Why I Fear for My Brother—and Other Black Men, Too
Every day, it seems, some new report of a police officer killing a black man comes to light.
And every time one does, a little more despondence darkens my outlook.
It’s as if any action by a black boy or man that, in the mind of the officer, does not indicate complete and utter subjugation, is grounds for deadly force. As much as I depend and trust on the police to protect me, I can’t believe that this is the role that law enforcement was meant so serve.
In fact, I know that’s not the role that the police serve outside of the black community.
I grew up in predominantly white neighborhoods and attended predominantly white schools, and I have often been unnerved by actions I saw my white peers take in front of law enforcement—screaming derogatory words, getting in cops’ faces, shoving pointed fingers at them.
And every time these white kids acted out, the law enforcement agency involved somehow always managed to handle it calmly. No gunshots to the back. No fatal chokeholds. No spine-snapping “rough rides” while unbelted in a police van.
Somehow, no matter what those white kids did, the police always managed to see and respect their humanity enough to not simply mow them down like dogs. And then I think about my own 24-year-old brother, Brent. High school graduate at 16. College grad at 19. In dental school by age 23. If you were to go by the lies we are consistently told by society, that if you just do your best you can become a real “American”—and thus not subject to the insults and humiliation afforded others—then my brother appears to fit the bill.
But I know well that, for all his accomplishments, were my brother to behave toward the police even half as aggressively as some of the white kids I grew up, his life would almost certainly be forfeit.
I thought about this not long ago when, as a first-year dental school resident in Ohio, Brent invited me from Detroit to visit him during a Thanksgiving holiday to enjoy some of his fantastic cooking. Although I’d initially resisted his offer to whip up his famed macaroni-and-cheese for me, by the time Thanksgiving Day actually rolled around, my willpower had evaporated. I wanted those carbs.
So, at 8 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, my brother drove us to the market. But as soon as I saw him climb into the passenger seat, my mind instantly switched from worrying about pasta to worrying about my brother’s very life.
Why? He was wearing a hoodie.
Even though I was dressed similarly, in my sweatpants and law-school sweatshirt, I implored Brent to take off the hood of his sweatshirt. “It’s Thanksgiving Day,” I explained. “Today’s the last day that I want trouble from the cops.”
He laughed at me, blew me off as being ridiculous in the way young folks are bound to do. But I was undeterred. I reached over and tugged at the hood to pull it off. Still chuckling, Brent swatted my hand down: “Quit it—you’re going to make me have an accident.”
I wish I would’ve been able to laugh as easily, but I couldn’t. I wanted that hoodie off—for a couple of reasons: one, because my brother was driving a really nice car and hoodie, or not, that is often grounds to stop young black men; and two, (and most importantly) because no one knew our resumes as we rode in the car.
To a casual observer, Brent was just another dangerous young black guy in a hoodie, and I was just his associate in sweatpants. If a problem were to arise, there would be no opportunity to explain that he had a doctorate in dental surgery and I was a lawyer. We would just be two more among the many wrongfully brutalized or killed because our color says all that cops need to know.
My brother never did take off that hoodie. Fortunately, no problems surfaced and we made to the store and back without incident.
But it is incredibly hard to live in a city or country and witness firsthand how paler people are able to engage with impunity in behavior that would easily get a darker-skinned person shot.
Just more than a month ago, right here in Detroit, 20-year-old Terrence Kellom had an outstanding warrant for his arrest. For some reason this particular apprehension –Kellom was accused of holding up a pizza delivery man with a small knife –warranted a multi-jurisdictional task force comprised of multiple state and federal law enforcement agency, including ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement).
Why ICE was involved in a non-immigration related matter of a U.S. Citizen remains a mystery. But somehow, the ICE agent was the individual who knocked on Terrence’s door, entered his house, and ultimately shot and killed him. Terrence’s father said he was unarmed—the ICE agent claims Terrence was armed—with a hammer. I don’t know if he had a hammer or not, or whether when ICE entered his house, his ultimate goal was to avoid arrest by that agent and other task force members.
What I do know is that with the threat of a hammer injury looming above them, the police could have—and should have—responded in a non-lethal manner. And I firmly believe that’s what the police would have done—if they had been executing a warrant in Bloomfield Hills or Grosse Pointe.
Maybe the police were authorized to use deadly force in this instance, but that doesn’t mean they should have. Who hasn’t seen a frat boy smoking weed at a party or inappropriately touching a woman, run if and when the police are called? Those individuals get a chance to continue their life and explain their actions.
Terrence did not.
Black lives matter—very much—to me. But I don’t know if law enforcement shares my sentiment. That’s why I believe that, until we come up with a way to make police officers accountable for the murders of black men, these unnecessary killings will continue.
The ACLU of Michigan is looking for those ways. That’s why we have launched Mobile Justice MI, our mobile-device application that allows users to record and report police misconduct. Exposing police abuse is, of course, the first step to challenging it. Our app, like police body cameras, can allow for that exposure.
But as important and useful as video apps and body cameras can be, they aren’t the sole solution—not when so many officers appear quite comfortable brutalizing and killing black men on video. Nor can the answer be limited only to federal investigations, which often don’t result in indictment.
I don’t have the definitive answer—but I firmly believe that officers should be immediately held accountable for such shootings. I believe too that the feds should investigate not just individual shootings of black men but all non-fatal police encounters with white men in similar circumstances also.
Until then, I and many black people just like me will continue to regard the recent police killings of black men not as last-resort measures taken to protect the lives of the officers—but as just another way to try to eliminate black men from the fabric of American society.
By Brooke Tucker, staff attorney at the ACLU of Michigan.