“Nothing that erodes the rule of law can be moral, no matter what name we give it.”
Those were the words of the white debate opponent of the black James Farmer Jr. in the 2007 film The Great Debaters.
In the movie’s final debate scene, Farmer and his all-black Wiley College team from Marshall, Texas, debate the all-white Harvard University team on the morality of civil disobedience. Farmer believes the definition of this morality is relativistic, and he uses the story of British general Reginald Dyer, who commanded his troops to teach 10,000 nonviolent protesters “a moral lesson” by shooting at them for 10 minutes. Farmer juxtaposes that against Gandhi’s arrest for staging a mass nonviolent protest.
Harvard’s white debater rebuts that not only is nonviolent civil disobedience bad, it’s anarchy, and going to war and killing for what you believe in can be deeply moral. Farmer closes the debate — which he wins for Wiley College — by giving an emotionally stirring and vivid account of his team’s experiences in the Jim Crow South, recalling a time when they came upon a white mob that had just lynched a black man and then set him on fire. The police did nothing. He asks what the black man could have possibly done to deserve what the lynch mob had done. “Was he a thief? Was he a killer? Or just a Negro?”
Was he just a Negro? Over the past few years, far too often we’ve turned on our televisions or opened Twitter or Facebook or Instagram to learn yet another cop has gunned down yet another unarmed black man. Often these shootings happen so close together that you can’t process them fast enough. The list of names I could run off this year alone is both too long and immeasurably depressing. But nevertheless, these police shootings leave many black people, myself included, with the same feeling — the police saw him as just another Negro.
This was the only emotion readily available to me after seeing what the Tulsa Police Department had done to Terence Crutcher on September 16. A pain, an anger, a fear that only comes with being a black man watching the police shoot another black man for no apparent reason. Never mind that at the time of this writing, police in America had killed at least 67 people, at least 15 of them black, since Colin Kaepernick’s protest began. This includes Crutcher’s death on September 16. It also includes the death of Keith Lamont Scott, a black man who was killed by police in Charlotte last Tuesday, a mere four days after Crutcher. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney said that these cops were serving a warrant for someone else, but happened upon Scott with a gun, and the end result was his death.
The facts have yet to be sorted in the case of Keith Lamont Scott — and when they surface, understanding the deeply racist history of policing in Charlotte could shed more light. There is no excuse for what happened to Terence Crutcher. We talk a lot about the fear of domestic terrorism in this country, but as a 6-foot-7, 250-pound black man from Compton living in America, I don’t leave home every morning worried about ISIS. I worry about the police. I worry about the fact that I could do nothing at all or even comply entirely with their orders and my mother could still become the latest in a long procession of black women who’ve stood broken on a podium pouring their hearts out for their children. These women stand, shoulder to shoulder with family, weeping for their sons, who are now remembered in the form of hashtags, viral videos, and names on T-shirts.
Couple that with the images we see every year of black sons sitting on podiums, placing caps on their freshly lined heads and holding up team jerseys, thrilled to accept huge athletic deals that put even more money in the pockets of white team owners, many of whom would prefer that these players remain silent when they see police mistreat people who look like them.
Four years ago, after Trayvon Martin was killed, and two years later, after Michael Brown was shot and killed, I thought, “Could this happen to me?” Now, I sometimes find myself wondering, “When?”
The Negro who was once hanged from a tree in a dark forest filled with fog is now gunned down before our very eyes. We see him through the lenses of iPhones or dashboard and body cameras, slain by the same men and women sworn to protect him. To preserve his life by any means necessary. To put his safety and the safety of others before their fears. But somewhere along the way, the idea of the cops being the ones who must get home safely every night became more important than our safe return to our families. Terence Crutcher wanted to get home safely to his family that Friday evening. But he committed the heinous crime of having his car break down in the middle of the road. And for that, he paid with his life.
As long as we continue to ignore how deeply unwilling America is to grapple with its race problem, there will be many more Terence Crutchers.
Black people were brought here unwillingly, forced under the cracks of whips to build a country that white people could move around effortlessly in the freedom and comfort that those slaves’ work provided. All the while, white America ignored the residual effects that atrocities like slavery and Jim Crow brought upon generation after generation of the very people who were forced to enable that freedom. The descendents of these people are now told to “get over it” in a fraction of the 400 years that they spent being robbed of life, liberty, and any chance to pursue happiness.
