Writing Sample #2: The Only Things Getting Better Are Our Cameras
We all know the tragic story of Emmett Till’s harsh, untimely death. In 1955, African-American teenager Emmett Till was murdered by two white men four days after allegedly flirting with a white woman at a grocery store. Till was kidnapped, brutally beaten, shot in the head and then dismembered. After discovering his remains, Mamie Bradley, Till’s mother decided to have an open-casket funeral so that the world could see what was acceptingly done to her son. The two white men who murdered Till were tried for murder but were acquitted by an all white jury. An African American weekly magazine, Jet, later published a photo of Emmett’s corpse which gained a lot of media attention. The photo was horrifying, yet important as our society needed a visual to see what was happening in the United States.
Six decades later, Carolyn Donham, the woman who Till reportedly flirted with, broke her silence and admitted that her claim was false. This immediately caused an uproar on social media platforms especially Twitter, with users tweeting that Donham should be killed and she should feel fully responsible for Till’s tragic death. However, prosecuting the 82-year-old woman now would be nearly impossible because the five-year statute of limitations has expired, experts say. Professor Timothy Tyson of Duke University published The Blood of Emmett Till on January 31, 2017. In interviews for the book, Donham told Tyson that she was not able to remember everything that happened at the store the day Till allegedly whistled at her.
Philando Castile, a 32 year-old black male was murdered by a white police officer in Falcon Heights, Minnesota in July 2016. Nearly 24 hours before that, Alton Sterling, 37, was also murdered by white police officers. Both tragic events were caught on camera. In Castile’s case, it was live streamed via Facebook by the victim’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, “So that the people could see,” she said. The encounter between Castile and the police officer began when Castile was pulled over for a busted tail light. The police officer shoots Castille as his girlfriend is recording the tragedy and speaking to the police officer simultaneously. “He let the officer know that he had a firearm and he was reaching for his wallet and the officer just shot him in his arm,” Reynolds said in her Facebook livestream. Reynolds is praised for being a vocal martyr in this tragic situation.
The usage of phone cameras during police encounters has become popular in the last twenty years and has helped to show the extent of the brutalities that police often inflict on low-income communities. Both graphic videos are accessible on the web which left viewers outraged and in disbelief. In the video of Sterling’s death, Sterling is appearingly incapacitated on the ground when one of the officers yells, “He’s got a gun!” The other officer then fires his gun into Sterling’s chest multiple times.
Put this in perspective. Sterling was killed July 5th- just one day after celebrating our independence, a black man is stripped of it. If you’re wondering what happened to both of the officers on the scene, the Baton Rouge Police Department put them on administrative leave and they are currently serving no punishment- acquittal is likely. Similarly, J.W Milam and Roy Bryant, the two men who murdered Emmett Till, were protected against further prosecution according to the double jeopardy rule. Milam and Bryant then openly admitted to the murder in an interview on the Look magazine a year later and were even paid $4,000 reportedly.
We aren’t surprised anymore. Think Rodney King- 1991. A witness recorded King as he was brutally beaten by Los Angeles police officers after being stopped after a high-speed car chase in which he was intoxicated. This video quickly gained public attention and infuriated minorities in the United States. The four officers who beat him were all charged with use of excessive force and assault with a deadly weapon. If you are wondering what happened to them- they were all acquitted. This rapidly enraged the black community and led to the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. Houses were burned, cars were blown up, robberies reached an all time high and whites became a target.
That rage still exists today. Our black folks are being mercilessly killed as they are automatically viewed as a threat due to negative stereotypes like being physically stronger than their white counterparts and thought to engage in gang activity. So much of a threat that white police officers feel inclined to shoot without following proper procedure or at least shooting to disarm and not killing. And even more of a threat that the media will use mugshots or unappealing photos of the black man in order to portray him as a villain. When Alton Sterling was killed, CNN used his mugshot to identify him. In June 2016, Stanford University student Brook Turner raped an unconscious woman and was given a 6-month jail sentence. However, a school picture of Turner was selected for the news broadcasts. We don’t see these kinds of pictures of black men on the news when they are killed.
A video surfaced July 2016 featuring Jane Elliot, anti-racism activist and educator. In the video, she speaks to white citizens about receiving the same treatment as black citizens. Elliot conducts an experiment which clearly shows one of the biggest problems in the U.S. “I want every white person in this room, who would be happy to be treated as this society in general treats our citizens, our black citizens.” The class remains in silence, and no one stands up. “If you as a white person would be happy to receive the same treatment that our black citizens do in this society- please stand!” The class is still in silence, still no one gets up. “You didn’t understand the directions. If you white folks want to be treated the way blacks are in this society- stand! Nobody is standing here. That says very plainly that you know what’s happening. You know you don’t want it for you. I want to know why you are so willing to accept it or to allow it to happen for others.”
Unfortunate is not the word to describe how tragedies have to occur in order for us to be reminded how broken our country and our system is. That is when we go back to square one. Those who are neutral in these situations of oppression are just as bad as the oppressor. The saying “history repeats itself” is used so lightly that we actually forget that history is indeed repeating itself in a different form. The only things getting better are our cameras for the only difference is that we get to see these tragedies with our own eyes now. It isn’t safe to say that we will go months, weeks, even days without seeing another black man’s name as a hashtag- or another white police officer getting acquitted for visibly murdering a black man, on camera.