May 13, 2015, Open Society Foundations blog
On Mother’s Day, I watch Samaria Rice beg for some closure five months after her son, Tamir, was shot to death by police officers within moments of encountering him in a Cleveland park. I think of Gloria Darden and the shock she must have experienced at discovering that her son, Freddie Gray, was killed so senselessly and so violently by police. I am awed by Judy Scott’s willingness and resolve to forgive the officer who shot her son, Walter, five times in the back as he fled a police confrontation, fearing for his life. That their sons have become household names, symbols for a movement, must be little consolation for the gaping holes that have been left in their lives.
In each of these instances, mothers lost their children to police officers sworn to protect the communities where they lived. These mothers, these children, and these communities are victims of something else, too—something that has plagued this country since its origins: a broken and corrupted racial narrative.
Watching the story of communities of color and the police unfold via cellphone video and social media these last months, I am reminded of a haunting passage in Devil in the Grove, Gilbert King’s Pulitzer Prize–winning history of Thurgood Marshall’s work in Florida as a crusading civil rights attorney. In the book, King recounts Alex Akerman’s defense of a black man on trial for the rape of a white woman, one of four black men falsely accused of the crime.
In his closing argument, Akerman, a white attorney recruited to the case by Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, tries to win over the all-white jury of 12 Florida men. Akerman says:
Now I think most of you have had the experience of identifying Negroes. I know it is true with me, and I believe it is true with just about every one of you gentlemen, that the first time you see a Negro, you see nothing but a Negro, and if you see him again the next day, you probably would not recognize him as being anything but a Negro, and after he has worked for you say two or three or four or five or six days, then you finally begin to recognize him, and distinguish him as Jim or Joe or Jack or George. But as a matter of fact, if you have never seen a Negro but one time and it was in the dark, on a dark night, such as this alleged case was, then I submit to you gentlemen that you would not be able to recognize him again, so positively as Norma Padgett