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OP-ED: Does a Black man’s life matter in America?

Andrea K. McDaniels
The Baltimore Sun (TNS)
Tear gas lands around protesters after they refused to listen to police demands to disperse near the courthouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin on Tuesday, August 25, 2020. (Chris Juhn/Zuma Press/TNS)

How much is a Black man’s life worth in America?

The answer was made clear this week with yet another police shooting — not much.

Jacob Blake didn’t die when he was shot seven times in the back by officers in Kenosha, Wisconsin, but that is only because of nothing short of a miracle. The 29-year-old’s injuries are life-altering all the same, the worst being a severed spine that has left him partially paralyzed. His family says it will take a second miracle for him to ever walk again.

Then there are his three children — ages 3, 5 and 8 — who were packed in the car as their dad slumped over into the front seat after being hit by the bullets. The traumatic event will likely taint their lives forever. Apparently the lives of Black children don’t matter all that much either.

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The low value of Blake’s life to police was clear that day. A few days later it still didn’t seem to matter much to law enforcement who stood nearby when a white teenager shot into a crowd of protesters demanding an investigation into what happened to Blake. The teen walked by officers, while carrying a gun, and raised no suspicions. Remember when 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot for playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland park in 2014? Tell me: What does the life of a Black boy mean in this country?

Vice President Mike Pence also seemed unconcerned about another Black man gunned down by police. During a Republican National Convention speech Wednesday night in which he pushed a “law and order” agenda, Pence sounded off on protesters with no mention of why people had taken to the streets. He never once uttered Jacob Blake’s name. Instead, he implored that “the violence must stop” and declared that looters and rioters “will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Even if you believe the looting must stop, shouldn’t unnecessary police-involved shootings as well? Pence’s message was a clear spare-no-victims one. Law and order even at the expense of someone’s life — especially if it is a Black man.

As a country, we find ourselves in the same spot we did three months ago when George Floyd died after a Minneapolis cop knelt on his neck so long he stopped breathing. We are back to the place we were when Ahmaud Arbery was gunned down by vigilantes while jogging in a Georgia neighborhood he apparently didn’t belong in.

Some people are shocked that this could happen again. Black people are fed up that this was allowed to happen again. “F--K THIS MAN!!!! WE DEMAND CHANGE. SICK OF IT,” tweeted NBA superstar LeBron James, expressing what so many felt. Once again protesters have hit the streets. Once again so many cry for justice that many are skeptical will come because change has been too slow to come. Where are all of the massive judicial reform efforts promised by lawmakers and politicos at the beginning of the summer? Why does it take another incident to spark that movement again?

The ray of hope is that there are so many people that do believe the life of Black men are meaningful. The TNT sports broadcaster, Kenny Smith, who walked off the air in disgust over how the shooting of Blake has been handled. The NBA and WNBA teams that stopped play in protest. Tennis star Naomi Osaka, who dropped out of the semifinals of the Western & Southern Open in New York to make a very public statement. Presidential candidate Joe Biden who said: “What I saw in that video makes me sick.” The average Joe or Josephine who took to his or her Twitter account to protest. Both the high profile and the everyday person used their platforms. Without this kind of pressure and attention, the Justice Department might not have announced Thursday an investigation into the shooting.

As people convene on Washington, D.C., in person and virtually Friday for the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington, they will again demand that lawmakers create public policy to break down the vestiges of systemic racism in the criminal justice system and other areas. This is how true change will occur.

So, I ask again: What is the worth of a Black man’s life in America?

Their lives do indeed matter, no matter how much some people want us to believe that they don’t. We must affirm that they do.

— Andrea K. McDaniels is deputy editorial page editor for The Baltimore Sun.