Gender Based Violence

by Grace Ndanu

A photo of a woman crying. Her face is bruised.
Source: UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Creative Commons

It is believed that Gender Based Violence existed from long time ago as a result of male dominance and power, meaning women were left inferior. Generally GBV stops girls from reaching their potential, where by there is a lot of working to transform attitudes towards girls and women that perpetuate violence against them. That is why women are trying to negotiate with the men that they can be equal, but men want to maintain their dominance, which causes an increase in GBV cases.

GBV occurs almost everywhere now, and the girls and women are the victims. Stating at home, children’s vulnerabilities to violence stem from the fact that they depend on their parents or caregivers for their development health and wellbeing. Girls and young women often experience violence at home, from physical punishment to sexual, emotional or psychological violence. Acceptance of violence as a private affair often prevents others from intervening and prohibits girls and young women from reporting in the name of keeping the family name clean.

In primary and high school the violence rate is low unlike in the college and universities. This is because there are strict rules and supervision, which is not the case in colleges and universities around the world. While in college a girl is considered to be an adult. Also, her parents are far away, so anyone she has the freedom to do whatever she wants, including engage in sexual relationships. In these relationships the boys often want to take charge of girl’s life. At this point most of the girls already know their rights and hence they will never accept to be dominated. Unfortunately, this makes them vulnerable to gender based violence because the boys will still fight to maintain the “man’s “position in a girl’s life.

In the work place the top positions are designed for men, including the managers, directors and supervisors, while women are secretaries and cleaners. Gender based violence is likely in situations where a qualified female is expected to perform sexual favors to management in order to get a promotion.

Gender based virulence is also a rising issue in online spaces with girls and young women reporting harassment and abuse. For many girls, there is a pressure to leave online platforms. I am opposed to this because these are the places where most girls and young women get to know their capabilities and strengths through interaction with different types of people. But girls need to be careful in these spaces.

Gender based violence occurs in all parts of the world, but the risk is higher where violence is normalized and where rigid concepts of gender exist. In many cultures, especially the developing countries, violence towards girls and young women is accepted as a social norm. Here comes a saying of an African woman who is strongly tied to culture “a husband who does not beat his wife does not love her”. And the woman herself will ask her husband to beat her. This must be challenged as a matter of urgency, the blame, shame and stigma faced by victims must be eliminated.

Violence should never be a private matter and everyone should be aware of this starting from the youngest to the oldest. So that it can be challenged. Ending GBV will involve action at all levels; strengthening legislation and criminalizing the violence, challenging social norms that condone violence and prosecuting the perpetrators.

Children should learn about gender equality at school, just as it is important to promote integrational dialogue on violence against children. Community dialogue can challenge dominance that brings about gender based violence.

Everybody has a responsibility to promote and strengthen values that support nonviolent, respectful, positive gender equitable relationships for all children and adolescents, including the most vulnerable and excluded.

Young girls and women are encouraged to speak up about the issues they face which embolden them to speak up for change. On the other side young men are encouraged to identity and challenge harmful and negative masculinities that perpetuate discrimination and violence.

Honoring Our Responsibilities to People and Other Animals

by Pamela Zuber

Dog's teeth through a knothole in a fence
Image: Pixabay

On August 19, 2019, nine-year-old Emma Hernandez died in Detroit, Michigan. She died from injuries she sustained after three dogs mauled her.

Hernandez’s death comes after her family and others issued multiple complaints and filed police reports about the dogs roaming free in the neighborhood and their owner’s inability to contain them. Neighbors tried to stop the mauling by attacking the pit bulls, but the girl suffered a fractured cervical spine and several other injuries. Writing in the Detroit News, Sarah Rahal noted that “[t]he attack was so horrific that counseling services were offered to emergency responders.”

While the death of any nine-year-old is a tragedy, Emma Hernandez’s death is especially tragic because it was so violent and so avoidable. We should not allow dangerous and potentially domestic animals to travel freely. Taking the effort to contain such animals with secure fencing and other restraints protects people’s rights to safety and security.

Not possessing such animals in the first place also prevents such tragedies. Training animals to be vicious or adopting particularly vicious animals can create disasters like Hernandez’s death. People may argue that vicious animals are security measures to prevent crime, but actually, they’re like the guns that people buy for personal security. Violent animals and guns may produce more violence than prevent it. “Access to a gun triples the risk of suicide death,” according to Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

What about the rights of pet owners?

(For the purposes of this article, we refer to pet owners as people who adopt animals.) Authorities have charged Pierre Cleveland, the dogs’ owner, with second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter, and owning dangerous animals that led to Hernandez’s death. People previously filed police about roaming dogs from his house. Detroit Animal Care and Control, part of the city’s health department, visited his house in March, 2018 after receiving reports that two dogs from the house were loose. It is unclear whether the department found the animals dangerous or if they were the same dogs involved in the fatal 2019 mauling.

