And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened…. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., “The Other America” 14 March 1968
A rookie Cleveland police officer responding to a 911 call jumped out of a cruiser and within seconds shot and killed a 12-year-old boy wielding what later turned out to be a BB gun, according to surveillance video released by authorities Wednesday.
Video of the fatal Saturday shooting of Tamir Rice, 12, by officer Timothy Loehmann, 26, was made public at the request of Tamir’s family. “It is our belief that this situation could have been avoided and that Tamir should still be here with us. The video shows one thing distinctly: the police officers reacted quickly,” reads a statement from the family, who also called on the community to remain calm. [See video at beginning of the report.]
Later in the report, Izadi and Holley add:
The gun turned out to be an Airsoft gun. Authorities had said it resembled a semiautomatic handgun and lacked the orange safety marker intended to signal that it’s a fake.
“Shots fired, male down, um, black male, maybe 20,” one of the officers radioed in. “Black hand gun.”
Stacey Patton’s In America, black children don’t get to be children calls our attention to a historical reality that illuminates the shooting of Tamir Rice:
In 1955, after 14-year-old Emmett Till was beaten and killed by a group of white men, one of his killers said Till “looked like a man.” I’ve found this pattern in news accounts of lynchings of black boys and girls from 1880 to the early 1950s, in which witnesses and journalists fixated on the size of victims who ranged from 8 to 19 years old. These victims were accused of sexually assaulting white girls and women, stealing, slapping white babies, poisoning their employers, fighting with their white playmates, or protecting black girls from sexual assault at the hands of white men. Or they were lynched for no reason at all.
And from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children,” the abstract reads:
The social category “children” defines a group of individuals who are perceived to be distinct, with essential characteristics including innocence and the need for protection (Haslam, Rothschild, & Ernst, 2000). The present research examined whether Black boys are given the protections of childhood equally to their peers. We tested 3 hypotheses: (a) that Black boys are seen as less “childlike” than their White peers, (b) that the characteristics associated with childhood will be applied less when thinking specifically about Black boys relative to White boys, and (c) that these trends would be exacerbated in contexts where Black males are dehumanized by associating them (implicitly) with apes (Goff, Eberhardt, Williams, & Jackson, 2008). We expected, derivative of these 3 principal hypotheses, that individuals would perceive Black boys as being more responsible for their actions and as being more appropriate targets for police violence. We find support for these hypotheses across 4 studies using laboratory, field, and translational (mixed laboratory/field) methods. We find converging evidence that Black boys are seen as older and less innocent and that they prompt a less essential conception of childhood than do their White same-age peers. Further, our findings demonstrate that the Black/ape association predicted actual racial disparities in police violence toward children. These data represent the first attitude/behavior matching of its kind in a policing context. Taken together, this research suggests that dehumanization is a uniquely dangerous intergroup attitude, that intergroup perception of children is underexplored, and that both topics should be research priorities.
And thus, if you think “I don’t understand rioters,” or “I’m tired of all this about Ferguson,” or “Why does it always have to be about race,” please do the following: (i) do not say or write any of those thoughts, (ii) open your eyes and your ears, (iii) watch and listen with empathy and not with judgment, and then (iv) ask yourself what you can do to insure that no one feels again the genuine need to protest, a need bred in the toxic soil of powerlessness.