In the land of the free, blacks don't dare breathe
The latest case of the racial profiling of black men and women adds another shameful label to America
The boy was lost. It was entirely his fault. The 14-year-old had woken up late. Realising that his school bus had already gone past his neighbourhood, he decided to walk. He did not want to miss a day of school.
It was a 90-minute walk to school. But Brennan Walker had not counted on the fact that the route could get confusing. He got lost.
When I was a kid between the ages of 14 and 16 I would ride the train from Hammanskraal, north of Pretoria, to Pretoria and then the Jeppe area in Johannesburg. My friend and I would buy clothes from retailers in Johannesburg and sell them at weekends in Hammanskraal. Being the one usually sent off to buy the merchandise, I got lost almost every time I had to go to a new retailer.
Often I would ask a security guard for directions. Often I relied on the generosity of strangers. Often they would raise their knobkieries and point me towards where I needed to go. Today, I still ask strangers for help. I get lost, I ask strangers. I need an answer for some befuddling knot in my life, I ask my friends and my acquaintances and, mostly, strangers. I want to start a business? I ask talented strangers to help.
I have been lucky. These strangers have largely raised their finger, their voice, and pointed me the right way. That is how humanity, Ubuntu, works.
Not for Brennan Walker, the 14-year-old from Rochester Hills, Michigan, in the US. He was just a boy, trying to find his way to school. His sin was that he is black.
Lost, he approached a house to ask for directions. He went up to a suburban house, walked up to the door. He hesitated. He started walking away. Then he thought better of it.
This poor boy is me in the 1980s, wracked by doubt and apprehension, knocking on doors in the Pretoria suburbs trying to find a weekend labourer’s job for the day. Filled with fear. Fear of white people, fear of being thought a thief or a thug, fear of a vicious dog trained to see black people as enemies or intruders. Fear of walking in the white suburbs. Fear.
Then Brennan Walker gathers his courage. We can see him on the homeowner’s CCTV footage as he hesitates and walks away. Then he turns and approaches the door. He knows he needs to get to school. To do that he has to ask for directions. So he walks back to the door.
He knocks on the door. A white woman opens it. She starts yelling at him before he even starts asking a question.
“Why are you trying to break into my house?” she shouts.
Her husband, Jeffrey Ziegler, approaches from within the house. He sees a black boy. He sees his yelling wife. He grabs a shotgun, rushes to the door.
Brennan Walker sees the gun, turns on his heel and runs. What would you do? The man at the door shoots. He misses. The boy hides, crying.
This is a true story. Last week a jury found Ziegler guilty of assault with intent to commit great bodily harm. Zeigler could get up to 10 years in prison for the assault conviction, plus a mandatory two years for using a firearm in the attack.
Every day now, in the newspapers here, I read about some shocking case of racial profiling. Earlier this month a black nine-year-old, Jeremiah Harvey, walked past a (white) woman in a grocery store. His backpack grazed her behind. He didn’t even see that his backpack had touched her. She called the police.
“I want the cops here right now,” Teresa Klein yelled into her phone. “I was sexually assaulted by a child!”
This week a white woman followed a black man to his apartment, shouting at him to identify himself and show her his key to his flat. In September Botham Shem Jean, by all accounts a beautiful, gospel-loving, meat-eating (he won a meat lovers’ contest in his native St Lucia) finance guy, was hanging out in his apartment in Dallas when his neighbor, a policewoman, walked in and shot him dead. She claimed she thought he was an intruder in her apartment (she lived in the flat directly below his).
It led the New York Times to write: “The racial profiling of black men and women by white police officers put new phrases into the American vocabulary — driving while black, walking while black, shopping while black. The shooting of Mr Jean seemed to demand its own, even more disturbing version: being at home while black.”
The US is many things, great and small, good and bad. Breathing while black? This, too, is America.