By now, you’ve seen the gesture. Palms raised in the air, heads held up high, no smiles; people chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
On Sunday night, five St. Louis Rams players walked onto the field with their hands up, “my children matter” written on their wrists. Protesters around the nation have raised their hands in solidarity with the people of Ferguson following the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Mike Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. Following the players’ actions, the St. Louis Police Officers Association demanded an apology.
The SLPOA’s statement detailed how the association was “profoundly disappointed” with the St. Louis Rams players who “chose to ignore the mountains of evidence … and engage in a display that police officers around the nation found tasteless, offensive and inflammatory.” They called for the players involved to be disciplined and for the Rams and the NFL to deliver “a very public apology.”
This reaction was uncalled for, insensitive and showed a blatant misinterpretation of the players’ empathy. The SLPOA’s description of the players’ peaceful protest as “offensive and inflammatory” is ironic given that, for many Americans, Wilson’s non-indictment was incredibly “offensive and inflammatory.”
The other day, a close friend asked, “Why is ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ happening if Mike Brown probably didn’t actually have his hands up? I don’t get it.” In light of the concern and confusion expressed by many, I hope to propose an understanding of why, nearly 16 weeks after the shooting, our hands are still up.
The oppression of blacks by no means ended with emancipation. After the end of slavery began the convict leasing: the popular system of penal labor practiced in the South. Primarily African-American men were incarcerated on charges ranging from spitting on the streets to unemployment, and then leased out to work as a cheap, exploited labor force.
And then there were the lynchings, when black (and Latino) men hung in plain sight while towns made postcards of black bodies swinging from trees. Emmett Till was 14 years old when he was murdered in 1955 after reportedly flirting with a white woman. His killers were acquitted despite later publicly admitting to the crime.
In 2012, unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who was also later acquitted. On July 17, Eric Garner muttered, “I can’t breathe” as an New York City police officer held him in a chokehold; he later died en route to the hospital. Once again: no indictment. And then there were Tamir Rice and Oscar Grant and Xavier Ingram and Pedro Oregon and Osman Hernandez and Amadou Diallo and Rodney King and Aiyana Stanley and Dante Parker and the dozens of other colored victims of police violence.
Though blacks are no longer slaves and convict labor leasing is no longer legal, mass incarceration, police brutality and harassment are all examples of existing racial oppression. Jim Crow law may be dead, but its ghost continues to rear its ugly head.
So before the SLPOA demands an apology from the St. Louis Rams players, the organization should understand that the “hands up, don’t shoot” motion is not a personal attack on Wilson, but rather a metaphor for how it feels to be a person of color in this country today: constantly facing discrimination, always on the defense and forever dreading the targets on our backs. The players may be big shot athletes on the field, but they are still vulnerable black men subject to discrimination the minute they step out of the stadium.
Brown’s hands may not have been up at the time of his death, but they have figuratively been raised since the moment he was born a black child in America. For many, the image of an unarmed black face lying dead in the streets is not some detached photo of a “thug,” but an eerie mirror. People of color in this country perpetually live with their hands up, incessantly trying to prove themselves equal citizens worthy of respect. We defend ourselves against racialized police brutality, a result of deeply rooted discrimination within the political and justice systems.
An unarmed boy was shot six times from close range by a police officer and there was no trial. Regardless of what your opinion on the ruling may be, now is the time to discuss what the events in Ferguson represent for America as a whole. Mike Brown may be dead and Darren Wilson may have resigned, but our hands will stay up until we no longer have to assert, “Black lives matter.”
Because hands up or hands down, that boy in Ferguson did not deserve to die.
Jade Harvey is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at email@example.com.