Clearly, improprieties involving dogs occurred in southwest Detroit in 2018 and 2019. Detroit’s home state of Michigan has clear definitions and determinations about dangerous animals, conditions that determine dangerous animal ownership, guidelines for euthanizing dangerous animals, and penalties for people who possess dangerous animals that cause harm.

Owning a dangerous pet is similar to owning a dangerous weapon. Both may inflict a great deal of harm on innocent people. Guns are inanimate objects. While dangerous animals do have brains, they do not have the reasoning abilities that people have. Dogs cannot build enclosures or make laws to corral themselves physically. It is therefore incumbent on people to control creatures and weapons. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA):

In order for dogs to live harmoniously with people and with other companion animals, it is critical to hold guardians responsible for the proper supervision of their dogs and for any actions on their part that either create or encourage aggressive behavior.

Responsibly owning pets is a societal obligation. We have responsibilities to others and expect that others will behave in similar ways. While we are allowed to own pets (within limits), we have to do so responsibly to live with others safely and harmoniously.

What about the rights of others?

Emma Hernandez lived next door to vicious dogs. She probably faced their barking, snarling, and aggression frequently, if not daily, during her young life. They may have been the last things she ever saw. Can you imagine living and dying with such fear?

Living with anxiety, with the constant threat of danger, may be harmful to one’s mental health. It may drive some people to drink too much or use drugs to try to escape their fear and anxiety. It could cause other symptoms of anxiety, such as insomnia, stomach problems, uneasiness, and other unpleasant side effects. We don’t know what Emma Hernandez experienced and we can’t ask her.

Safety is a fundamental right. We have entire systems to provide different kinds of safety. We have police departments and legal systems to prevent crime or prosecute it if it occurs. We have health departments that work to prevent or minimizes illnesses or injuries. These entities failed Emma Hernandez and her family.

“Everyone has the right to live, to be free, and to feel safe” is Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. Did Emma feel free and safe? Or, did human negligence lead to an egregious attack on her human rights?

How do we prevent such tragedies?

Mean-looking dog
Image: Pixabay

What happened in August 2019 in Detroit was preventable. If workers from animal control visited the house to investigate the pit bulls involved in the attack, they should have taken steps to reign in the animals and actually practice the animal control that is part of the department’s name.

When authorities are called to homes with potentially violent animals, they should remove the animals until their owners make their homes safer by building or reinforcing fences, gates, or doors or taking other safety precautions. If owners cannot afford such modifications, maybe authorities could pay for the changes and garnish pet owners’ paychecks or other sources of income.

If people do not have the income to secure their animals or repay authorities for providing such safety measures, maybe they shouldn’t own animals at all. Pet ownership is a privilege, not a right.

We could compare adopting a pet to owning a car. Owning a car requires paying for fuel, maintenance, insurance, and other charges. People are required to invest money and be diligent to make sure that their cars run properly and don’t pose hazards to others. To receive driver’s licenses, they must learn how to operate them safely.

Similarly, maybe people need training about how to handle animals. After this training, they could receive licenses to adopt pets. If their pets cause harm, people could have their licenses revoked and face further penalties, such as not being able to adopt additional pets.

Maybe law enforcement agencies and other bodies should institute a two-strike rule as well. If authorities return animals to a home and the animals provoke additional formal complaints, the authorities should remove the animals from the owners. If this provision was in place, authorities could have removed the dogs who caused the 2019 fatal mauling.

Every day, we do things to try to protect our safety and the safety of others. We drive our cars at speed limits, we cannot cross the street at any time at any place, we can only smoke tobacco in designated areas. We are allowed to do things that are potentially dangerous, but within limits.

Owning a pet comes with similar parameters. We can own animals, but not dangerous ones. If we do something that jeopardizes our safety or the safety of others, we should face repercussions. While there are ongoing repercussions to the 2019 mauling, they are unfortunately too late to help Emma Hernandez. Maybe these measures and other proposals will help people in the future before similar tragedies strike.

About the author: Pamela Zuber is a writer and an editor who writes about human rights, health and wellness, gender, and business.

Teenage Pregnancy in Developing Countries

by Grace Ndanu

5 December. 2013. El Fasher: Students of the Midwifery School in El Fasher, North Darfur, march to commemorate the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence, organized by UNAMID Gender Unit. The event intends to raise awareness in communities about gender violence and its implications for communities, women and girls’ lives and livelihood. Photo by Hamid Abdulsalam, UNAMID

Early pregnancy is a common thing all over the world, but it occurs most often in poorer and marginalized communities. Many girls face considerable pressure to marry early and become mothers while they are still young. Teenage pregnancy increases when girls are denied the right to make decisions about their sexual and reproductive health. Therefore it becomes a risk factor for poor maternal and child health and socio-economic outcomes. Approximately 90% of births in girls aged 15-19 in developing countries occur within early marriage where there is often an imbalance of power, where the father decides everything that happens to his daughter, leaving the subordinated mother speechless on matters concerning her daughter. Other reasons behind the teenage pregnancies are lack of information about sexual and reproductive health rights, inadequate access to services tailored to young people, sexual violence, early and forced marriage which can be both a cause and a consequence, and lastly lack of education or dropping out of school.

