I try to imagine being a child and seeing my own mother pulled out of the car and handcuffed at gunpoint, and I just can’t. When I try anyway, I’m left wondering how it would affect my view of the police as I grew up. I wonder how well Kametra Barbour’s kids will remember this incident years from now, and how it will affect them. The incident itself is over, but how long will its impact last? Will it ever be “all better”?
Because of their direct experience with racism, my African American friends have a very different response to the Michael Brown shooting story than I do. As a white man, I hear the story as just another news event: A guy was shot by a police officer. Maybe it was justified; maybe it wasn’t. The truth will come out eventually. I can be patient. It doesn’t really impact my life much one way or the other.
But to my black friends, this is a very scary story. They’ve experienced racist treatment over and over at the hands of supposedly impartial institutions. Many of them have experienced racism at the hands of police, as hard as that is for white guys like me to understand. Now here’s a story—not an isolated incident, but the latest in a long line of such stories—of someone being killed by the very folks we rely on for protection, for no apparent reason other than judgments made based on his race. If that race is also your race, that’s frightening.
My friends don’t hate the police, or government, or laws. They’re not criminals or thugs. They’re not whiners complaining about past injustices. They’re reasonable, law-abiding citizens who want to know that incidents like this are taken seriously, that there’s transparency in the process, and that the same thing couldn’t happen to them or their loved ones. Because their own life experiences—experiences I have never had—have proven to them that when someone with a gun is making a split-second decision, race matters.
Was race a factor in the treatment of Kametra Barbour, the killing of Michael Brown and Kajieme Powell, or the trial of George Zimmerman? I don’t know. It’s hard to imagine otherwise, but I wasn’t there and I can’t see into the minds of the people who were. What I do know is that these are traumatic events for an entire community, and traumatic events leave scars that may never heal. We have to take them seriously, to continue the conversations about how we can do better as a nation, and to remember that when it comes to life-altering events, the past is only truly past for those who didn’t live through it.
Because it’s not all better. And understanding that is key to moving forward together.