September 29, 2023

A Matter of Life and Death

All oppressed people know this feeling. Tevye expressed it best in “Fiddler on the Roof” when he said there are times “when our hearts lie panting on the floor.”

Atatiana Jefferson’s murder by Aaron Dean, a White police officer, in Fort Worth, Texas, on Oct. 11 has created one of those times. It is clear from the cries of outrage that many Americans, particularly people of Color, feel this way. After watching video footage of the shooting from Dean’s body camera, there is no doubt that this was murder.

Initial media reports stated that roughly four seconds passed between the time Dean shouted “Put your hands up” at Ms. Jefferson as she stood by the window in her own home and the moment when he fired the fatal shot. However, video cam timers show that less than two seconds elapsed. One video time tracker showed that Dean shouted his command at time-lapse 0:32 and pulled the trigger at 0:33. That was little more than one second. We can only assume that the media obtained the four second time frame from the Fort Worth Police Department.

The Fort Worth police also quickly released information that Ms. Jefferson had a gun in the house. This information tended to bend the narrative in favor of Dean, even though Texas is an open-carry state where countless law-abiding citizens have guns in their homes.

As shocking as this murder was, what made it worse was the way the Fort Worth police initially recited the facts in a way that favored the murderer.

It is obvious that Dean shot and killed Ms. Jefferson before giving her a chance to respond to his shouts and without identifying himself as a police officer. And it is not disputed that Ms. Jefferson had every right to protect herself and her home from an unidentified and suspicious person outside.

Because this was a PR battle the Fort Worth police could not win, the chief has taken the position that Ms. Jefferson was within her rights, and Dean has been charged with murder.

This case, however, is an “outlier” even though there is no certainty that Dean will be convicted and punished for his crime.

It is impossible to have faith in the ability of law enforcement at any level to mete out justice fairly when we are constantly bombarded with news of police misconduct. When we learn of innocent citizens being gunned down in their homes by police officers in Texas, or of a Virginia law enforcement officer who was also a recruiter for a White nationalist group, or that a Pennsylvania policeman arrested two Black men and charged them with loitering in their own front yard, there is no rationalizing this behavior. Constantly faced with these types of events, we must acknowledge that there is still something very wrong with this country.

While White people worry about being killed by home-grown terrorists, people of Color must also worry about being killed by the police.

People of Color are being gunned down in the streets and in their homes by law enforcement officers who do not value our lives. And this will continue until we address the root cause of this problem.

Murderous police officers are on our streets because too many police chiefs do not care enough to properly vet them before they are hired or properly supervise them once they are on the job. We have incompetent police chiefs because too many politicians who hire them do not care enough to ensure that they carry out their jobs properly.

The way to be rid of these killer cops is to remove incompetent and uncaring chiefs. And the way to be rid of those chiefs is by removing from office the politicians who hire and support them.

People of Color will never be able to live a life in America free from fear of being killed indiscriminately by police until we find people committed to making us safe, support their political campaigns, vote them into office and support them while they are in office. By doing this, we maximize our ability to vote out of office those people whose policies and decisions result in killer cops murdering us.

We must drive out of office those policymakers whose indifference to the continued murder of people of Color results in more of those murders time and again.

It is a step in the right direction that Dean has been charged with murder. However, that does not restore life to Atatiana Jefferson. Dean should never have been given a badge and a gun, and the police officials who hired him must be held accountable. We cannot make public officials answer for their egregious behavior and poor decisions until we register and vote for the type of politicians who see us as human beings deserving of their respect and who have concern for our welfare.

Putting the right people in office will not be easy. The forces of White supremacy are hard at work to make it more difficult for people of Color to participate in free and fair elections. Roadblocks to the ballot box have been thrown up in front of people of Color in every state of the former Confederacy and in some states that fought for the Union. But we cannot let these obstacles stop us. We must vote and see to it that our friends, relatives and co-workers vote as well. We must also support our candidates to the best of our abilities, and once they are elected, we must continue to support them, watch their performance and hold them accountable if they make missteps.

We must march to the polling places in great numbers for each election, and stay engaged in the politics of our communities, our states and our nation. It is a matter of life and death.

Oscar H. Blayton
is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia.

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