Teenage pregnancy highly contributes to maternal and child mortality. Complications relating to pregnancy and child birth are the leading cause of death for girls in the age bracket of 15-19 globally. Pregnant girls and adolescents also face other health risks and complications due to their immature bodies. Babies born to younger mothers are also at greater risk for poor birth outcomes such as low birth weight.

For many teenage girls, pregnancy and childbirth are neither planned nor wanted, which also happens to girls who get pregnant as a result of incest. In countries where abortion is prohibited or highly restricted adolescents – sometimes with the help of their parents – typically resort to unsafe abortions, putting their health and lives at risk. This happens frequently in developing countries. The girls who don’t want to have an abortion may face negative social and economic effects, including stigma or rejection as well as threats of violence from the parents and at times the peers. Girls who become pregnant before the age of 18 are also more likely to experience violence within a marriage or partnership. In the case where the pregnancy is kept to term and the chid is born born, some of the teenage mothers start thinking out of the box after the child is born. Some may want to go back to school and others may think that they are too old for school and instead they may want to work on short courses like catering, beading and beauty.

Globally each country has been trying to reduce teenage pregnancy rates among its members through empowerment. This is done through campaigns that involve a multitude of stakeholders, including the government, development partners, social influencers, religious leaders, media practitioners and civil society organizations. The empowerment is based on raising girls’ awareness of their sexual and reproductive health and rights protecting them from abuse and taking them to school. This also includes making sure they can access the health services which are mostly free of charge. The girls also get support on decisions they make about their future and their bodies. In addition there are organized seminars where they are taught about leadership and speaking out their minds, which helps them to bring back their confidence and self-esteem which was probably lost during the pregnancy. At times there are girls who get to have a fresh start of confidence and boldness that they didn’t have before, an indication of green pastures (which means they have moved on successfully).

Mary Frances Whitfield: Why?

Mary Frances Whitfield: Why? is a collaborative exhibition between the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts (AEIVA) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The exhibition is co-curated by AEIVA Curator John Fields and Dr. Brandon Wolfe, Assistant VP of Campus and Community Engagement in the Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at UAB. It is on display at AEIVA until November 23, 2019. The images included below are in the exhibition.

Depictions of lynchings are usually loud – they bring into focus the agony of the victims, their bodies beaten and burned, hanging from a tree, or the intense anger, absolute hatred, and pure evil of the perpetrators and spectators as they relish in their acts of terror, dehumanization and brutality. Mary Frances Whitfield invites us to consider another experience, one that often goes unacknowledged or unconsidered artistically and historically. What happens when the spectacle is over, when the crowd disperses, when the terrorists have gone home, having achieved their fill of racial violence for the day? Who comes to claim the victims, to hold their lifeless bodies one last time, to cut them down and lay them to rest?

Mary, 1994
watercolor and acrylic on canvas board
16 x 20 inches
photo: Adam Grimshaw
Collection of the artist, Courtesy Phyllis Stigliano Art Projects
©Mary F. Whitfield

Whitfield’s paintings are not loud. They depict a silent despair. She transforms the space of public spectacle, of loud chaos, into a private and still experience that focuses on the quiet mourning of the bereaved. For Whitfield, this mourning conditions the lives of black people in her ancestral history and now. Her depictions are dark and heavy, they are full of grief and despair, and this emotional weight is largely held in the bodies of the mourners who literally hold this anguish – and their faces – in their hands. The victims and the mourners are often dressed in bright pastel colors, an image that foregrounds their vibrancy against the backdrop of a thick and consuming darkness. It reminds us of the life they could have lived, a life that was cut short by hate. Wives wrap their arms around the lifeless bodies of their husbands, young boys reach for the dangling feet of their fathers, women touch their protruding bellies, desperately hoping, we might assume, that their unborn children will not meet the same fate as the victim. Bodies of men, women, children, and babies hang from trees, sometimes engulfed in flames, sometimes appearing to sway slowly in the breeze. The stillness of the victims and the stoicism of the mourners in Whitfield’s paintings reflect the normalcy and the familiarly of an ordinary experience, part of daily existence for African Americans in the 18th and early 19th century, a reality wrought with unbearable pain, constant mourning, and overwhelming fear. 

Sari-Mae’s Sorrow, 1996
watercolor on canvas board
16 x 20 inches
Collection of the artist, Courtesy Phyllis Stigliano Art Projects
©Mary F. Whitfield

The title of the exhibit invites us to ask “Why?”, and the question looms on several levels. Why lynching? Why Albert? Why Sari-Mae? Why Mama and Papa? Why me? Why us? Why then? And maybe most importantly: Why now?

