We are officially a week into 2016, and by now people are pretty much over greeting colleagues and friends with the jovial cheer of "Happy New Year," and the gym is losing its novel appeal with each passing day. So much for that "I'm going to work out everyday" thing. But over the course of this first week, one thing remains evidently clear: Victim blaming did not get left in 2015.
Before most of us even had time to take down our Christmas and Kwanzaa decorations, we were watching Bill Cosby stumble out of a Pennsylvania court room after being arraigned on three felony charges of aggravated indecent assault on December 30. The news of the New Year was about Cosby, and the countless women who, over the course of more than a decade, have accused him of sexual violence. Many, including members of the Black community, drew conclusions of conspiracy around why this was happening to "America's Dad," while the victims of his assaults have been bombarded with criticism, skepticism and heaping mounds of blame not unfamiliar to survivors of sexual and physical violence.
Because of Cosby's role as a so-called Black History Month figure, people have found it necessary to connect his being charged with the recent non-indictments that have occurred in cases of police killings of young Black people. The commentary around this is intriguing and disturbing to say the least, as many are trying to equate the situations by using Blackness and injustice as binding ties. However, I and many others would argue that the only real similarity here in terms of injustice is the blaming of the victims.
During a press conference on Monday, Dec. 28, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty stated that in regard to the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, the grand jury found "no criminal conduct by the police," and that it was "reasonable" for the officers to respond the way they did when arriving at the scene. A "perfect storm of human error," but not a crime. How someone claiming to be an ethical and moral public servant could stand resolute in the idea that killing an unarmed child is reasonable and not criminal, escaped me momentarily. But then I remembered how this country's criminal justice system has historically treated Black victims of state violence from the days of slavery and lynching to the present.
McGinty went on to mention yet again that Tamir Rice looked older than he was, and that he was previously told the toy gun could get him in trouble. This is nothing more than the same tired and racist victim-blaming we've seen employed by prosecutors, judges and juries in cases of police shootings of unarmed Black youth. It is also very similar to the accusatory narratives we hear about survivors of rape and sexual violence, particularly when those victims are women of color; that "She Was Asking for It," kind of nonsense.
The not-so-subtle insinuation here is that Tamir Rice was just as responsible for his death as Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback, the officers who shot and killed him within two seconds of arriving at the scene. Rice's audacious Black youth is at fault, not the officers of the law who pulled the trigger.
Prior to that, we learned that a Texas grand jury failed to charge anyone connected with the death of Sandra Bland, the young woman whose name joined the chorus of #BlackLivesMatter chants. No officers were indicted, yet we heard similar rhetoric... that Sandra was arrested for assaulting a public servant and shouldn't have resisted arrest. Since that time, the officer involved in Sandra's arrest has been charged with perjury, as his account of Sandra's arrest was not truthful. There might be hope of seeing some justice for Sandra yet.
We heard the people of Baltimore cry out on Dec. 16, after the trial of William Porter, the first of six being charged in the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, ended in a mistrial. In November 2014, we watched Ferguson implode after the verdict came down that Officer Darren Wilson would remain a free man after shooting and killing 18-year-old Michael Brown.
We are now a week into 2016, but for people of color and victims of violent crimes perpetrated by powerful people, it might as well be one hundred years ago. How similar all of this is to the story of 14-year-old Emmett Till, the young boy in Money, Mississippi, who was kidnapped, tortured and killed before being tied to a cotton gin and thrown in the river...all for allegedly whistling at a white woman in 1955. It was said that Till should have known the rules of the Jim Crow South. His killers were acquitted. In 1918, Mary Turner, a 19-year-old woman in Lowndes County, Georgia, was captured, lynched and burned eight months pregnant for protesting the extrajudicial killing of her husband. The mob said she knew better than to speak out, and therefore the blame for her murder and that of her unborn child was cast upon her in death.
Some find these kinds of comparisons dramatic and inaccurate, but those young people died because of state-sanctioned violence, were blamed for their own deaths and received no justice just like Trayvon, Michael Brown, Tamir, Sandra Bland and others. Today loaded guns and badges replace nooses and Billy clubs, and police officers and the criminal justice system that protects them are nothing more than a democratized lynch mob. Sadly, Black people themselves are often guilty of casting blame on victims of this kind of violence as well, thanks to impact respectability politics has had on segments of the Black community.
In his piece, The Number of Cops Indicted for Murder Spikes Upward, Conor Friedersdorf, a staff writer with Atlantic Magazine, noted that in the past five months, only 14 police officers have been charged for on-duty killings, which is more than five times the normal rate.
Included in those charged are the six officers connected to the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Ray Tensing, the University of Cincinnati police officer who shot and killed Samuel DuBose during a traffic stop and Michael Slager, the former officer who shot Walter Scott in the back in South Carolina earlier this year. Friedersdorf stated something at the end of the article that stayed with me:
"Regardless of how many officers are charged in coming months, the year-end number of cops charged will be scandalous, even though it almost certainly undercounts the number of unjust killings. Defenders of the status quo in policing should wake up to the need for reforms."
People are finally acknowledging the need for reform and hopefully changes come about sooner than later. But, perhaps in the meantime, we can take the initiative to stop blaming and criminalizing Black bodies in death that were already dehumanized in life. Let's just not blame victims who have survived violence of all kinds. That doesn't seem like too much to ask.