The day Michael Brown was killed by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer I was driving to Hollywood to see another performance of Dreamscape, the play my husband Rickerby wrote over nine years ago inspired by the 1998 shooting of teenager Tyisha Miller by Riverside police officers. The performance is part of a two-weekend run at LACE, the Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, a gallery space dedicated to presenting ground-breaking contemporary art.
As I watched the reaction of the audience and listened to their emotional comments after the production, I asked myself why the story still resonates. I even asked John “Faahz” Merchant, Dreamscape’s co-star, how the Polish audience reacted to the play during its recent tour of four universities in Poland. His response: the story resonated with them because of the power struggle between a powerful government and the people who feel completely powerless.
We had no idea that earlier that day thousands of miles away another unarmed 18-year old African-American teenager had been fatally shot by a police officer after simply walking down the street. And we had no idea that the shooting would be a tipping point for the Black community in that town after years of unfair treatment by the law enforcement whose motto seems to be “stop and shoot” instead of “protect and serve.”
But we should have known.
After learning a little more about Ferguson and what one critic calls the “toxic interaction” between law enforcement and Black males, I was reminded of what happened in Cincinnati, Ohio in 2001. When I arrived to teach in Cincinnati in 1998 – the same year Tyisha Miller was shot in Riverside – I was shocked by the silence surrounding what I later learned was a long string of fatal confrontations between Black males and the police. Between 1995-2001, 15 African-American males had been killed by Cincinnati Police during confrontations or while in custody. One of those young men was fatally shot not far from my office right there in the middle of the University of Cincinnati campus.
What I took for apathy as incident after incident was reported with seemingly no community outrage, was really a slow simmering anger and resentment. And the simmering pot reached a full boil when 19-year old Timothy Thomas was shot in his Over-the-Rhine neighborhood by a Cincinnati police officer. In fact, just three weeks before the 2001 riot, considered the largest disturbance since the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, local organizations had joined the ACLU in filing a civil lawsuit against the Cincinnati Police Department alleging 30 years of racial profiling and police brutality. Independent studies later showed that for decades Blacks were twice as likely to be stopped and four times as likely to be cited for minor traffic offenses as Whites in the city.
According to an annual report released by the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, Ferguson, as recent as last year had a racial profiling problem, much like Cincinnati of 2001. Despite the fact that Black drivers were found to have less contraband than Whites, they were twice as likely to be stopped and arrested. Michael Brown’s shooting, while still unclear why and how it happened, is yet another example of racial profiling, especially of young Black males. According to both accounts of the incident, Michael and his friend were not suspected of any crime. They were walking in the middle of the street. And they were Black…and young…and Black.
Like Cincinnati post 2001 and like Riverside after the shooting of Tyisha Miller, there will be a review of protocols, a series of reforms suggested and adopted, and the proposed modification of negative behaviors that have led to such a toxic environment. It is clear that both cities have benefitted from those changes and haven’t repeated the sins of the past. It is imperative that a national standard be developed and adopted to prevent these types of incidents in the future. Who knows, if all communities learned the lessons from Tyisha in 1998, Timothy in 2001, and the countless other fatal encounters between law enforcement and Black teenagers, we would be reporting on Michael’s first day of college instead of his funeral.
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