Yet again, the Black man is the ‘suspect’
Commentary by Toki Wright, @mrwrighttc
This week, Minnesota’s news cycle was flooded with reports of a shooting that left a St. Catherine University security guard wounded.
As a result, a massive manhunt ensued including more than 50 St. Paul police officers, helicopters and K-9 units. Students at the school were directed to stay indoors as police combed the area looking for a “Black male with a navy-blue sweatshirt and jeans with a short afro; believed to be a student” according to the police scanner. But there was one big problem with the story. First, it was all a lie.
As it turns out, security guard Brent Ahlers made it all up. According to Ahlers, he was in the woods on the St. Kate campus playing with a gun he brought from home (the school bans guns on the premises) when it went off, striking him in the shoulder. A day after the shooting … and intensive manhunt for the “Black man,” Ahlers admitted guilt and was subsequently booked and charged with one count of falsely reporting a crime. Calling Ahlers honesty into question we don’t truly know if the shooting was an accident or done intentionally.
As local media retracted the original report, nearly all failed to mention the race of the suspect. “Black male, short afro.” In a city with nearly 40,000 Black residents that put a great deal of people in harm’s way. St. Paul borders the city of Falcon Heights where a little over a year ago Philando Castile was killed by officer Jeronimo Yanez in a traffic stop while driving with his girlfriend and child. Castile was suspected of a crime due to his “wide set nose.” This highly publicized killing brought international attention to issues of police conduct and overstep. So, in this climate a rational person would think it’s not best to place blame on any random member of the Black community.
Coming a day after a school shooting in Washington state and a week after an officer was killed by a motorist in the St. Paul suburb of Wayzata, the idea of an on-campus shooter was not far-fetched. The College of St. Catherine (otherwise known as St. Kates) is a 112-year-old private woman’s liberal arts college with graduate programs for men as well. The claim that Black male on campus may have shot Alhers put both men and women in danger. As a writer with Insight noted, “on a day when I would be coming from the gym with baggy clothes at night I could have been singled out as the suspect.” The allegation made every young Black person in the city suspects of attempted murder. According to some student responses online, St. Kates has yet to address the issue of race in this instance. In addition, any number of students, faculty, staff or neighborhood residents could have been stopped, frisked, detained or killed as a result of not following a police command fast enough.
But this all gets to a deeper issue, an issue that is heavily ingrained into American society. The idea of the random Black “boogeyman” out looking for trouble. In times of slavery there are countless reports of enslaved people “committing” (unproven) crimes and being beaten, mutilated and often killed. This includes in the Mt. Vernon home of our nation’ first president, and slave owner since the age of 11, George Washington. In 1955, 14-year old Emmitt Till was accused of whistling at a white woman – an offense punishable by death at the time in Mississippi. Punishable not in the courts, but in the streets. He was later found mutilated in the Tallahatchie River. This is not a new occurrence. This is a vicious cycle of suspicion, oppression and suppression.
So here are a few questions I have to ask of anyone reading this. How far along have we come as a society? Why do large portions of our society still not want to admit that racism is a problem in our country? What types of psychological evaluations do those in positions of enforcement have to go through before they are allowed to enforce law? How do we hold our institutions accountable for not addressing and rectifying their issues with race? If we know that Black people are targeted for their skin color, and accept this, what does it say about the moral quality of this country?
I can’t hide inside because I “look like a suspect.” I know that walking through this country those with the same skin tone and hair texture as I have the target on our flesh. Whether with pride or self-doubt, guilty of the sin of skin.