Reflecting on the 57th Anniversary of the March on Washington

Tralonne Shorter and Leslye Colvin
August 27, 2020

On the eve of the 2020 March on Washington, the NETWORK community gathered to pray, reflect, and recommit ourselves to the work of racial justice. Watch Tralonne Shorter and Leslye Colvin’s reflections.

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Read Tralonne’s Reflection:

Nearly six decades ago, Ella Baker said these notable words: “Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.”

On the eve of the 57th Anniversary of the March on Washington, Ms. Baker’s words still hold true for Black moms who are growing weary of marching for justice fighting against racism and sexism from slavery until now.

The nonstop police killings of Black people have been triggering and traumatizing for many within the African Diaspora. For me, these shootings and ensuing protests have stirred up feelings stemming from August 2014. It was the tragic death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American male killed by Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer after a routine pedestrian stop violently escalated.

At the time of Brown’s death, I was four months into motherhood and beaming with purpose. As the proud mother of a beautiful Black baby boy, it was heartbreaking to see Brown’s dead body strewn across the pavement as though he were animal carcass for nearly five hours — almost as long as it had taken me to give birth to my son. But as a social justice advocate, I was compelled to take action. For me, Brown’s death, and the countless other Black victims of police brutality, including Jacob Blake, magnified disparities in communities across the United States besieged by institutional racism. In these communities disproportionately poor, people of color are over-disciplined in schools, over-represented in jails, and under-represented in all levels of government leadership, including among elected prosecutors, judges, and police chiefs.

Six years since the Ferguson protests, I am still haunted by Michael Brown’s death and the lack of justice for every Black and Brown family that has lost a loved one under similar circumstances. A U.S. Department of Justice probe found that the Ferguson police department’s racially discriminatory policing practices “routinely violates the Constitution and federal laws.” Yet a majority white grand jury decided not to indict the officer who killed Michael Brown, thanks to a widely unknown doctrine called Qualified Immunity.

Qualified Immunity was created as a response to policies put into place during the Reconstruction-era enforcement of the 14th Amendment. The doctrine shields police officers from being held legally accountable when they break the law so long as their unlawful action was not sufficiently obvious. This outdated doctrine nullifies an important civil rights statute that allows individuals to sue officers for violating their civil rights, thus rendering justice impossible.

In fact, I am more likely to win the lottery, than see impunity end for racist police officers conditioned to shoot first, ask questions later.

Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson and the protests that followed shined a spotlight on how little was known through empirical data about the extent to which over-policing occurs in Black and Brown communities. More data was needed, including the frequency of traffic stops, excessive use of force, and officer involved shootings. At the time, there were few think tanks tracking data on officer-involved shootings, so the Washington Post launched an ongoing investigation on this matter in 2015 and found that the FBI undercounted fatal police shootings by more than half. This is because reporting by police departments is voluntary and many departments fail to do so.

According to the Washington Post report, since 2015 there have been more than 5,000 fatal shootings involving on-duty police officers, with 1,022 incidents in 2020. While the data shows that half the people shot and killed by police are white, the rate at which Black people are killed by police is more than twice as high as the rate for white people. Over 95% are young, men between 20-40 years old. Of course there are outliers, Tamir Rice who was just 12-years old playing with a toy gun at a playground when a police officer shot and killed him.

Our flawed criminal justice system is just one example of an institution peppered with individuals blinded by privilege, lacking cultural competencies and multi-disciplinary backgrounds in social justice. The criminal justice system especially, must be diversified, particularly because power dynamics overly favor police, prosecutors, and judges who have the power to impugn communities of color.

For Black families, children are taught early, right along with learning multiplication, how to navigate encounters with law enforcement officers. I have already practiced giving my son, who is six “The Talk.” ‘No fast movements. Always show your hands. Keep copies of your driver license, proof of registration, and insurance in your sun visor. Always get a receipt. Do not travel by yourself late at night. Do not travel in a pack. A drunk woman cannot consent. Always answer yes sir/ma’am. Don’t worry about trying to tape or record the encounter, just get home to me safely and alive, we can sort out the rest later.’

The truth is: We live in two different worlds. With two separate justice systems. With two standards of scrutiny. I pray, I’ll never have to give “The Talk,” but once my son who is projected to reach six feet tall hits a growth spurt in the next three years, God forbid he encounter the wrong police officer out of my watchful protection. There are no guarantees that he will come home to me alive. None.

But the sad reality is people of color are still treated as strangers in a country that never fully embraced us as kinfolk. It’s a misnomer to believe that race is real. Race is a false social construct designed to promote the supremacy of whiteness. The murders of Michael Brown, George Floyd and others including the deaths of Brown immigrants in U.S. detention facilities is a manifestation at the highest levels of this false doctrine. Similar to the lynchings during slavery and Jim Crow; today’s killings of Black and Brown people in police custody continue to send a clear message: Black Lives Don’t Matter.

The presumption that people of color are somehow threatening when unarmed, regardless of age, mental health, educational, or social status, is truly demoralizing. Undoubtedly, hearts and minds cannot be legislated. But laws are needed at the federal, state, and local level to mandate police accountability and force investigations, prosecutions and win convictions. Congress can show true conviction by passing the Justice in Policing, a comprehensive police accountability bill, passed by the House in June but is currently stalled in the Senate. The bill would outlaw chokeholds, no-knock warrants, train law enforcement on de-escalation methods, limit the use of military equipment, and finally end impunity for police officers by holding them liable for breaking the law. Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch said: “The conscience of this country cannot rest until this country’s laws protects all of its citizens.”

Beyond passing the Justice in Policing Act, we must root out every manner in which this country has systemically and intentionally devalued Black lives. This includes closing gaps in wealth, income, health care, voting, representative democracy, affordable housing, and opportunity. We all must be as outraged as the Mothers of the Movement by the pernicious and unrelenting acts of racial inequity and injustice. A feeble pursuit of justice, is no justice at all.