“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” or “Pants Up, Don’t Loot”

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Published December 5, 2014

By Imam Khalid Griggs

It seems like only yesterday that the collective eyes and hearts of the nation were fixated on the vigilante murder of 17-year-old teenager Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, a community watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida. Before Zimmerman’s acquittal, those calling for justice for the slain teen decried the tragic irony of Trayvon being gunned down, not in the commission of a crime, but on the way home after going to a neighborhood store to innocently purchase a can of Arizona Ice Tea and a pack of Skittles. Meanwhile, the supporters of Zimmerman played up the media-fueled imagery of the menacing, hoody-wearing African American male as justification for Zimmerman’s alleged fear for his life and claim that he killed the unarmed youth in self defense.

Protestors have stood up to militarized police units, state troopers, and the National Guard armed with grenade launchers, tear gas, tanks, drones, and other field equipment historically found on the battlefield and not in cases of urban protest

Fast forward from that tragic day, February 26, 2012, to August 9, 2014 when unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot four times in the arm and two times in the head by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson. Brown and a friend were confronted by the officer as they walked down the middle of a residential street. Like in the Trayvon Martin case, the corporate media soon focused on the “intimidating,” presence of an African American male, and in this case on a 6-foot-4 Black young man who was a

suspect in a convenience store robbery, to present a feasible scenario that justified the killing, despite multiple witnesses who reported that Brown had run away and then turned toward Wilson with his hands up.

It took some time before the media connected this police killing to the larger nationwide trend that an African American male is killed by a law enforcement officer every 28 hours in the U.S. According to ProPublica, a public interest investigative journalism news organization, young African American males are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than their white counterparts. Walter Fields, Executive Editor of North Star News & Analysis, has emphatically stated, “Death by law enforcement is a penalty specifically reserved for Black youth and mostly levied against Black males.” The corporate media, for the most part, has been complicit in establishing an environment where the American public is not only desensitized to the extrajudicial killing of young African American males by police officers, but finds acceptable the most logic-defying “explanations” as to how law enforcement officers mete out their rendition of street justice.

The polarization of public opinion around issues like police killing of African American youth generally falls along racial lines. For example, protestors in Ferguson adopted the mantra of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” to symbolize the killing of unarmed youth by law enforcement. On the other hand, money is being raised across the country by supporters of Officer Wilson to purchase billboard advertisements with the message “Pants Up, Don’t Loot,” clearly a provocational jab at the African American community, as if their grievance about the deaths of unarmed Black men is of little merit and the more relevant social commentary is about African American crime and rebellion against “proper” dress. Far too many police departments across the United States lack racial and ethnic diversity in their command structures and line officers, frequently resulting in culturally insensitive officers, at the least, or out-and-out bigots who indulge their racism injuriously in their interactions with the African American community.

In Ferguson, Missouri, despite the fact that 67 percent of the population is African American, there are only three African American police officers. The hacker/activist group Anonymous declared cyber war on the Missouri Ku Klux Klan, America’s oldest domestic terrorist organization and prototypical white supremacist group, which threatened “lethal force” against protestors demanding justice for Michael Brown and his family. Anonymous alleges that after hacking into the Twitter account of the KKK, Ferguson-area law enforcement officers were outed as Klan members and active participants in the racist organization. Daily protests have continued in Ferguson since Michael Brown was gunned down by Officer Wilson in August.

In addition to long-time civil rights activists and community organizers from across the country, thousands of first-time protestors have helped swell the ranks of the daily marches and rallies. Student activists from all over the country, as well as locals, young and old, are participating in the grassroots protests with fearless determination to confront and address systemic forces of racism and injustice. Beyond the extrajudicial killing, with impunity, of African American youth by police, protestors complain of the seeming complicity of Ferguson authorities in obstructing protests in the name of maintaining peace, without attending to the community’s deep-rooted grievances and legitimate claims of racist injustice.

Fannie Lou Hamer, the iconic Mississippi social activist and grassroots community organizer of the 1950s-1970s captured in such simple and direct terms the mood of those fearless activists during the epic Civil Rights Movement when she stated, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.” The Ferguson protestors have exemplified the courage that comes with that anguished experience. They are physically, mentally, emotionally, and morally at wit’s end, with sorrow and disgust at the unconcern and disrespect shown by police officers for the lives of Black people and, on top of that, the militant and belligerent response to those who protest the inhuman, and at times, criminal actions of the police.

Protestors have stood up to militarized police units, state troopers, and the National Guard armed with grenade launchers, tear gas, tanks, drones, and other field equipment historically found on the battlefield and not in cases of urban protest. The public awareness of the militarization and excessive force used against Ferguson protestors is hampered by the harassment and arrest of journalists and the declaration of a 37-square mile No Fly Zone over the area. No Fly Zones have typically been employed by the United States military in theaters of war as a step towards regime change.

Ferguson and St. Louis, Missouri are, unfortunately, not aberrations, but social barometers of the relationship of the law enforcement community to African American males nationwide. Urban enclaves have too often been reduced to being incubators for the Prison/Industrial Complex and its voracious appetite to incarcerate Black males. In some urban cities, the unemployment rate for African American males age 18-24 is fifty percent. The largest transfer of personal wealth in the history of this country occurred during the criminal financial housing scandal of the first decade of the 21st century. The African American community lost 60 percent of its wealth during this short period of time, most of it due to subprime housing loans resulting in foreclosures.

Islam demands that we not be passive spectators to injustice. The Prophet of Islam (pbuh) is reported to have said, “When a crime is committed on earth, anyone who is physically present, but opposed to it, is reasoned to have distanced himself from the crime; while anyone at a distance from the crime, who is in agreement with it, is reasoned to have been an accessory to it” (Abu Daud).

Avatar photo Imam Khalid GriggsAuthor Imam Khalid Fattah Griggs is the Imam of the Community Mosque in Winston-Salem, NC. and ICNA Vice President for Social Justice and Civic Engagement.

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