When the slavebody became the blackbody, white people could not let go of the compulsion to maintain dominance over black bodies and black lives. The vilification and demonization of black people took hold in the discourse, and a consensus grew around the need to protect white people and white dominance, a need so desperate it justified brutal violence and severe oppression against the newly “freed” citizens. Whitfield’s paintings are borne out of stories her grandmother told her about life during this time, a time when more than 4,000 black human beings were lynched publicly and without consequence. The work is timeless, though, and as we leave the exhibit and go out into the world, we are forced to wonder why this is still happening. Lynchings today take a different form, but they continue to terrorize and demoralize black communities all over the United States and emphasize the devaluation of black bodies and black lives in our society.

Toni Morrison says that the purpose and the power of art is in its ability to create conversation, one that is “critical to the understanding of what it means to care deeply and to be human completely.” If we can ask ourselves “Why?”, if we can have this conversation, if we can engage in this discourse honestly and authentically, if we can accept the truth about the continuing legacy of the slave trade and mass enslavement and lynchings in all of its forms – past and present – and then reconcile ourselves to that truth, then maybe through that conversation, we will see a path forward, one that leads us toward healing, one that will someday allow us to live in the peace and freedom and beauty of Dr. King’s dream. It’s a hard question to answer, not in its complexity but in its power to change our understanding of ourselves, but it’s one that we must ask.

The Monument at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice: Remembering Victims of Racial Terror Lynchings in the 1950s

On Interstate-65, about halfway between Birmingham and Montgomery, a confederate flag waves boldly and proudly above the tree line. One might be inclined to think that this flag still stands as a remnant of a bygone era, but the Alabama division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans erected the flag in 2005, the “commander” of the organization declaring: “We put the flag up so people could see it…We are showing off our heritage.” In Alabama and the rest of the South, there remains a sense of pride in the Confederacy, a nostalgia for a time when black bodies were owned and traded as commodities by white people who denied them human lives and insisted on their subservience. The Confederate Memorial Park, funded by the Alabama Historical Society ($600,000 of taxpayer money annually), provides an opportunity for schoolchildren to learn about the history of the Civil War as a war fought over “states’ rights” and to honor those who lost their lives for such a “just” cause. These memorials – hundreds throughout the state – recognize and honor the state’s history (and the government endorsement) of white supremacy and its continuing legacy. 

In fact, when Bryan Stevenson moved to Montgomery in the late 1980s, he noticed that he could barely walk a few blocks without seeing some kind of monument or memorial to the Confederacy. What was conspicuously absent was any mention of the slave trade, or slavery, or enslaved peoples. In the 1850s, Montgomery was the most active space for the sale of human bodies, and while there was plenty of states and privately funded tributes to those who fought to protect the institution of slavery, the landscape did not hold space for those victimized by it. Mr. Stevenson insists that as a nation we still have not adequately acknowledged the truth of our past nor the legacy that the slave trade and mass enslavement of black people has on our communities today.

Source: Equal Justice Initiative

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice came out of a vision to change that landscape, to consecrate the space as a testament to the lives lost in the brutal effort to preserve white supremacy, and to change the conversation about how this continued effort impacts our current social, political and economic reality in the United States. The memorial enshrines the memory of over 4,000 individuals who were lynched between 1877 and 1950. Lynchings during this time period were often public spectacles, celebrations, a form of entertainment – spectators enjoyed deviled eggs and lemonade while black bodies were brutally tortured and thrown onto fire pits, law enforcement cheered along with the crowd and often participated in the brutality, and no one was ever held accountable for these acts of terror.

While the Memorial documents the most active era of racial terror lynchings, the EJI acknowledges that these instances of racially motivated violence did not stop after 1950. White supremacists continued to terrorize black communities by targeting early movement leaders and black activists who were successfully challenging white supremacy. On a national level, the response to these atrocities began to change — not, as we might hope, because the nation suddenly started caring about black lives, but because during World War II, U.S. officials became concerned that anti-American propaganda campaigns led by Japanese and German forces depicted the U.S. as a hotbed of “anti-Negro discrimination” and racial terror. White supremacists continued to kidnap, torture and murder black individuals as a way of perpetuating fear in black communities and maintaining control, but they began to make more concerted efforts to obscure these acts from national media attention.

On April 29, 2019, as part of the 30-year anniversary celebration of the Equal Justice Initiative and one year since the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, EJI consecrated a monument recognizing and honoring 24 victims of lynching in the 1950s. Their stories were told, their leadership in the struggle for social justice remembered, and their memories represented by relatives, friends, and members of their communities. 

This monument remembers 24 victims of lynching from 1950-1959

These are the names of 24 men and women who were lynched between 1950 and 1959:

Hillard Brooks, Junior, a 22-year old black man, was murdered on August 13, 1950, in Montgomery, Alabama. Accused by a white bus driver of “creating a disturbance” by refusing to honor the bus driver’s demand that he enter through the back of the bus, he was shot by a white police officer, leaving behind a wife and two children. No one was ever charged with Mr. Brooks’ murder. 

