Hundreds of mourners descended on Antioch Baptist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma yesterday to pay their final respects to Terence Crutcher. During the solemn service, one of the speakers declared, “We’re not going to stop until we have full justice, say it, full justice.” The assembled crowd responded, “Full Justice.” All of America is swept up now in the Crutcher family’s quest for justice as our nation wrestles with serious questions of race relations, criminal justice reform, police accountability, and the need for all citizens to be treated equally before the law.
Last month, no one knew Terence Crutcher, other than the friends and family of the 40-year old African American resident of Oklahoma. Today, Crutcher’s name is well known. All because of a tragic shooting that resulted in his death. Most Americans are familiar with at least the basics of what happened. Millions have watched the heart-wrenching video footage released by Tulsa police.
On September 16, Terence Crutcher briefly abandoned his vehicle in the middle of 36th Street North just west of Lewis Avenue. Subsequent to a couple 911 calls, police arrived on the scene. By all accounts, Crutcher was disoriented and unresponsive to police questions and instructions. Crutcher was also unarmed and, for most of the encounter with police, had his hands in the air. Nevertheless, as more cops arrived, he was categorized as a “bad dude” in need of a taser. When Crutcher angled toward the vehicle and appeared to be reaching towards it, one police officer fired his taser. Another discharged her weapon. And Terence Crutcher slumped to the ground in a pool of his own blood. He would die soon afterward.
When Tulsa police released their video footage, social media predictably exploded with rage. To many, Crutcher’s death wasn’t simply a tragedy. It wasn’t simply a police mistake. In their minds, Crutcher was “executed” for no reason other than the color of his skin. While many dispute that allegation (including, obviously, the police), it is beyond dispute that, at least some of the police officers on the ground (and in the helicopter overhead) judged Crutcher to be a “bad dude” rather than someone who needed help. This despite the fact that he was unarmed and his vehicle “cleared” of any danger or weapons. This seems a textbook case of race prejudice. What’s more, Crutcher’s bleeding body lay on the pavement clinging to life for over two minutes before officers rendered any kind of aid. This kind of callous, heartless treatment of a dying and UNARMED black man can only bolster claims of a race-motivated killing.
The fatal and unjustified shooting of Terence Crutcher came at about the same time of another shooting of a black man in North Carolina (although the latter involved a black police officer and circumstances that were much different). Still, the two shootings unleashed more unrest in the country, including violent protests in Charlotte, North Carolina.
And these shootings happened when Americans were quite animated over the refusal of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to stand out of respect for the national anthem. Kaepernick told NFL Media that he would not “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” The Tulsa and North Carolina shootings bolstered Kaepernick and brought more athletes (including at the high school and college level) to his cause. Hailed by many as a hero, Kaepernick has now made the national anthem a platform for protest, essentially undermining its original purpose.
Though I’ve strongly criticized Kaepernick (and still maintain that critique), I acknowledge that patriotism should not be coerced and that he has (and should have) every legal right to engage in such a protest. I further acknowledge that the issue he raises is an important one. All Americans, regardless of race, deserve equal protection of the laws. No law-abiding citizen should ever fear the police. And Americans should not tolerate or accept situations like the killing of Terence Crutcher.
Many will of course point to statistics which show that more whites are killed by police than blacks. They’ll likewise point out that the officer who actually shot Crutcher has been arrested and charged with manslaughter. And they’ll point to the unarmed whites killed by police (killings which receive little attention) or the horrifyingly high black-on-black homicide rates in places like Chicago. While some of these points may be valid, they ignore a larger reality. It’s a reality tough for many white Americans like myself to confront, but it needs to be confronted.
As much as I love the United States of America (and I do), it’s a fact that, for most of America’s history, black Americans were treated as second class citizens (at best) and, in too many cases, subjugated and victimized. You can’t just ask a black person today to forget about slavery, Jim Crow, lynch mobs, clearly racist (and often violent) police departments of the past, segregation, and so much more. Yes, the United States has made great strides. And, yes, everyone (regardless of race, color, gender, etc) needs to make good choices and should be held accountable for bad choices. And, yes, the so-called ‘race card’ is sometimes played when it shouldn’t be. Nevertheless, black Americans aren’t operating from a blank slate. And, regardless of how many whites today deny it, there IS still racism in America.
