannot be called into question, only the racial epithet used on the scene. The conclusion of the investigation can be summarized as this: the murder of a black man who committed no crime is fair to our procedures. In all of the 120 cases of black people being murdered by the police, security guards, or vigilantes all were either exonerated or were not punished for the murder itself. 120 lives lost are not exceptions, they are the worst statistic of a total system that abuses black people nationally. Whether it is “stop-and-frisk” in New York, “stand your ground” in Florida, or the blue light cameras in Baltimore, the law is systematically and gratuitously watching, intruding, violating, and murdering black people across the nation. It is no longer the lynching rope, but the badge and the gun that is the symbol of violence against black folk.
Some might ask whether the police were justified in killing some of these people. Statistically, the majority of those murdered were like Mr. Chamberlain – killed with no discernable weapon. But getting to the heart of the question, I am sure that some of these 120 killed were not the best people. They might have been holding a bottle instead of a bag of skittles. Yet does that make their murders any more acceptable? We seem to only be capable of empathy when the victim is a perfect saint. Zimmerman’s defenders even attempted to use evidence of possible drug use by Trayvon Martin to legitimize his death. Yet the most important thing the aforementioned report revealed was this: no matter one’s class, education, or social standing all black people are vulnerable to being violated and/or murdered by another with impunity. Mr. Chamberlain was an ex-marine, Sean Bell was leaving his wedding rehearsal, and Amaduo Diallo was simply coming home and all their stories ended the same: murdered by a police officer. All of these situations should show us one thing: to be black is to always already be suspect. This means whether we like it or not, we must grow the capacity to see ourselves in the 120 black people killed this year for we are just as open to this wanton and gratuitous violence.
This is not the apartheid of South Africa or Auschwitz, Germany and the time is not 1860 nor is it 1929. This is the United States of America in 2012. We are bearing witness to one of the most devastating and systematic destruction of a community in the world and there is little coverage and no political will to stop it. This is not a hiccup in the narrative of racial progress nor is it a mirage – this is the reality facing Black folk from Oakland to Baltimore and everywhere in between. As Frantz Fanon once wrote, “Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity.” The mission of my maturing generation must be to stop the perpetuation of black death and we must fulfill this mission in spite of the vacuum that our suffering occurs in. We are staring death in the face so the only question that remains is what will we do to prevent the onslaught of death and suffering? We must speak up, we must demand to be heard, we must organize, and we must act now or be forever lost in the storm of racist violence.
Nicholas Brady is an activist-scholar from Baltimore, Md. He is an executive board member of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a community-based think tank focused on empowering youth in the political process. He is also a recent graduate of Johns Hopkins with a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and currently a doctoral student at the University of California-Irvine Culture and Theory program.