Hank Willis Thomas
Fear of a Black Body
David J. Leonard
“Suspicious;” “he feared for his life;” “it looked like a weapon;” and “it was a dangerous situation.” Such explanations and sources of defenses have become commonplace #every36hours. As black men and women die at alarming rates, amid claims that racism or race is not at issue, those who want to explain away these deaths, disregarding the injustice and lost futures, continue to rationalize and blame, criminalizing black bodies even, perhaps especially, in death.
Jordan Davis spent his last night hanging out with a group of his friends. He, like many American youth, spent the evening laughing and chatting. Shortly after his family celebrated Thanksgiving, he breathed his last breath. Michael Dunn would shoot him to death. Claiming that “he felt threatened” and he “fired his handgun eight times … only after one of the four teenagers in a car threatened him and pointed a shotgun his way,” Dunn hinged his defense on fear and safety—his own.
Yet, according to Davis’ father, “There wasn’t a gun. They were just kids, 17-year-old kids. They have never been in trouble. The kids had no weapon, they had no drugs in the car.” While Davis lost his life, while his friends have been vilified and criminalized in the media, while his family grieves, Dunn is working overtime to construct himself as a victim. While this shooting is yet another that is happening #every36hours involving an African American victim, Dunn’s defense is denying that race matters.
Then there is Shelly Frey, who was killed in front of her two children after she ALLEGEDLY stuffed items into her purse. When confronted by a Wal-Mart security guard, Frey, “ran to a car — that had two small children in it — and mashed the accelerator as he attempted to open the door.” In response, he fired one deadly shot into the car, fatally wounding her. Yet, again, claims of fear and suspicion justify the aftermath. Thomas Gilliland, spokesperson for Harris County Sheriff’s Office, offered additional justification noting: “I think it knocked him off balance and, in fear of his life and being ran over, he discharged his weapon at that point.” He added, “He confronted the suspects at the exit of the store before they left. One female wouldn’t stop, struck the deputy with her purse, and ran off.”
And while some will note that the off-duty officer who was moonlighting at a security guard was African American to deny the racial implications, race always matters. In a country where black is suspicious, where the site of a black body compels fear, where stereotypes lead people to see things that aren’t actually happening, to note weapons that are never found, can we ever talk about fear, danger, and suspicion away from race. “The frightening thing, if you are a young African-American man, is that you know nothing makes some folks feel more ‘threatened’ than you,” writes Leonard Pitts. “Nor do you threaten by doing. You threaten by being. You threaten by existing. Such is the invidious result of four centuries of propaganda in which every form of malfeasance, bestiality and criminality is blamed on you.”
The consequences of racism are clear from Jordan Davis to Trayvon Martin and from Rekia Boyd to Shelly Frey. A report from the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) entitled, “Report on Extrajudicial Killings of 110 Black People,” highlights the epidemic of killings, by police, security guards, and others empowered to “protect and serve.” A great number of killings, the police and others have justified shootings with claims of self-defense, fear, suspicion, and alleged weaponry.
- Stephon Watts, a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome was shot and killed after police claimed he “lashed out with a kitchen knife.”
- Justin Sipp lost his life after an off-duty police officer “thought Sipp looked suspicious.” Following a routine “traffic stop for broken tail light” and argument,
- Dante Price was shot 22 times by security guards who claim he tried to run them over with his car.
Sadly there are many more cases – Rekia Boyd, Canard Arnold, and Dakota Bright, just to name a few. To be sure, racism is at the center of each one.
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