Reverend Joseph Mann, a 38-year old black pastor, was kidnapped and set on fire in Norfolk, Virginia on May 26, 1951, by two white men who (according to Mann on his deathbed) told him they were sick of black people moving into white neighborhoods. Reverend Mann had recently given a sermon denouncing racial segregation. No one was prosecuted for Reverend Mann’s murder. 

On April 9, 1950, a black man named Willie Vincent was abducted by three white men who beat him severely, fractured his skull, and left him for dead on the side of the highway in Oakland, Florida. It was widely suspected that this act of terror was carried out by members of the KKK, no one was ever convicted of Mr. Vincent’s murder. 

A year later, on March 28, 1951, four members of the KKK abducted 27-year old Melvin Womack from his home in Oakland, Florida. They beat him, shot him and left him for dead. No one was ever charged with Mr. Womack’s murder. 

Samuel Shepherd, one of the “Groveland Four” – a group of young black men wrongfully accused of raping a white woman – was murdered on November 6, 1951, in Umatilla, Florida. Ernest Thomas, one of the four, was lynched before the trial started in 1949. The other three were convicted in a racially biased trial, after which Thurgood Marshall was successful in winning a new trial for the men. After the judgment, Lake County Sherriff Willis McCall offered to transport two of the accused men – Mr. Shepherd and Mr. Irvin – back to the county jail. On the way, McCall ordered the two black men to get out of the van and change a tire. Their backs turned, he shot both of them without provocation, though he would later claim self-defense. Mr. Shepherd died from the gunshot wound, and McCall faced no charges and remained in office for several more terms. 

Harry and Harriette Moore, influential voting rights activists in the NAACP, registered over 3,000 black voters in their community of Mims, Florida. On Christmas night in 1951, a bomb underneath their home exploded, killing Mr. Moore immediately. Mrs. Moore died from her injuries a few days later. No one was ever prosecuted for the bombing. 

Russell Charley, a black man, was lynched on May 7, 1954, his body hidden in the woods. The NAACP demanded a full investigation by federal, state, and county authorities, but it didn’t happen, and no one was ever arrested or charged with Mr. Charley’s murder. 

On June 5, 1954, the badly burned remains of Mr. Isadore Banks, a land-owning WWI veteran, were found chained to a tree in the woods near Marion, Arkansas. Likely targeted because of his financial success and rumors of an interracial romance between Mr. Banks and a white woman, this act of terror served to remind the black community that their successes would be met with derision and violence. No one was ever charged with Mr. Banks’ murder. 

Reverend George W. Lee was the first black person to register to vote in Humphreys County, Mississippi since Reconstruction, and he was actively involved in voter registration with the NACCP. On May 7, 1955, Reverend Lee was shot and killed while driving home. The county sheriff claimed that Reverend Lee died in a car accident, insisting that the lead bullets found in his jaw were dental fillings. No one was ever prosecuted for his death. 

On August 13, 1955, 63-year-old African-American veteran of World War I named Lamar D. Smith was shot and killed on the courthouse lawn in Brookhaven, Mississippi. His “crime” – encouraging local black men and women to register to vote. Several people witnessed Mr. Smith’s murder, and three white men were arrested, though the charges were later dismissed and no one was ever punished. 

On August 28, 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was visiting Mississippi from Chicago when two white men kidnapped, shot, mutilated and threw him into the Tallahatchie River, alleging that he was whistled at a white woman. The white woman in question later said this never happened. All all-white jury acquitted the murderers after less than an hour of deliberation. The two men later confessed to the brutal murder.

14-year-old Emmett Till was lynched in 1955. His mother’s insistence on having an open-casket funeral sparked national outrage and propelled the civil rights movement. Source: Creative Commons.

On October 23, 1955, black residents in Longview, Texas had recently received a grant to build a new school, marking progress toward better education for black students. In response to this progress toward school desegregation, two white men drove by a cafe in a black community where John Earl Reese, a 16-year-old black teenager was dancing with his friends. The men fired shots into the cafe, killing John and wounding several others. The two white men were arrested for the shooting and convicted, though they received reduced and suspended sentences. 

On November 5, 1955, a white store-owner in Heathsville, Virginia shot a 23-year-old black man named Howard Bromley because the white man claimed, he had ordered Mr. Bromley to leave the store and Mr. Bromley had refused, instead of trying to wrest the store-owner’s gun away from him. Despite the fact that witnesses denied this account, an all-white jury acquitted the store-owner after less than 30 minutes of deliberations and no one was ever punished for Mr. Bromley’s death.

On December 3, 1955, a friend of Emmett Till’s recently acquitted killers walked into the gas station where 33-year-old Clinton Melton, a World War II veteran and father of five, worked as an attendant. The man became angry with Mr. Melton for some unknown reason and even angrier because the owner of the gas station refused to fire him. Mr. Melton was shot and killed as he was preparing to drive home to his family that night. Despite the evidence against him, Mr. Melton’s murderer was acquitted in the same courtroom his friends had been acquitted a few months earlier. 