When it comes to police, it’s a fact that many (not all) law enforcement officers will profile people based on certain characteristics. Many years ago, as a teenager, I was driving a co-worker home late one night. I was 19. My co-worker and friend was about 20. We were in my red Chevy Camaro. It was after midnight and we were one of the few vehicles on the road. I looked in my rear view mirror and saw a pair of headlights rush up on me from behind and weave around behind me. Within moments, he pulled me over. I had been abiding by the speed limit. Doing nothing wrong. But the officer approached, gruffly asked why I had been “weaving,” and then asked if I’d been drinking. I said “No, sir” and he leaned in to see if he could smell any alcohol. Then, he abruptly and quickly retreated from my car, saying “thank you” and “have a good night” and was gone. My friend and I looked at each other, thinking “What was that about?” The only explanation I can think of is this: A police officer saw two young guys in a red Camaro late at night and figured we were likely up to no good. That’s profiling.
Now, here’s the point. That happened to me once. Once. And I still remember it. How often does it happen to our fellow black Americans? Many of them would say it happens a lot. They are used to being profiled and approached by police with suspicion — for no other apparent reason than the color of their skin. And this is not divorced from context. It’s in the context of past hostility from majority white police departments, especially in the South but also in other parts of the country. And it’s in the context of all the past mistreatment and discrimination black Americans have sadly and tragically endured.
When you then add the shootings into the mix, well now you’ve ratcheted things up to an unacceptable level. Stopping and frisking someone who “looks” suspicious is one thing. It’s offensive. It’s alarming. But when you’ve got, in the words of Colin Kaepernick, “dead bodies in the streets,” now you’re talking a whole new level.
At this point, I want to be clear on several things.
- I love the United States of America. We live in a great country. And it’s a country that deserves our love and allegiance, regardless of the color of one’s skin. The good far outweighs the bad.
- Most Americans are not racist. And I think this is the case across the board. Most Democrats are not racist. Most Republicans are not racist. Most conservatives are not racist. Most liberals are not racist.
- Most law enforcement officers are good, decent, honorable men and women. And most police officers are not racist. They certainly don’t want to shoot unarmed black men.
- Contrary to what some allege, there is no systematic, national conspiracy today to kill unarmed black men.
- Any association of the United States (especially the US of today) with Nazi Germany is absurd and repulsive.
- While we’re talking about comparisons with foreign governments, anyone (looking at you, Mr. Kaepernick) who criticizes the United States for oppression while wearing a T-shirt celebrating Fidel Castro should be immediately regarded as woefully ignorant or unbelievably twisted in their sense of reality.
- We (all of us) MUST be patient, especially during highly-charged controversial episodes like police shootings. We must not jump to conclusions without all the facts. We must hold the government accountable, while at the same time, letting the process play out.
- Social media is NOT a courtroom.
In saying the above, however, I don’t want us to lose sight of the fact that there are real problems of injustice and inequity still in our society. There are some real issues that need to be addressed. In spite of the fact that most Americans (including most police officers) are decent people who believe in racial equality, the question must be asked: how much poison is required to make a bottle of water fatal?
Our country overall is not racist. We live, in fact, in the greatest nation in the world. But we’ve allowed racism to fester for too long and in too many areas of our society.
At the same time, when it comes to facing the injustice in our society, hatred is not the answer. That includes hating cops, hating the country, or hating all white people. We must love one another. Love is what will conquer racism. Not hate. No matter how much injustice there is in the world, you must not lose your faith in God or your love for others. You can and should still find room in your heart to honor the nation in which you live and, as Martin Luther King did, call upon America to live UP to its ideals. Never yield to hatred or cynicism. That is the way of darkness. And our nation needs light now more than ever.
God bless you.