Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and Rumain Brisbon never knew each other. Garner called Staten Island, New York, home. Rice lived in Cleveland, Ohio; Brown hailed from Ferguson, Missouri; and Brisbon came from Phoenix, Arizona. Yet despite the distance between them, their names will be forever linked as the four unarmed African American males whose lives were cut short during the latter half of 2014. That their deaths were senseless and tragic there is no doubt. And there is also no doubt about the need to improve the tense, stressful relationships between many police departments and the communities of color they serve. We cannot be satisfied with a society in which African American mothers and fathers fear the simple act of their sons walking down the street.
Deep and vigorous discussions of these issues are good ones. Questions need to be asked, and peaceful protests can emphasize to officials the seriousness of these discussions. No other unarmed African American males, or anyone else, should die needlessly. All lives matter.
Remember that the legacies of Garner, Rice, Brown, and Brisbon are more than instruments of social change. They were fathers, sons, and brothers. Their deaths left dreams unfulfilled and huge empty spaces in the lives of the people who loved them. Those spaces will never be filled.
Remember, too, that police departments and the officers who comprise them are not single, monolithic entities. In every police department, there are officers who excel at their jobs and others who are unsuited for the work. There are officers who are hailed as heroes for risking their lives to save others one day and who are condemned for split-second, life or death decisions the next day. Let’s never draw conclusions without all the facts.
Finally, remember that, while discussions about race relations are good, there is so much more to accomplish. I was a young lawyer working in Washington, D.C., during the 1960s and was one of the 250,000 people on the Washington Mall in August, 1963 when Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. That day, Dr. King reminded us that it had been 100 years since President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but there was still work to do before anyone was truly free. Fifty one years later, the killing of four unarmed, African American males at the hands of the police in the last six months is proof there is still much work to do.