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To serve and protect?

To serve and protect?
  • PublishedJanuary 28, 2015

The US may have a black president and attorney general, but life for most African-Americans rests on a razor’s edge and there is little to suggest that this is changing.

A 12-year-old son is one of the most precious gifts that can be given to any family. The boy is already developing the body and mind of a man. But to his parents, he’s still the treasure they’ve been raising for the past decade.

When my own son and I were on holiday in London, I came to the conclusion that our diet had become a bit monotonous, so I decided that I would cook some fish. As soon as my son realised what I intended to do, he said: “Dad, you will stink up the flat!”

Now, I hadn’t thought of that. In Ghana, we had a kitchen that had two doors, one of which opened to the outside of the house. So cooking smells were suppressed by fresh air. In London, however, we were using an “open-plan” kitchen. So cooking fish would not only fill the living room with fish-smells but also diffuse the smell along the corridor to the rest of the flat, if not the entire building! Youth is often wise beyond its years and the young “man” was right. And so I did not cook fish.

I vividly recalled this episode when I heard on 24 November 2014 that “a 12-year-old boy” had been shot and killed by the police in Cleveland, Ohio, in the US two days prior. I immediately suspected that this boy would be a black boy, killed by a white officer. The probably unconscious effect of the media’s “neutrality” in not stating the race of the victim is to provide cover to the institutional racism of the police force. Of course, my suspicion had been right: in Cleveland, Ohio, a 12-year-old black boy, Tamir Rice, had been shot by a white policeman. Surveillance footage of the incident showed that Rice had been playfully picking up and throwing snowballs. Then he sat down. He just happened to have a replica gun with him, and that was reason enough for someone to call the police (though the caller did specify that the gun appeared to be a “fake” one).

Soon, a police car arrived. Although Tamir Rice was sitting alone under a pavilion in the park, not interacting with anyone, let alone harassing them, within moments of the police car arriving on the scene, he was dead. Had the white police officer decided that here was a chance for a “turkey shoot”? In this case, a black boy with a “gun”: who would not believe that such an “aggressive young black man” (as racial profiling stereotypes most young black males) had not threatened the policeman with his “gun” (which was most likely to be unlicensed)?

Of course, in the best of all possible worlds, a 12-year-old black boy in the US would not leave his house with a gun of any sort. Police shootings of young black men or boys are not exactly rare, and his parents would probably have warned him against it. But this is not an ideal world.

Many young African-Americans live in one-parent households, where a mother usually brings up “fatherless” or “father-absent” children whom the mothers cannot always adequately control. In addition, you cannot expect any 12-year-old boy who watches television in America not to fantasise about, or even fall in love with guns. Guns are as American as Thanksgiving Dinner, what with the National Rifle Association spending huge sums of money to ensure that US Congressmen who want to be re-elected do not append their signatures to “gun control laws” of any sort.

So, to Tamir Rice, ownership of the toy gun had been a childhood’s dream achieved. Unfortunately, it was also a death sentence.

It has since been established that the police officer who shot him dead, Timothy Loehmann, resigned from another force after it was suggested he be dismissed due to performance shortcomings. Nevertheless, the Cleveland Police Department had managed to hire him! And then he killed a 12-year-old Cleveland boy.

The scenario makes me think: Suppose I had been Tamir Rice’s father? I would never have seen my boy grow up to reach even the age of 14 – when my own lad set my heart racing taking, before my very eyes, four wickets in a cricket match in which he was playing for his college.

I would never have experienced the thrill of seeing him fly solo and land safely in an aircraft, at Lanseria airport in South Africa. I would never have gone through the bitter-sweet agony of watching him conduct his first case in the Royal Courts of Justice in London, after he had qualified as a lawyer. And he would never have grown to be the father who has given me the handsome grandson who greets me with a beatific smile and a “high five”!

The torture that black families in the US endure on a daily basis at the hands and guns of city police departments is quite simply intolerable in the 21st century. Look at the following facts that emerged on the race situation in the US in the course of one week: On 3 December 2014, a Grand Jury in New York decided not to indict a white New York police officer who had put a black man, Eric Garner, in a stranglehold and suffocated him. Eric Garner had been arrested by the police after being suspected of selling cigarettes illegally on a street corner. A video of his arrest shows that at least five police officers surrounded him and pulled him down. One of them applied a stranglehold to his neck. This lethal stranglehold manoeuvre was banned by the New York Police Department in 1993.

But as Garner lay on the ground, shouting 11 times: “I can’t breathe!” the stranglehold was not relaxed and he eventually died. All this was videotaped by Garner’s friend, Ramsey Orta. Yet the Grand Jury decided that the officer had not committed any crime for which he should face trial. Was the Grand Jury shown the video? We don’t know. But even if it had seen it, many believe that it might not have mattered anyway, given America’s structural racism, the white majority on the Grand Jury and the fact the victim was black.

Earlier, on 24 November 2014, another Grand Jury had similarly decided not to indict a white police officer, Darren Wilson, who had shot and killed an 18-year-old black youth, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri. As in the New York case, protests occurred, not only in Ferguson but other cities across the US.

The list of black youths shot and killed by white security figures is quite extensive: one of the most notorious cases was that of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old black youth who was killed in Sanford, Florida in 2012, by a neighbourhood watch coordinator, George Zimmerman. Zimmerman was only charged with second-degree murder, but he was acquitted of even that by a jury, the majority of whose members were white.

These and other cases prove that: (1) in America today, if one is male and black, one’s life hangs on a razor’s edge; and (2) the law enforcement system is so racist that if and when a white police officer kills a black youth in what seems to amount to murder, the killer can expect to walk free. A Grand Jury will be set up with a probable white majority, which, given America’s structural racism, is likely to ensure that the white policeman is not indicted over the death of the black youth. In the unexpected event that the Grand Jury indicts the white policeman, the white prosecutors may manage to botch the case and the killer will walk free. And oh – if the prosecutors don’t botch the case, a jury with a white majority will probably return a verdict acquitting the white police officer.

The system stinks so much that President Barack Obama’s Attorney General, Eric Holder, has launched a federal enquiry to find out how to ensure that the African-American community receives the “equal justice” that they are entitled to. Holder is black, as is, of course, President Obama, who appointed him. If the enquiry fails to bring real changes, both he and his president will stand in danger of going down in history as the greatest “Uncle Toms” America has managed to produce.

Future historians will judge that the election of Obama as President had given America a “pass” as a non-racist country, but that Obama and his black Attorney-General were not able, in their turn, to prevent African-Americans from being unjustly treated by an age-old racist law enforcement system that allows African-Americans to be killed by white policemen, without retribution for the killers.

Since Obama and Holder are black, it is no longer possible for the world to charge the US with being racist. Because, of course, a racist country could not have elected a black president! But what if the black president has not got the inclination – or indeed, the power – to change things for other blacks?

Written By
Cameron Duodu

Cameron Duodu (born 24 May 1937) is a UK-based Ghanaian novelist, journalist, editor and broadcaster. After publishing a notable novel, The Gab Boys, in 1967, Duodu went on to a distinguished career as a journalist and editorialist.

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