On Christmas Eve in 1955, the body of James Edward Evanston, a 52-year-old African-American educator, was found in Long Lake, a few miles outside of Drew, Mississippi. His car was found nearby, along with a suicide note in which his last name was spelled incorrectly. Despite ample evidence that Mr. Evanston’s drowning racially motivated, no official local or state investigation was ever conducted, and no one was charged or punished for Mr. Evanston’s likely murder. 

Dr. Thomas Brewer was a 72-year-old African American physician, voting rights activist and one of the organizers spearheading the school integration effort in Columbus, Georgia. On February 18, 1956, a white store-owner shot Dr. Brewer seven times, claiming self-defense. The grand jury of Columbus did not indict Dr. Brewer’s killer, and no one was ever held accountable for his murder. 

Willie Edwards Jr.’s truck was found near Montgomery, Alabama on January 23, 1957. Mr. Edwards, however, was missing. Months later, on April 23, a local fisherman found Mr. Edward’s body when it washed up on the banks of the Alabama River. Law enforcement determined that the body was in too poor condition to determine the cause of death, and no investigation was conducted. In 1993, a white woman reported that her recently-deceased husband had confessed to the crime on his death bed, describing how four white Klansmen abducted Mr. Edwards at gunpoint and forced him to jump from a bridge to his death. Despite this information, no one was ever prosecuted for the murder of Willie Edward. 

Willie Joe Sanford went missing in Hawkinsville, Georgia on February 2, 1957. His mutilated body was found wired to the undergrowth at the bottom of a creek on March 1. A local circuit judge determined that “only a frenzied mob could have accomplished it,” no one was ever prosecuted or convicted for Mr. Sanford’s murder. 

Charles Brown, a member of the U.S. Air Force, was visiting a white woman in her Benton, Mississippi home on June 18, 1957, when the women’s brother shot and killed him for being “too friendly” with his sister. Despite the fact that the white man had a prior conviction for manslaughter and confessed to the shooting, a grand jury did not return an indictment and no one was ever prosecuted for Airman Brown’s murder. 

According to his mother, Rogers Hamilton, a 19-year-old black man from Lowndesboro, Alabama, was kidnapped from his home by two white men on October 22, 1957. The men shot and killed Mr. Hamilton, allegedly for dating a black woman that they wanted for themselves. The local sheriff refused to call the murder a racially motivated lynching, and no one was ever punished for Mr. Hamilton’s death.

A 30-year-old black man named Richard Lillard was being held in a padded call in the Nashville City Workhouse when three white officers beat him to death. The officers claimed that Mr. Lillard had “gone berserk,” however, several witnesses testified that he had been begging for his life as he was being beaten. The three officers were tried for murder and acquitted by an all-white jury after less than an hour of deliberations. 

On April 25, 1959, Mack Charles Parker, a young black man in his early 20s, was brutally beaten, shot twice in the chest and bound in chains before being dumped into the Pearl River in Poplarville, Mississippi. He was accused of assaulting a white woman, and although it was common knowledge that she had fabricated the claim to hide an affair with another man, a white mob lynched Mr. Parker before an investigation or trial took place. No one was ever charged for the murder of Mr. Parker. 

On June 13, 1959, a black man named William Person was shot by a white man while he was running away because he didn’t want to work for the man. After shooting Mr. Person twice with a rifle, the man claimed he was just “horse playing,” and he was released without being charged. The man was later indicted and accepted a plea agreement for a reduced sentence if he paid Mr. Person’s widow less than $3,000. 

We remember these men and women, their loved ones, and those they impacted both in their lives and through their deaths. By acknowledging and honoring their memory, we refuse to let their deaths be in vain. At the consecration of the memorial, to the rising chorus of ‘We Shall Overcome,’ family representatives of the deceased laid white roses on each victim’s name. Bryan Stevenson reminded the crowd to let three words define the ongoing struggle for equality and justice: hope, perseverance, and love. Hope because, as he says, hopelessness is the enemy of justice. Perseverance because the work is not nearly done. It is a constant struggle, an uphill battle, an unrelenting burden. We all have a part to play, and we must never give up on the dream. And finally, love, because while it’s natural to let violence and brutality perpetuate hate, we must not let hate keep us from loving, keep us from acknowledging and accepting our common humanity. To quote James Baldwin: “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” Only when we tell the truth about our past can we understand our present and start to heal for the future. Only then can the nation find “peace from its sins” and the freedman finds “freedom in his promised land” (W.E.B. DuBois 1903). 

To learn more about the United States’ history of lynching, read the EJI’s report Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror. 

