On My Mind: The American Way

Jun 1, 2020

These last few days, as people have talked about the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, some of them have brought up the names of so many other black Americans left to die on the streets of this country. But I’ve thought about another name from here in Charlotte: Trystan Terrell.

Terrell, who is white, murdered two UNC Charlotte students and wounded four others in a campus classroom a little more than a year ago. He pleaded guilty, and is likely to spend the rest of his life in prison.

The reason he is in prison, and not in a cemetery, is that police did the careful work of taking him into custody, and the court system did the delicate work of giving him a fair hearing. Even after committing the worst crime on the books, Terrell was given his right to justice.

George Floyd wasn’t being investigated for murder. He was being questioned about a bogus $20 bill at a deli. But no court will get to decide if he actually committed the crime, because a police officer knelt on his neck until Floyd couldn’t breathe. He was 46 years old and he called out for his mama before he died.

Yes, these are just two cases. But they fall into a pattern every American knows. White people who commit terrible crimes get access to courts and lawyers. Black people who are only suspected of crimes – who may not have done anything wrong -- die in the street.

A few months ago, in my hometown of Brunswick, Georgia, a young black man named Ahmaud Arbery was shot to death by two white vigilantes. They say they thought he had stolen something from a house under construction nearby. They had no evidence he’d stolen anything – only that he looked around the site, as other folks in the neighborhood had. But the men who killed him decided they had evidence enough.

Again and again, some white officers and some white citizens don’t wait for an explanation. They subdue, they shoot, and black people die.

For 400 years, white people in this country have treated black people as something less. That has often been written into law and has always been the custom. Yes, there are other laws in place to set things right, and yes, the culture is slowly changing. But we are a giant ship that has to be turned around and a lot of people want to go back the wrong way.

So many people over the past few days have been outraged at the burning streets and looted storefronts, here in Charlotte and around the country. But when the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick chose to make a quiet protest – taking a knee during the national anthem – he was effectively blackballed from the league.

You know these things even if you don’t want to believe them. They are the ingredients of the bitter stew our country is founded on, and we all have to swallow it. If you say you don’t see color, that means you don’t see. If you say you just want peace, that means you don’t want to take the hard road to justice.

Speaking of justice: The men involved in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery were eventually arrested. The police officer who killed George Floyd has been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. They will get the chance to make their case in the legal system and let justice take its course.

I would say that’s the American way. But the truth is, leaving black bodies dead in the street: That’s the American way, too.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column normally runs every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

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