Recently I received an article by my friend Carolyn Martin Shaw about the life and death of her brother—a young Black man murdered by police. I was profoundly moved by her account. The news media deliver us almost daily stories of such murders, along with mass shootings and updated earthquake casualties, to the point of numbness. But when the victim or his family member is someone you know personally and care about, it’s a gut punch.
It reminded me of my mother’s story about her baby brother’s death during a pogrom in Poland. The deadly cruelty visited upon Blacks in America, year after year, not just by outlier groups like the Klan but by representatives of the law, is nothing but an ongoing pogrom. I’ll discuss this more in Part II.
Below are some excerpts from Carolyn’s article:
“His name was Robert Percell Martin, but we called him Percell. He was my older brother, the first born of Rudolph and Corrine Martin of Norfolk, Virginia. He was a black man killed by a white policeman on June 27, 1958, in New York City. He was nineteen years old…
“I want to say his name out loud so as to bring him into the community, and I want to remember him as an individual within a family that loved him. My family and I never publicly said Percell’s name among the extrajudicial police killings of black men. We did what many black people have done over centuries in this country; we cried for our loss. We blamed ourselves for not keeping him closer to home, off the streets.
“My parents went to New York and…brought their son home to be buried. The Norfolk Journal and Guide, a regional black newspaper, ran the story of my brother’s death based on an interview with the New York policeman who shot him…According to this news story, Percell and his friend ran from the policeman when he was distracted, and incredibly, the policeman claimed that Percell twirled around, flashed a gun at him, and then continued running. The policeman said that after he saw the gun he fired a warning shot and when they continued running, he fired another shot which pierced the back of Percell’s head. The newspaper reported that an unloaded gun was found in Percell’s clothing.
“’Why didn’t you raise a fuss, do something about Percell’s death?’ [my niece asked] …decades later. The family was devastated. We knew the kind of world that he lived in, where police can rationalize the killing of black men…it was 1958; Emmet Till’s killers had just gone free a few years before. We did not expect relief from the court system.”
How Things Have Changed…Or Not
Sixty-five years later, unless the killing is highly publicized (as in the George Floyd and Breanna Taylor cases), victims of police violence still don’t get relief from the courts. Sometimes the family of the victim gets a settlement from the municipality—money from the taxpayer—while the actual perpetrator usually pays little or no penalty. Rarely do the killers lose their jobs or go to prison. And the killings continue. On January 26—only a month ago—cops in Huntington Park, California shot a Black wheelchair user, a double amputee, who was hobbling away from them on his stumps.
Of course the police don’t limit their violence to Black people. Poor people of any race can be killed with impunity. In February 2022 a Colorado deputy sheriff shot and killed a white man who mistakenly tried to get into the wrong car while picking his brother up from a local middle school. The deputy was just given a Purple Heart for his “bravery” in the situation. In 2018, the same deputy received a medal of valor award after he shot a robbery suspect (race unknown) 10 times.
And the number of killings by cops continues to climb, year after year, from 981 in 2017 to 1,097 in 2023. But before descending to whataboutism—that is, using incidents like these to deny the racism in police practices—it’s important to remember that Black Americans are 2.7 times more likely to be killed by police than white Americans, with respect to their percentage of the population.
Short of Murder
And let’s not limit our discussion to actual murder. According to Harvard historian Jill Lepore, “Police patrolled Black neighborhoods and arrested Black people disproportionately; prosecutors indicted Black people disproportionately; juries found Black people guilty disproportionately; judges gave Black people disproportionately long sentences; and, then, after all this, social scientists, observing the number of Black people in jail, decided that, as a matter of biology, Black people were disproportionately inclined to criminality.”
A recent study done on the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, showed that “black people are subjected to physical force, including stun guns, police dog bites, pepper spray, punches, and kicks at a rate 2.7 times that of white people. Some neighborhoods with larger populations of black people and poor people experienced police stops more than 10 times the rate of predominantly white and wealthier neighborhoods.”
To be continued…