And what thanks do black Americans get? The privilege to drive on roads named after Confederate soldiers and generals. The honor to sing a national anthem that amplifies white supremacy while glorifying the murdering of slaves, written by a racist slave owner. The privilege to salute a flag stained with the blood of my ancestors, with hatred and abhorrence for my very existence woven deeply into its fabric. Stitch by stitch by stitch. And if I choose to opt out of acknowledging these symbols that have been whitewashed of their true meaning and repainted with a fresh coat of postbellum patriotism? To shun these gross reminders of oppression, to sit, to kneel, to raise my fist in protest? I’m the ungrateful nigger who doesn’t love his country and should leave. A country that was never mine to begin with.
American Horror Story isn’t just something fun to watch on TV: Black people are living their own version right now, in real time. But there’s a large faction of people in America — civilians, journalists, and TV personalities — who would lump it into the same fictional category as Ryan Murphy’s work. Some people, such as D.L. Hughley, even liken black men to an endangered species, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate since endangered species are protected by the law. At some point we, black and white, have to grow fed up with watching black lives fall with the frequency of autumn leaves in the wind from trees that once bore a strange fruit.
Terence Crutcher was “described” (profiled) by a cop looking down on him from a helicopter as looking like “a bad dude” when he had committed no crime. Or as James Farmer Jr. might put it, he looked like “a Negro.” Meanwhile, there’s a man running for president of these United States calling for police to actually racially profile people when we know it doesn’t work and only increases tension between police and the communities they’re supposed to serve.
There was a pastor from Atlanta who once said, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” He also threw in, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” and, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”
It’s time to end white silence. Yes, white people, I’m calling you out. The silent ones, that is. Especially the silence of white people whom I know and love. Some of you may say, “Hey, I retweeted DeRay that one time!”
No. That’s not what I’m talking about.
Black people can shout to the mountaintops that they’re being unjustly killed by police, but we can’t end this without help. Black people make up just 13 percent of America. Eighty-three percent of the people who make our laws are white. I’m not saying white people are or should be our saviors, but it would be foolish to think we can correct this problem without changing some people’s minds. If white parents had to live with the same fears and worries for their kids once they left their presence as black parents do, this would have ended a very long time ago. I’m not alone in thinking this. Even Martin Luther King Jr. knew the importance of white allies; one of his just so happened to be the president.
Last week, Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett told The Seattle Times, “You need a white guy to join the fight. The white guy is super important to the fight. … For people to really see social injustices, there must be someone from the other side of the race who recognizes the problem, because a lot of times if just one race says there’s a problem, nobody is realistic about it.” The problem isn’t that there aren’t any white people speaking up who understand what’s happening to black Americans. It’s that we need more, we need them loud, and we need them in places like police unions and departments, Congress, and on NFL sidelines, kneeling next to Colin.
I’m exhausted with watching black culture be consumed, exploited, and appropriated by white people both civilian and celebrity, only to get radio silence when we declare that our lives matter and that our bodies need preservation.
Black matters when it creates a new dance for young white kids to learn and subsequently butcher in viral videos. Black matters when it returns to Cleveland to give a city its first NBA championship or rack up fantasy football points for your office league. Black matters when it creates and provides all the many facets of society, fashion, and popular culture that only the struggle and resilience of being black could create, just to be immediately repurposed and appropriated for mass white consumption.
Everything black seems to matter except our lives. We are not pets. We are not playthings. We are not props. We are innovators. We are creators. We are doctors and lawyers and the president. We are magic. We are the manure that fertilizes the America that people all over the world know and love. In other words, black people are the shit. And that pisses off a lot of people. If black people vacated white spaces and did things like form our own pro sports leagues today, the NBA and NFL would immediately crumble. No reasonable person wants to watch 10 J.J. Redicks play basketball, and no quarterback is handing the ball off to “the white Jim Brown.” He doesn’t exist.
If you want to participate in the black experience, if you love it to the point of emulation, then defend it. Speak out for it. Speak up for it. Yes, you have the right to remain silent, but you shouldn’t. Because if this is the future, black men and women perpetually being killed by police with no repercussions, then I guess I’ll just shut up and wait my turn.
If nothing that erodes the rule of law can be moral, then why do we allow armed public servants to kill at will using “I was in fear for my life” like a no-limit black Amex get-out-of-jail-free card? Where is the morality in good cops failing to report bad cops? That does more than erode the rule of law — it erodes the human spirit.
If we want to put an end to this American epidemic, then listen to us. Amplify our words, our worries, and our struggles. Stop watching Fox News. (Except for Shep Smith. He’s cool.) No, you may not live to see our glory, but you should gladly join the fight. Be the last generation to witness police not only kill hundreds of black people a year, but nearly a thousand Americans per year. Instead of sitting on the sideline, afraid to call out racial injustice, if you see something, say something — and say it loudly. If not for me, do it for Todd Gurley and Kevin Durant.
Travon Free is a comedian and writer for HBO’s Any Given Wednesday With Bill Simmons.