Are We There Yet?
"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to....." So reads the opening sentence of the Declaration of Independence. I just want to know, are we there yet? Are we, as people of color, at a place where we can say, "Given the course of certain human events, it has become necessary for us to...."? Because I'm feeling a certain course of human events myself and I am more than ready to say "it has become necessary to.....".
In a video editorial on independence done some years ago, Bill Moyers reminds us that at the same moment in time that Thomas Jefferson was writing the memorable words, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights", he was also living an entirely different truth. By day, he was the much-vaunted Thomas Jefferson, but by night, he was Sally Hemming's rapist. I don't know about you, but I'm starting to feel much the same way about American democracy; by day it's this wondrous thing, a great experiment that seems to be proceeding quite well (for some) and producing good results (for some), but by night, by afternoon, in the gloaming and sometimes in broad daylight, lynching, murder, social and economic terror prevail. But has it not ever been thus?
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." So reads the Declaration of Independence. It boggles the mind to think that at the time that those words were being eloquently spoken, all Natives were under threat; all women had limited rights; all African Americans were being enslaved, and many of them were being beaten, tortured, or raped, and Jefferson himself was both enslaving and raping Sally Hemmings.
It has become necessary for me to recall these passages from the Declaration of Independence because well, it's July. It's Independence Celebration Season. It's the time of year when we publicly celebrate our democracy. Unfortunately, this year, it also seems to be hunting season.
In the last week and a half, two Black men have been killed by police officers for, it would appear, the crime of negritude and I say that knowing full well that both had guns in their possession, in open carry states. Many others have had larger guns and been far more confrontational and lived to see another day, the name Cliven Bundy comes to mind. Given that the crime of negritude is one I commit daily myself, I am compelled to speak on it. Call it enlightened self-interest. I speak in defense of my own rights, my own life and the rights of those I know and love.
So let me ask this: when will it be our time to be independent? When will our time to be free come? When will all those high-flown democratic values apply to us'n? These are my questions. When? "When in the course of human events" will our men, women and children not be terrorized on the streets? When? When will we get there?
In 1857, Justice Roger B. Taney asserted in the Dred Scott decision that the Black man had no rights that the White man was bound to respect. As a nation, we frequently claim to have come so far (from slavery, genocide and the most virulent forms of racist behavior I suppose), we claim to be better than this ('this' being lynching and racial terror, I assume), but can we really? How is Taney's thinking not the underlying philosophy of American policing and jurisprudence? How? Cite me some case(s) wherein the right of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" per rapist-cum-President Thomas Jefferson is actually applicable to all of us. Please. I'm open to being convinced. Help me. Convince me.
In 1996, the Supreme Court made a decision on what Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow author) refers to as 'pretext stops'. In Whren v. U.S., the Supreme Court held that an officer who suspects a vehicle's occupants of criminal offenses may use an observed traffic violation to stop the vehicle. In Whren, narcotics suspects were stopped for moving violations. Drugs left in plain sight by the defendants were later admissible in court because, the court ruled, the officers' subjective reason for making the stop - even if in truth, a pretext for deeper criminal investigation - did not invalidate the stop.
Twenty years later, in the 2016 session, SCOTUS handed down a decision on evidence collected in those pretext stops. In Utah v Strieff, the Supreme Court decided that evidence collected in an illegal stop was perfectly admissible in court. According to the attached NY Times article, the evidence is admissible if the officers conducted a search on the pretext that the individual had an open warrant, even if the warrant is unrelated to the conduct that caused the stop. So you can stop me for a lane change, run my license and find a warrant for unpaid parking tickets. On that basis, the officer can conduct a search of my vehicle and person, then arrest and convict me for possession of marijuana or some other contraband unrelated to the stop; all this, despite the fact that neither the initial pretext for the stop, nor the offense for which I had a warrant was reasonable cause for suspicion of any other offense. Bootstrapping and inferring of broad criminality. Criminals should, I suppose, have no expectation of having rights. By this measure, he can dig and dig until he finds a cause to charge me. And even if he doesn't, he can just charge me with resisting or obstruction. Freedom? What freedom?
I don't know about you, but the future looks very dark to me. This is 'broken windows' policing run amok. In the quest for more arrest, there will be more pretext stops (and guess who are more often 'pretext stopped'? Remember Sandra Bland?), more illegal searches, more bootstrapping and inferring of other criminal behavior, more incarceration of people of color for offenses that are often missed or overlooked entirely in other populations, and ultimately, more deaths because a good many of these extra-judicial executions start with these pretext stops.
Thank you SCOTUS for signing our death warrants. Thank you Justice Taney for establishing the framework within which we still seem to be operating; the one that says that the Black or brown man still has no rights that the White man is bound to respect. So much for the Fourth Amendment. I think we can safely kiss that goodbye.
So I ask again, are we there yet? Are we at the place where, "given the course of human events....it has become necessary for us to" engage in direct action and loud public protest?
As MLK put it in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, "we [must be ready to] present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community." Of course, the community before which we would lay our bodies is currently under the spell of Hillary's email and her questionable concern for the matter of our safety and Donald's vitriol. Still, MLK, Elijah Cummings and thousands of others faced dogs; Vivian Malone and James Hood faced George Wallace over the desegregation of the University of Alabama; Medgar Evers faced the KKK; Paul Robeson faced McCarthy; Marian Anderson faced the Daughters of the American Revolution; Ali faced the US government. This ain't 'posed to be easy. We must bear that in mind and press forward.
Very early on in my niece's Kindergarten career, she had a homework assignment to write sentences. With the innocence of the very young, she looked at her mother and asked, "Mummy, what 'sentence' mean?". When it comes to American democracy, people of color need to be asking, "America, what 'democracy' mean; "What "freedom" mean?'; "What "equal" mean?"; "What "life" mean?" because I am here to tell you that I do not know and I am not sure that America knows either. What I do know, is that democracy speaks to the character of a nation and this nation's character needs to be under review.
According to Dale Turner, "Character is not a gift. It is a conquest and its kingdom lives upstream. You never get there by drifting." When two men, doing nothing more than being Black, interact with the police and end up dead. you have to know that America is drifting. America will not soon arrive at an upstream destination without some hard work. Who's ready? You're going to have to put your back into it America.
Who's ready? I'm ready. August 1st. It starts there.
About the Author
I am a strategic thinker and problem solver. I have a knack for seeing the heart of an issue, clearing away all the noise and nonsense and hopefully making cogent arguments that go to the central issue under consideration. Nice work if you can get it, and you can get it if you try. That's a lyric from an Ella Fitzgerald song and from the songbook of my life.