Policing Our Imagination

a Black Lives Matter sign
Ferguson Solidarity Washington Ethical Society. Source: Johnny Silvercloud, Creative Commons

On Thanksgiving evening, while many of us were still enjoying or recovering from a day of family and feasting, Emantic Bradford Senior – who is currently battling cancer – was waiting for his son EJ to come help him with his chemo medicine. “He was my best friend,” Senior says, “and my nurse. He treated me like I was his kid.” As EJ got ready to leave his father’s house that night, Senior, as he always did, asked his son if he needed any money. EJ was on his way to join eager Black Friday shoppers at the Galleria in Hoover. Late that night, Senior’s stepson woke him up. “You talked to EJ?” he asked. “Not since he left the house,” Senior responded, rousing himself. He showed Senior his phone, opened to a video posted on Facebook depicting a chaotic scene at the Galleria, shoppers running and screaming in panic. At this point, the Hoover Police Department had released a statement that there had been an altercation at the shopping mall around 10:00 PM and that police had shot and killed the instigator as he fled the scene. We’re “very, very proud” of the response of our officers, the statement said, for “engaging the subject and taking out the threat.” It was 12:30 AM. Emantic Bradford Junior – EJ – had been dead for two and a half hours at this point, but this would not be confirmed to the family until the next morning. Seeing the social media reports, Senior immediately called the Hoover PD to ask if the police had killed his son. “We’ll call you back in 10 minutes,” they told him. Ten minutes went by, no phone call. Senior called back. Again, “Someone will have to call you back.” This went on for a while until Senior finally demanded to know if that was his son – lying lifeless and uncovered on the cold, white floor – in the photos on Facebook. “I’m sorry, sir, I can’t give you any information at this time. You’ll have to call the county.” In frustration and terror, Senior calls the county police – he is put on hold, transferred, put on hold again, until finally a man gets on the line and confirms that yes, EJ is dead. Several hours go by, and the Hoover PD releases another statement: we got the wrong guy. 

EJ had been shot and killed by a police officer who wrongfully assumed that he was the person instigating violence at the mall that night. In the precious hours between the police department applauding the officer’s “heroic” actions for stopping a violent crime and admitting that EJ “very likely wasn’t the shooter,” EJ’s image was misconstrued and misrepresented in the news and on social media – at first, to fit the profile of a killer, and later, as someone who made some bad choices that resulted in his untimely death. There was a desperation to prove that this situation was different, that it was an isolated incident, and that it did not serve as an example of police brutality against people of color. A narrative about EJ’s life and the circumstances of his death was planted, one that justified the officer’s actions and placed the blame on EJ himself. And this is where we end up:

EJ had a gun.

Right…and Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie. Eric Garner was hustling cigarettes. How could we know that Tamir Rice was holding a plastic toy and not a real gun? And maybe the most egregious justification of all: Michael Brown “looked like a demon.” There is always some way to extract the wrongful killing of a black man by police officers from the systemic problem of police brutality. There is always something we can point to and say well, this had nothing to do with skin color and everything to do with…fill-in-the-blank. 

But let’s be clear: EJ wasn’t shot because he was carrying a gun (which he was licensed to own and trained to use). EJ was not perceived as a “good guy with a gun.” EJ didn’t brandish a weapon in the sense of acting threateningly with it. He didn’t have to – he was the weapon. And the words of Claudia Rankine ring in our ears:

“Because white men can’t

Police their imagination

Black men are dying”

The unnamed officer didn’t regard EJ as a person in that moment but as a black man with a gun, which in his imagination and under Alabama law, justified three shots to the back, ending EJ’s life. But we can’t help but wonder – to appropriate Matthew McConaughey’s powerful line in A Time to Kill – what would have happened if EJ were white. Even mass shooters – who are nearly always white – are often apprehended by police officers without being harmed. When they do die, it’s usually because they take their own lives. For example, after he opened fire on unsuspecting worshipers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, police chased Dylan Roof through two states before they caught him and took him to Burger King to get something to eat. Travis Reinking had a history of mental illness, had threatened violence multiple times, his many firearms had been confiscated – and then returned – before he walked into a Waffle House and shot four people. “He just didn’t seem like a violent person,” one coworker said of Reinking, joining with others who insisted that he was “intelligent and polite.” Reinking fled the scene, and officers chased him into the woods before he was apprehended unharmed. At a movie theater in Aurora, police mistook James Eagen Holmes for a fellow officer because of “the tactical clothing he was wearing.” In other words, he looked like them. But one look at EJ Bradford, and that was it. A black man holding a gun, standing near the victim…bang, bang, bang.  

