I write this letter today because I am both exhausted and frustrated. I can only imagine what Dr. King was feeling when he wrote his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I'm angry at a nation that I love but doesn’t seem to love me back. Recently, we got a first-hand look at the two justice systems that exist in our America – one for Blacks and one for Whites.
Kenosha, Wisconsin, a city with a Black population of 11.46%, was the site of a recent police shooting of a Black man. We don't know why Jacob Blake was being apprehended by the police -- that doesn't seem to be important enough to be revealed. What we do know is that we have video of him, unarmed, going to his vehicle, and being shot seven times IN THE BACK while his three little boys sat in the backseat and watched in horror.
Not surprisingly, in this era when those who believe that the justice system must treat everyone equally and be, well... just, protests began. These protests were mostly peaceful, but per usual, there is always a fringe element that stirs up chaos. In that chaos, a 17-year-old, gun-toting, white vigilante decided he had authority to silence protesters, killing two and severely injuring a third. He then proceeded to walk toward police with his gun in hand and was allowed to leave the scene! This occurred while protesters were telling the police that he had just shot and killed two people! I want you to think about this situation for a moment. We know what would have occurred if he had been Black. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by police while playing with a toy gun in a park. Need I say more? Jacob Blake was considered a threat while unarmed and walking away from the police.
I’m angry because we have seen this inequitable treatment too many times from those who take an oath to serve and protect. I'm not anti-police, I'm anti-police brutality. Ahmaud Arbery’s vigilante murderers were allowed to walk free for more than a month after chasing Arbery down as he jogged through his community. Police fed Burger King to Dylann Roof, who killed nine worshipers at the Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, before he was taken to jail and put him in a bullet-proof vest when he left the courthouse. But Philando Castile was shot after telling a police officer that he had a firearm and a permit to carry. And I cannot unsee the 8 minutes 46 second kneeing of George Floyd. What kind of justice is this? If you are human, how can you turn a blind eye to this blatant display of inhumanity? How can you support the disparity of treatment of Blacks vs Whites?
It seems there is more outrage around professional athletes postponing games in protest than there is about the reason for the protest. Did I mention that the paralyzed Jacob Blake was handcuffed to his hospital bed between surgeries? He was paralyzed from the seven bullets. He couldn't move. Why the handcuffs?
Yes, I’m angry, I’m sad and I’m scared as hell for my four-year old, autistic grandson who is tall for his age. He is cute now, but what happens in a few years? My fear is for every Black boy, teen and man who is presumed to be a threat before society knows anything about them. We. Are. Exhausted! Don't get me wrong. I'm scared for Black women too. Breonna Taylor. Sandra Bland.
Dear White people, I don’t profess to speak for every Black person, but if I were a betting woman, I’d put money on the fact that at least one of the Black people you know feels just like me. This is what we need from you. First, know the facts. Learn what has happened to these human beings. Second, understand American history in its totality, the whole ugly truth. Third, have some empathy. Fourth, analyze your bias. Recognize the tapes that make you who you are and understand what is healthy and what isn’t. Fifth, know when to say nothing at all and just be supportive. Finally, use your privilege to help correct these wrongs. We aren’t looking for saving. We want fair and equitable treatment under the law and in practice. In short, we want to be free... and live!
Terri Lee Freeman
National Civil Rights Museum
450 Mulberry Street
Memphis, TN 38103