January 27th, 2009
The Soundz of Blackness
January has shaped up as a month in which the voices of Black men have grabbed headlines across the country. One could hear echoes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech in classrooms and professional football promotions. The voice of our new president, Barack Obama, can be heard exhorting that “we are ready to lead once more.” However, there is a less famous Black voice also making headlines, one that haunts me mightily – the voice of Oscar Grant III.
He became known shortly after New Year’s Day, on grainy cell phone videos showing him plaintively requesting that Bay Area Rapid Transit police officers in Oakland, Calif., not taser him while he was laying subdued, facedown and weaponless on a subway platform. He said he had children that needed a father. Instead, he was punched by one officer, and shot in the back and killed by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle.
What is to be made of these sounds of Blackness? The word vigilance comes to mind. Before the famous “I have a dream” speech, Dr. King sat in a jail in Birmingham and wrote a historic missive that noted “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Dr. King threw down a marker for vigilance that rings from an Oakland subway platform to the White House.
I join millions in their excitement about when the sounds of Blackness include the words “President and First Lady Obama.” Who could not be moved by looking at the faces standing in the cold during the inaugural festivities? What a pity that the young father, Oscar Grant, did not live long enough to see this potential shift in generational leadership.
Mr. Grant’s tragic death is a reminder for vigilance. In the days following the inauguration, gangs and drugs remain in some of our communities, public schools remain overcrowded and underserved, our neighborhoods remain distant from job centers and adequate public transportation, juvenile detention centers are filled with a disproportionate number of youth of color, and young Black men will continue to die at the hands of those entrusted to protect them.
In 1982, a study by the Chicago Law Enforcement Study Group found that 70 percent of the victims of police shootings were Black and that Black victims were less likely than White or Hispanics to be armed or threatening physical force. The study’s authors recommended “the nation’s police departments adopt a ‘defense of life’ shooting policy.”
And yet, what has changed in the 27 years since?
On New Year’s Eve, a police officer shot the son of baseball player Bobby Tolan, 23-year-old Robert, in front of his mother as he lay on the ground outside of his Houston home. The White police officer had apparently mistaken the young Black man’s SUV for a stolen car in the Bellaire neighborhood.
On New Year’s Day, 22-year-old Black young man Adolph Grimes III died in a 3 a.m. barrage of police gunfire outside his grandmother’s home in New Orleans. He was hit 14 times, with twelve of the bullets striking him from behind after nine plainclothes police officers surrounded him as he sat in his car.
The sounds of Blackness are polyrhythmic. Each voice has a significant call and response in this song that is the American chorus. We lift our voices on behalf of Oscar Grant, Robert Tolan, Adolph Grimes and other young Black victims of police violence that, in the words of our first Black president (who was quoting Dr. King) the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
As the community organizer in President Obama knows, he will do his job and we must do ours – working for justice for youth of color, their families and communities. Lift every voice and sing. Vigilance must be our sound.