The Butler ends with an elderly Mr. Gaines walking tall to meet President Obama. But it reminded me of a little boy I saw on Inauguration Monday.
|1/22/09: I saw this kid several times during that afternoon: always playful, happy and radiating a sense of awe that was utterly contagious.|
He's probably 12 or 13 years old by now, but back then he was just a little boy who stood a little extra-tall as he played. He was clearly awe-struck and though I never spoke to him, I remember observing that he seemed to play with purpose. He, even he, could be President some day. And as I turned off the credits for The Butler, I remembered that little boy and said a little prayer that he still believes he can grow up to be anything he wants to be.
And then I checked Facebook.
And I cried. No. I began crying because the fact is I have been crying for days now. Tamir Rice is not the little boy I observed in Washington, D.C. on January 22, 2009. But he could have been. They are ... or would be ... about the same age, after all. And I pray that the little boy has not been and never will be Tamir Rice. But he could be.
He could be if he thinks that he can play with a friend's pellet gun in an open carry state.
|Three boys playing Cops & Robbers in NY, 1948|
Tamir was playing with his friend's pellet gun. He could have hurt someone, maybe even shot an eye out by accident. But it wasn't this potentiality that killed him. It was cowardice, cruelty and a latent racist hatred that killed him within two seconds of showing up on the scene. It is possible to empathize with the cop, not because his fears were reasonable (as the prosecutor suggests) but because those unreasonable fears have been so normalized. Racism does tend to show up more as fear than as pure hatred. As Morgan Guyton, has observed:
What we’re running up against is the inadequacy of the modern Western conception of justice. Because racism manifests itself as a collective sin that feels more like weakness than malevolence, even when a society’s racism commits murder through the “errors” of nervous individuals, it just doesn’t feel right to punish weakness and fear. So weakness and fear don’t get punished.
Not only do they not get "punished," they get normalized by invocation of the objectively reasonable standard as judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene.
It was reasonable for an officer who was found unfit for duty in his previous police gig to be hired without a thorough background check.
It was reasonable for the officer to jump out of a moving patrol car and shoot a 12 year old in the stomach from 4 - 9 feet away.
It was reasonable for the officer to claim on his police report that he gave numerous warnings, when the two seconds that transpired between his arrival and the shots make that impossible.
It was all reasonable because of fear. And we don't punish fear. No matter how unreasonable it is.
And yet, when I try to convey to my white friends, many of whom I love like family, that the only thing that scares me about moving to a beautiful small mountain town is my uncertainty about the white folks in it, they accuse me of being paranoid, or worse, a reverse racist. They don't understand ... and maybe don't want to understand ... that I am afraid of white fear. I am afraid for myself but more so I am afraid for my daughter, my nephews, my black friends and their children.
I know what it looks and sounds like when people of color circle in and embrace each other as we grieve, yet again, for yet another unpunished murder of another one of our children who had the audacity to believe that s/he was free to be #AliveWhileBlack, in the presence of cops or white folks in general, without irony, subtext or shuffling. It sounds a lot like the silent wailing that chokes the throat and squeezes the heart until the ache, the ache, the ache just stops. It sounds like the gasp of disbelief, the not here, not now, not again, disbelief. It sounds ... exhausted ... weary ... hopeless ... trapped. How do I make a home for my child when the specter of that sound and soundless horror looms?
The last two nights, the last thing I saw on the bookshelf before I took off my glasses and turned off the light was Stephen Colbert's book, I am America (And So Can You!). It's a funny book. But the title reads like a taunt right now.
Can I be America? Can my daughter or that little boy from the Inauguration? Tamir couldn't be. America didn't let him. White American fear didn't let him. We don't need to ride the tide of fear and demagoguery to make America "great" again (whatever the hell that means). We need America to become America because for too many of us, it never has been.