Jonathan Ferrell was in a car accident last weekend, and when the police arrived on the scene, they shot him ten times. This is what we know for sure.
It’s believed that he crawled out of his car and went to the closest house to ask for help. The woman who answered the door quickly shut it upon seeing the young, shaken man, and dialed 911 to report someone was trying to break into her home. When the police showed up, Mr. Ferrell eagerly sought their assistance, and for that, he was shot.
Here is what we also know for sure: Ferrell was black, and he is the latest in a tragic parade of unarmed black men shot by people that were supposed to protect.
Race and accidental shooting deaths
We have no idea if race played a factor in his death, but it is impossible for the nation to ignore the race narrative that’s been in the national spotlight this summer.
And this summer, the movie Fruitvale Station told the story of Oscar Grant who was lying on his face in handcuffs unable to do anything, but was still shot by police.
How are black men to behave?
What these high profile tragedies convey is that black men can’t run away, can’t run towards help, and can’t even lay down without facing the peril of death. No matter what action we take, or even if we take no action at all, our lives are at risk.
Our existence makes us dangerous. Our presence makes us a threat. And our American experience is littered with microagressions – those daily interactions that cumulatively serve to devalue and criminalize our lives. The clutching of purses, the locking of doors, the corralling of children, the following in stores, the ridicule of our names, the stereotype-based assumptions – these things occur as soon as we are noticed, and do not go undetected. They tell us we’re scary and that we are clouds of social disconcertion. This is what we know for sure.
As a result, many of us attempt to make ourselves acceptable to society by taking extra measures to appear “safe.” We change the route we take in the parking lot so as not to walk by the doors of the woman sitting in her car. We don’t make eye contact or small talk with the person in the elevator, and ensure we stand as far away as physically possible. We enunciate, talk about our churches or fraternal organizations, and smile. We walk around in a bubble of pre-emptive apologies just to convey to the world that we are not a threat to your safety. Because we know that if we don’t, there may be a threat to ours.
Black men: Seen as “a problem”
Even when we make the calculated decision to march to the beat of our own drum, we know in the back of our minds that we’re unprotected. If our style of dress or dialect do not conform to the set of unspoken rules that govern what is deemed non-threatening, we have little faith that our rights will be respected and protected. Who are our advocates? The police? The judicial system that has disproportionately convicted and sentenced black men? A national outcry that casts a blind eye to the rampant and pervasive perception of black men as dangerous, and insists that the American ideals of inalienable rights and blind justice can be extended to that unsafe looking black guy?
For all the progress and change in America’s civil rights climate over the last century – from the statutory elimination of the old Jim Crow laws and mandated school desegregation, to the election of a black president – the inquiry of renowned sociologist W.E.B. DuBois in 1903 is still the defining question of the black male experience: “How does it feel to be a problem?”
A problem. The nation’s burden. The undesired, unwanted result of an institution from long ago that simply needed free labor to tend the country’s land.
Dangers presented — to black men
When a strange man, of any color, bangs on the door of a woman home alone with her baby in the middle of the night, she has the right to be scared. When the police respond to a frantic call on a break-in and encounter a man, of any color, running towards them, they have the right to follow procedure to ensure public safety. Maybe Jonathan Ferrell was not killed because he was black; perhaps it was because the officer that shot him was too jittery and unprofessional and shouldn’t have been in that position of power.
But when this sort of event happens, black men do not have the luxury of exempting race from the conversation. It serves as confirmation, unintended of otherwise, that we are not safe – not because of the dangers we present to others, but because of the dangers presented to us.
How does it feel to be a problem? It burns and destroys with the force of a hail of bullets. And this is what we know for sure.
Theodore R. Johnson is a military officer and 2011-2012 White House Fellow. A graduate of Hampton and Harvard Universities, he is an opinion writer on race, politics, and public service. He currently resides in Alexandria, VA. Follow Theodore R. Johnson on Twitter at @T_R_Johnson_III.