I imagine that police officer didn’t walk into that shopping mall that night intending to kill a black man. The nature of the situation forced him to make a snap judgement, and according to the official report, it took about three seconds to assess the situation, identify EJ as the target, and take him out. And it wasn’t until his family started demanding answers that they even questioned whether or not they had gotten the right guy. Ultimately, it was concluded that the officer “reasonably exercised his official powers, duties, or functions” when he fired those shots. And in a legal sense, it’s hard to argue with that. But we need some context here – there is a larger problem that must be addressed.

a cardboard sign that reads "We're not anti-police, we're anti-police brutality"
We’re Not Anti-Police, We’re Anti-Police Brutality. Source: Jagz Mario, Creative Commons

The lives of black people in the United States have been and continue to be conditioned and defined by violence – structural, institutionalized, everyday violence and brutal retaliation by the state and other groups against their demands to be seen and heard and regarded as human. Black bodies are weaponized in the popular imagination, associated with crime and danger, and the full participation of black people in society is subjugated by a collective consciousness that centralizes whiteness and systematically excludes people of color. The truth is that compared to white people, people of color are disproportionately killed by police officers in the United States. This is not because all white police officers are explicitly racist but because of where we hold space for black bodies in our broader cultural ethos. What gives police brutality its life force is the same thing that makes it harder for black people to buy houses, get into college and acquire health insurance. This refined yet insidious form of racism resides deep in our collective consciousness, and it engenders the unspoken but deeply felt sentiment that non-whites are threatening and dangerous, that we need the state to protect us from them. 

And where does this come from? When slavery ended, the South (and eventually the rest of the country) adopted slightly more palatable systems of subjugation and discrimination against the newly freed citizenship. The preservation of the white male patriarchy depended on one thing – fear. As long as white people continued to be terrified of black people, white supremacy reigned unimpeded. Over time, laws ensuring civil rights and protections for people of color were slowly updated and selectively enforced. To be sure, these were victories. Progress, however, is not a zero-sum game. As overt ideals and expressions of racism were put asunder on paper, they didn’t go away. Instead, they burrowed down deep inside of our subconscious. On the surface, we developed new ways of explaining the unequal distribution of resources and power and opportunity without ever outwardly implicating skin pigmentation. We relegated black people to conditions of poverty, denied all but a few access to the middle class, and then blamed those left behind for bringing about their own woes. We associated violence in black communities not with poverty and lack of access but with blackness itself. We moved black bodies from the plantation to the prison system, once again denying them their freedom, but this time blaming them for it. Not all of them, of course, but enough to sustain the image and the fear.

Shop owners at the Galleria will tell you that there is a “black” side and a “white” side of the mall. Where do you think the police presence was concentrated that night? When it comes to spaces occupied by black bodies, the police force tends to emphasize the “force” over the policing. And yet…“You just don’t bring guns into a crowded mall,” the Hoover mayor admonished in his statement about the wrongful killing. How ironic. Okay, Mr. Mayor, tell that to the NRA. Better yet, if that’s such an obvious unspoken rule, try to make it a law in Alabama and see how far you get. At the very least, say what you mean: if you’re black, don’t carry a gun into a shopping mall. Because for people of color, certain constitutional rights must be qualified.

This is refined racism: when white people hear of the wrongful killing of a black man by police officers, we latch on to some element of the story that distracts us from the color of the victim’s skin and emphasizes some other factor that explains the officers’ actions. Rather than trying to understand what it means to be a black person in this country, to confront our own implicit biases and to acknowledge our complicity in upholding a racist social order, we look for something, anything, to assure ourselves that this was an isolated and unavoidable incident (at least on the part of the officer). In doing so, we sustain the devaluation of black bodies and black minds and justify the power of the state to marginalize people of color, to treat them as an inconvenience and to perceive them as a threat that needs to be neutralized by whatever means necessary. In situations like this, that is where our minds naturally go. We make our excuses, we qualify our apologies, we blame the victim. The story gets whitewashed. And just like that, Trayvon’s death, Philando Castille’s death, EJ’s death are their own faults.

So how do we change this reality? It is going to take more than providing courses to police officers on racial sensitivity and limiting the use of force. If we truly want to live in a world where the state treats people of all skin tones equally, white people must police their imaginations. We must actively work to decentralize whiteness, aggressively refute the narrative that people of color pose a threat to our society, and unequivocally demand that they be protected rather than forcibly policed. The political justice system won’t change until our collective consciousness changes, until we break ourselves of false equivalencies and false associations around blackness, until we recognize what the enduring legacy of slavery and centuries of subjugation and oppression have done to individuals and families and communities, until we give the black man a chance to be the good guy. We are all stakeholders in this process; if we’re going to move forward as a society, we have to do it together.

The Galleria reopened at six o’clock the next morning, as scheduled, because consumer capitalism can’t be bothered by the death of a black man. The Christmas shopping season went ahead full stride, while Emantic Bradford Senior was left to mourn the death of his son, to contend with his disease alone, to wallow in the pain of never again getting to hear his son call him ‘daddy.’ After two months of investigation, the Attorney General of Alabama ruled that the nameless officer who shot and killed EJ was “justified” in doing so. Under Alabama law, no crime was committed. But EJ’s mama, April Pipkins, leaves us with an important question: “If this happened to your child, would you still call it justice?”

The answer is no, you would call it murder.