In 1990 I met a young Black man, Phillip Pannell….in his coffin. The 16 year-old had been shot in the back by a white police officer in the suburban community of Teaneck New Jersey. This one hit close to home because I grew up next door in the neighboring city of Hackensack. A grand jury refused to indict Officer Gary Spath. After it was revealed that the autopsy had been botched, a new autopsy revealed Phillip had been shot with his arms raised in surrender. New Jersey Attorney General Bob Del Tufo, with the support of Governor Jim Florio, ordered the convening of a second grand jury. In reaction, over 3,000 police from across the nation marched through Teaneck and into Hackensack to stage a rally at the county courthouse in support of the officer. The second grand jury indicted Gary Spath but an all-white Bergen County jury acquitted the officer.
After hearing the jury verdict rendered my immediate thought was that common decency would prevail and that an outraged public would demand justice, perhaps a federal investigation. How could they not given the injustice of Phillip’s death? Very easily, as I discovered in the racist vitriol directed toward Phillip and his parents, and the pathetic silence of many middle-class Blacks in Teaneck.
Three years later I sat down to write my column for The Record newspaper in New Jersey to reflect on the trial of the Los Angeles police officers who brutally beat motorist Rodney King. As I readied myself at my keyboard I watched the videotape of the officers’ vicious attack on King, cringing at the savagery of their assault and conjuring up images of slaves being brutally whipped on a plantation. I thought… for sure this time America would rise to the occasion and make a stand for justice.
I was wrong.
Several years later as an on-air contributor on MSNBC and contributing writer to MSNBC.com I wrote a column detailing the murder of Jackie Burden and Michael James by a white supremacist James Burmeister, a former Army paratrooper, on a dirt road near Fort Bragg North Carolina. At Burmeister’s trial, his co-conspirator admitted that he was part of a trio in the elite 82nd Airborne Division that regularly committed acts of violence against Blacks; in fact, Burmeister was a member of a neo-Nazi skinhead group. I thought surely this time our nation would unite in outrage against such vile racism. I was wrong. The e-mail I received at MSNBC made my skin crawl. This was 1997.
So, yesterday the outcome of the grand jury examining the videotaped death of Eric Garner in Staten Island New York was enraging but not a surprise. Coming upon the judicial rape of Michael Brown’s civil rights, the refusal to indict New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo for strangling Garner to death in a departmentally disallowed chokehold fit a pattern of prosecutorial misconduct and purposeful minimization of Black life in our legal system. The ease with which Pantaleo choked a man begging for air frames the extent to which Black people are dispensable in America and the casualness of how our lives can be snuffed out for the offense of offending authority with our blackness.
We are again subject to the Taney rule – Blacks have no rights which the white man was bound to respect – infamously pronounced by the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in Dred Scott v. Sandford. We still have no rights because we are still deemed less than human.
Phillip Pannell was called a thug for a past minor juvenile offense that would have likely warranted a gentle reprimand for a white peer. Rodney King was characterized as “beast-like” and there were comparisons of King to the Tasmanian devil cartoon character. George Zimmerman justified his killing of Trayvon Martin by alluding to the teenager’s size and ‘threatening’ demeanor. Following the cowardly proceedings in Ferguson and Staten Island, staying on message for police brutality apologists has meant referencing the size of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and speaking of both victims in terms akin to animals.
It is the audacity of this hate that is eerily familiar and that I refuse to accept. The disrespectful treatment of Michael Brown’s body, left on a street for almost five hours was purposeful. It was the same disregard of Black life that images of lynchings were meant to convey. There was a reason Blacks were mutilated and burned before being hung, and their bodies left hanging while gleeful whites, with children in tow, celebrated as we became “strange fruit” in the haunting lyrics sung by Billie Holiday. The message then, as is now, is that humanity is not extended to these “things” whose presence is only tolerated for the preservation of white privilege.
We now have two very clear choices: submit or fight back. For me, submission is not an option nor is it a consideration. It’s time we fight back with fierce determination and resolve against all forms of racism and discrimination whether it is in the labor market, in our public schools or in the course of our daily experience with law enforcement. Nothing else really matters at this point. It’s not even about us. It’s about America.
Walter Fields is the Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.