“Unarmed Black Man Shot Dead by Police”
The black-man-killed headline (above) could appear in any newspaper, in any city in the United States, where “land of the free” appears to not extend to an African American male’s freedom to keep his life.
Motivated by this realization, 27 faculty, staff and students of Eastern Mennonite University gathered on the steps of Northlawn early in the fall semester to raise their hands in solidarity with the African American community of Ferguson, Missouri, where 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer on Aug. 9, 2014.
“We were trying to demonstrate visually the continued need to be valued in society,” said Luke Hartman, vice president of enrollment.
[Editor: As EMU prepared to post this story on 09/26/14, a new account of a white police officer shooting an unarmed black man – this one captured on video in South Carolina on Sept. 4 – swept around the world. The victim, 35-year-old Levar Jones, was approached by the police officer for allegedly not wearing a seatbelt in his vehicle. When, as requested, Jones moved to show the officer his driver’s license, he was shot at repeatedly and wounded in the hip.]
Black Student Union steps up
The gathering was Hartman’s idea, but junior Londen Wheeler (co-president of the Black Student Union) rallied students to show up. Hartman applauded bringing “EMU’s exceptional group of new and returning students of color together in order to meet one another.”
“I went to spread awareness about what happened,” said freshman Bruce Cypress, one of the students in the EMU #DontShoot photo. Cypress and sophomore Jay Bradley, also in the photo, said they didn’t understand the reason behind the shooting because police have other tools at their disposal that don’t result in civilian death.
A Google search of “unarmed black man shot by police” yields over half a million hits. This shooting of Michael Brown, however, seemed to be a kind of breaking point that released pent-up anger, grief and frustration nationwide about what is happening to America’s young, black males.
“It seems as though there is a segment of white society that sees black bodies as something to be feared or dangerous, and as something to remove from society,” said EMU seminary professor David Evans.
Whites’ fear leads to blacks’ death
Evans has two sons and worries about their safety in a white-dominated society. Will they be shot for wearing a hoodie around someone who finds their presence fear-inducing?
“To put it quite simply,” he said, “I want to make the statement that black lives matter, that we’re human beings, that we have emotions, that we have families, and we are not a threat simply because we exist.”
For Evans, the #DontShoot movement has the simultaneous purpose of lowering anxiety while also speaking out against the use of African American people as targets.
Black and white Americans are not listening to one another’s narratives, he said. Without dialogue and recognition that each person has a story, a background, and is part of an enduring paradigm of racial tension, change will not be possible.
Fellowship, interaction needed
“Hatred thrives where there is contact without fellowship,” Evans said, quoting theologian Howard Thurman. “I think that is what we live in today. This is the state of our society. People of different racial and ethnic groups live in the same society, they work in the same buildings, they go to the same schools…but they don’t know each other intimately.”
For whites, “The Talk,” is usually about sex. But for at least some of those in the EMU #DontShoot photo, “The Talk” refers to how black parents teach their children to carefully act when encountering a police officer. For a population that is witnessing repeated violence against their young people, this is potentially life-sustaining information.
With their #DontShoot photo – tweeted on Sept. 5 – EMU’s black community members are joining others across the nation in protesting whites’ violence inflicted on African Americans, particularly males. These photos have now been shared extensively on social media sites and have garnered considerable traffic and discussion.