The facts are different but the outcome’s the same—yet another young Black man is dead in America at the hands of the police.
Barely two months after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin we find ourselves in painfully familiar territory, forced to stand by and helplessly bear witness to another promising life cut short by racial profiling.
Like thousands of African American male victims before him, Jonathan Ferrell was no criminal. He was no gun-wielding robber, rapist or menace of any kind. He was just an innocent man in an emergency situation looking to the people who’d sworn to serve and protect him for help. His faith in them was cruelly betrayed.
These are the facts: at about 2:30 am on Saturday, September 14th, this former Florida A&M football player dragged himself from the Toyota Camry he’d just crashed in a quiet neighborhood in Charlotte, North Carolina. Desperate, he knocked on the door of the first house he saw.
A young white woman with a baby, seeing a stranger at her door, slammed it in his face and called 911 to report an attempted robbery. Three police officers, responding to the call, spotted Ferrell close to her home. He saw them, too, and began running in their direction. According to the lawyer representing Ferrell’s family that is when one of the officers—even as he begged for them to stop and let him explain—shot him with a Taser. And when that didn’t stop him, another pulled out his gun and fired 12 shots.
One of the 10 that landed killed him. Similar to Sean Bell, the 23-year-old who was shot and killed by New York City cops the morning before his wedding in 2006, Ferrell was also engaged. He had recently moved to Charlotte from Florida the year before to be closer to his college sweetheart. He had also been working two jobs, one at Dillard’s and the other at Best Buy, so that he could save up for graduate school.
There’s no indication that the 24-year-old had been drinking or taking drugs prior to the crash and it is not believed that he had a criminal record.
To make sure the officers knew he posed no threat it is said that Ferrell had even lifted the waistband of his pants so they could see he carried no weapons before he ran towards them, arms outstretched.
Though the officer who shot him, 27-year-old Randall Kerrick, has been charged with voluntary manslaughter, according to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police department, and his fellow cops placed on administrative leave, there is a question that it and police departments across this nation fail to answer every time a young Black man is wrongfully killed: if you cannot run to the police in an emergency situation, who can you run to?
The Black community’s mistrust of police—already at an all-time low—is growing. Though it is impossible to know how many Black men have been killed by police since the inception of this nation, a survey published by Alternet.org in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s murder showed that at least 136 unarmed African Americans had been killed by police officers, security guards and self-appointed vigilantes in 2012. Like a long running death toll from a war fought in a foreign country, their names have forever been ingrained on our collective souls—men like Patrick Dorismond, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, Kimani Gray, and one whose case I am personally involved with, Ramarley Graham. Last year police officers kicked down the door to his home and shot him dead in front of his six-year-old brother and grandmother. He, like so many other victims, was unarmed.
Even President Obama has expressed concern. Within a week of the Trayvon Martin verdict the president, who said that 35 years ago Travyon could have been him, urged the American people to do some soul-searching on the topic of race and its impact on the targeted violence of young Black men. He spoke of wanting to bridge the gap between law enforcement and Black males. He spoke of introducing nationwide racial profiling legislation like the kind he passed in his home state of Illinois, and of examining state and local laws like “Stand Your Ground” that potentially encourage misunderstandings and tragedies rather than prevent them.
The president spoke of gathering business leaders, local elected officials, clergy, celebrities and athletes to figure out how the government could do a better job of making Black males feel like they're a full part of this society, giving them the necessary avenues to succeed.
Well, props Mr. President—activists across this nation have been saying this for years. Judging by the fresh blood on America’s hands, blood belonging to its latest victim, Jonathan Ferrell, the time is not now, but right now. If we are serious about saving lives we will do all that the president has suggested and more. If we are serious about saving lives we will vote politicians into office that won’t hesitate to use their power to put an end to the relentless assault on Black men, external and internal. If we are serious about saving lives we will work with civil rights litigators and advocates like Judith Browne Dianis of The Advancement Project, which seeks to empower Black men by giving them the tools to stay in school and out of jail. If we are serious about saving lives we will put our money where our mouths are, allocating better resources for children affected by households headed by single mothers—boys abandoned by fathers who choose to be absent, are dead or incarcerated, which, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics was an astounding 841,000 Black men in 2009. If we are serious about saving lives we’ll stop making excuses for recoiling in fear every time a Black men stands next to us on an elevator, walks by us on the street or lands on our doorstep in the middle of the night seeking help from a fellow citizen. And more immediately, if we’re serious, we will not allow Congress to cut food stamps by $40 billion because we know that forcing people to find food will only fuel deep despair and cause even more violence.
That is, only, if we are really serious.