Sandra Bland. Trayvon Martin. Freddie Gray. Mike Brown. Terence Crutcher. Keith Lamont Scott.
These are the names and hashtags cataloging the problem with American policing, their stories depicting the problem of this country’s collective imagination of blackness. The kind of imagination that morally exhumes and examines the dead while the living — the police officers who killed them — are positioned as rational citizens who just so happened to fear for their lives when confronted with melanin.
In this sharp contrast, their killers are immediately sympathized with by mass media, while their victims are instantly put on trial and, within hours of their deaths, ordered to toxicology reports and criminal backgrounds that attempt to justify their deaths. Meanwhile, their families are left to defend them against the kind of prying that should’ve been demanded of their killers.
This goes hand in hand with the American imagination of blackness, which Donald Trump unsurprisingly conjured up in the first presidential debate of the election season. The Republican nominee was heard brashly calling for the same kinds of stop-and-frisk policies that led to widespread harassment of black and Latino men who “fit the description.”
It’s these violent imaginations of blackness in the American psyche which drive the “his wife had a restraining order against him” narrative concerning Keith Lamont Scott, who was recently gunned down by police in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Despite crucial details lacking in the case, news outlets have swarmed around the recent (and irrelevant) report of Scott’s wife filing a protective order against him in 2015.
But Scott’s story is no different than the countless other narratives of black victims of police violence. There’s the “he was no angel” narrative of Mike Brown; the “he smoked weed and was a thug” narrative of Trayvon Martin; the “he shouldn’t have run if he wasn’t guilty” narrative of Freddie Gray; and the “she was belligerent and mouthy” narrative of Sandra Bland.
It seems that the legal system and the court of public opinion work in concert to place not just these particular people on trial in their deaths, but they simultaneously place blackness on trial, instead of the officers or individuals responsible for their deaths. This grotesque practice of inverting the justice system when the victims of state-sponsored terrorism are black hearkens back to when black bodies were literally considered property and when recapturing said bodies was met with a by any means necessary policy.
During this time period, the slave patrols, which would eventually become what we know today as police departments, weren’t necessarily required to keep the black people they found alive. Fast forward to 2016, when according to Campaign Zero’s police accountability project, many police departments in major metropolitan areas are not beholden to practice deescalation of volatile situations. We can safely assume, based on known incidents, that this can be deadly for the black inhabitants of these metropolitan areas, as it seems the mere threat of blackness is enough to turn a situation volatile.
The question becomes then: why is blackness always on trial? What is it about blackness that signals danger?
In the American psyche, a free black person is rendered a criminal or eventual criminal, and it’s manifested in the swift search for any blemishes in a victim’s life. By simply existing, black people are somehow a threat to police with guns and render the mainstream media to focus on one flawed aspect of their lives. The fear of blackness sadly makes the victims suspects in their own deaths.
As long as this irrational fear of blackness in America persists, there will always be these post-death witch hunts on black lives. The public and the judicial system will look for any evidence that can be stretched to devalue the life which has been taken. News outlets and police departments will pull out toxicology and criminal reports to demonize victims, and it will yet again be up to Black America to defend ourselves from this myopic attack.
The only way for this cycle to be broken is for the (white) American psyche to stop searching for reasons to justify why black people deserve to die at the hands of authority figures who are sworn to protect and serve the community.
The white American psyche has to see us as deserving of the same rights and protections that they are entitled to. Until that happens, black lives will always be on trial, and there will always be a need to rally around the cry that Black Lives Matter. The worth of our black lives should not hinge on the results of toxicology tests or background checks, or some police officer’s “fear” of blackness.
What does it say to the condition of America that this is the reality in which we live, that our humanity is up for questioning with any variable? How far have we actually come then, if the slightest hint of intoxication is enough to justify our deaths at the hands of the police? How far have we actually come if we have to act in the best interest of whiteness, versus acting in our most authentic form of blackness, just to make it out of a traffic stop alive?
The intrinsic worth of our black lives should never be questioned, but yet it is. Every day. We are exhausted from the weight of the white American psyche killing us … all while putting us on trial for the world to see.