I remember when I was growing up, New York was a rough-and-tumble place where attitudes of racial animosity ran parallel to the perceptions of black-on-white crime. And despite a robust, national civil rights movement, there were feelings that blacks were almost exclusively responsible for gangs, prostitution and heroin addiction.
Back in the ’60s and ’70s, believe it or not, as a young black man I too had concerns about crime being perpetrated upon me. I recall how to cross Central Park, my buddies and I would sprint top speed from Central Park West to the Fifth Avenue on the East Side without stopping. We knew that would not only get us across unmolested, but the sight of a two or three black men running through the park would make anybody steer clear.
During that time it was not a question of race, but that anybody entering the park alone at night stood a good chance of getting his or her ass kicked.
But come one fateful day in 1989 when a white woman was raped and four black men and one Hispanic man was accused of “wilding,” we no longer sprinted for fear we would get shot by police or arrested on general principal. Innocent as we were, as young black men we were painfully aware of trying not to look guilty — of anything. That was the difference between getting arrested or getting shot.
Let’s fast forward to 1997 to Abner Louima, who was sodomized with a toilet plunger handle in a police precinct or Amadou Diallo who in 1999 died in a hail of 41 shots fired by members of the now defunct “Street Crimes Unit.” Or Sean Bell, shot dead in a hail of police bullets on his wedding day. Let’s land on 2010 where stop-and-frisk became standard police policy in New York.
Innocent young black men still were not allowed to feel safe, knowing that at any given moment their humanity, self esteem and civil rights could be unconstitutionally or even criminally violated because, in the eyes of a gun-toting civil servant, they looked guilty of something.
In September this year, Jonathan Ferrell, looking for help after being in an auto accident, was shot ten times and killed as he ran toward police in Charlotte, NC.
And it will be a long time before America wraps its collective consciousness around the circumstances surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin. The thought of a black teenager walking where he had the right to be was trumped, allowing a jury to acquit George Zimmerman of charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter.
The common thread through the ages is the fear of young black men. Now a new avatar of fear has emerged to be the proxy to disregard the innocence of young black men. It is the so-called “knockout game.”
Now the so-called “knockout game” has created a new game – “red light, green light,” where whites stop in their tracks and head in another direction as a group of young black men approach, albeit without violent intent or concern to harm another human being.
Like so many instances of irrational bad behavior by a mindless few, the impact paints young black people with an overly broad and negative brush. To ratchet up the rhetoric, the conservative media is charging black leaders from Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to even the president of the United States to essentially get black people under control.
The fact of the matter is, most black people have an incredible sense of control, compassion and sense of ethical fortitude. If not, every reminder of slavery from Birth of a Nation to Mandingo to Roots to 12 Years A Slave would have kindled mass insurrection based on the sheer inhumanity perpetrated on black people in America and manifested in the media.
No one denies that mindless, rabid attacks on people of all races have been perpetrated in the name of the so-called ‘knockout game.’ But the three or four video clips that are repeated over and over in the media seem to reinforce this as a national trend when it is not.
As I sat around the Thanksgiving Day table with my many young nephews, all between ages of 12 and 23, I prayed that some irrational, self-righteous vigilante pumped up on stories would not take it upon themselves to cause them harm just because they might be together with their friends walking toward them in a group.
You see the sad thing is that a person might feel they could get away with arbitrarily killing an otherwise innocent young black man because after all, these blacks, they are playing the knockout game — or at least so they think.
Follow Will Wright on Twitter @willjwright