When the news that a white policeman, now identified as Officer Darren Wilson, had shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last week, the familiarity of the tragedy struck a chord with African-Americans nationwide.
Before the grand jury that was convened on Wednesday (Aug. 21) could begin its work, an angry reaction erupted in Ferguson. The city’s police made it worse, observers said, by withholding Wilson’s name as Brown’s shooter.
The officer has been suspended with pay as the investigation begins, but after a videotape was made public, people were asking what in the world could have made Wilson shoot Brown six times?
Some people would assume it’s “fear” or “inexperience” that would compel an officer of the law to fatally shoot an unarmed teenager. Like countless tragedies throughout the nation, people are becoming more distrustful of law enforcement officers and trying to figure how in the world we keep repeating this debacle.
Though it occurred more than two years ago, it seems like yesterday we were mourning the senseless death of Trayvon Martin. Before his demise, the anger in Ferguson was presaged by the rage in Cincinnati, where John Crawford III was fatally shot recently by police at a southwestern Ohio Wal-Mart.
Also, consider the Klan-style murder of James Bryd Jr. in Jasper, Texas, in 1998. Three white men, white supremacists, chained and dragged Bryd behind their truck, severing his arm and head.
A year later, four New York police officers fired 41 bullets at 23-year-old immigrant Amadou Diallo at his mother’s doorstep. Nineteen bullets hit their mark. Diallo went down and the officers were acquitted.
Memphis has a direct link to the martyrs list. Besides the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Memphians may still remember the 1971 beating death of 19-year-old Elton Hayes by Memphis police.
Remember Emmitt Till, the savagely beaten teenager who was tossed into the Tallahatchie River for allegedly whistling at a white woman? His mother, Mamie Till Mosby, exposed his morbid body to the world to point out the evil of racism. Her courage is still admired today.
Somehow, somewhere, for some reason, being born a black male can still make you a target for the ultimate act of violence at any time on any given day of the week – and for no apparent reason.
What answer lies ahead in the Ferguson case no one knows. But one fact remains: Black families with male children must still face the fear of that unexpected phone call we hope doesn’t ring with bad news.
Anne McVay received a call on Oct. 15, 1992, when she was informed that her 20-year-old son, Catraceon “Tracy” Reece, was shot dead by a Memphis police officer. She joined the demonstration for Brown to honor her son’s memory.
“I have long gotten over the crying, the tears, and the pain of it all, but the truth never came out,” McVay said. “They eventually ruled that it was justifiable homicide, but I’ve never believed it.”
McVay said the story kept changing. “First they called me and said my son had accidentally been shot. Then by six o’clock that morning, it changed to ‘man had pulled a gun on police.’ They had two autopsies on him. At first they said they worked on him for 55 minutes, but on the death certificate they said he was dead on arrival. I don’t believe them.”
The McVay family filed a $10.5 million suit against the city, but eventually dropped it after a five-year fight. “They offered me an out-of-court settlement, but it was so little I turned it down. Not because of the money, but because what they offered me was an insult. His life was worth much more to me. I wanted to preserve his dignity and I wouldn’t let their little offer take that from me.”
Such pain is only made worse by the plague of black on black crime. While the tape ostensibly painting Brown as a thug has caused anger, citizens are questioning why the number of black youths fascinated by violence is climbing locally and nationally.
On the very same weekend the Mid South Peace and Justice Center was finalizing a public demonstration eulogizing Brown, multiple shootings occurred in Memphis. Just two weeks before, the Memphis Police Department reported 14 shootings in one weekend.
On Tuesday (Aug. 20), MPD Director Toney Armstrong met with Mayor AC Wharton Jr. to discuss the growing plague of youth violence. Although it was a closed-door session, Armstrong released a statement.
“Our first and foremost mission is to be proactive in preventing violence,” he said. “We have recently recognized an increase in violent crimes. Through reallocating some of our personnel in areas that have been significantly impacted by violent crime, we will make a difference.”
Armstrong said crime is not found in one certain area, crime can occur throughout Memphis and Shelby County. He said officers will be redeployed in those areas and there will be an increase of police presence.
“Increased presence will produce additional enforcement and police/citizen contact,” he said. “It is our hope that citizens realize that our goal is to save lives. Throughout this process, MPD will maintain transparent and will communicate with the citizens of Memphis.
“We are reaching out to leaders with the NAACP and members of our clergy academy to help with this endeavor; together we can make a significant change.”