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A White Teen Was Killed By A Cop And No One Took To The Streets. Is That A Problem?

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A White Teen Was Killed By A Cop And No One Took To The Streets. Is That A Problem?

A White Teen Was Killed By A Cop And No One Took To The Streets. Is That A Problem?

A White Teen Was Killed By A Cop And No One Took To The Streets. Is That A Problem?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/435277397/437037415" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A white teen was killed by a police officer, and no one took to the streets.
iStockphoto
A white teen was killed by a police officer, and no one took to the streets.
iStockphoto

It was just after sunset on a muggy Friday evening earlier this month, and my wife and I were standing outside a Hardee's in Seneca, S.C. We were at a vigil for Zachary Hammond, a white teenager killed by a police officer during an attempted drug arrest in the restaurant's parking lot, three miles from where we live and teach at Clemson University. Over the past two years, I've been to protests over police killings in Ferguson, New York, Charleston and Philadelphia. Now the problem had come home.

It was a modest memorial: about 50 people — including family members and journalists — a little wooden podium, a few white candles. Zachary's aunt Kimberly recalled the time she taught him the colors of the traffic light and he thought green meant go and red meant "go faster." Sad smiles brightened the dimming parking lot.

As the vigil wound down, I offered my condolences to Zachary's uncle. We stood over the spot where Zachary was shot, and he turned to me and asked a question that I knew was coming.

"Don't you think that if Zachary had been black, that there would be more media attention?" he said.

It had been two weeks since Zachary was killed, and according to the family and news reports, neither the mayor nor anyone from the Seneca Police Department had contacted them or responded to any of their requests.

"We know some of the people from City Council, and for them not to even acknowledge us or even send a card, it's been hurtful," Angie Hammond, Zach's mom, told the local paper. Some week-old flower bouquets and a cross on a grassy patch outside the Hardee's were the only signs that something had happened here. Al Sharpton hadn't shown up on the family's doorstep, no one was marching, no one was handing out T-shirts with Zachary's face on them. They'd hired a lawyer and tried to reach out to media, but at that point, Hammond's death wasn't a national conversation.

Standing there with the Hammond family that night, I understood what they were seeing — or rather, what they were hoping to see. Their beloved boy was gone, and they wanted answers. They wanted the world to mourn him the way other young people killed by police have been mourned, publicly, over the past year and a half. No one would want to feel like they were standing alone at such a time, like their son didn't count.

This question has planted itself at the heart of Zachary's case: "Where's the outrage?" A lawyer hired by the Hammond family has squarely blamed the Black Lives Matter movement for the lack of public outcry.

"If Zachary were black, the outpouring of protest and the disappointment from the public would be amazing," he's said. Right-wing media outlets have seized on this thesis, with headlines like "Family Attorney: No Outrage When Shooting Victim Is White" and "Unarmed White Guy Gets Killed by Cops, No One Cares."

Ever since Michael Brown's death, my wife and I have traveled every few weeks to sites where police have killed citizens under questionable circumstances. We've participated in and documented the protests. In some of these cases, I connected with local activists and met the victim's family well before the story captured a national spotlight.

Before coming to Zachary's vigil, I asked Deray Mckesson, an influential Ferguson protester with a huge following on social media, if he had any advice for those trying to generate more interest in his case. Mckesson, who had tweeted early on about the Hammond case, put it simply: "We have found taking to the streets to be a successful strategy."

What I've found, through several conversations with Zach's family, his supporters, and many residents in Seneca in the weeks since he died, is that while the Hammond family has put in real effort to generate attention for their son's case, and a local black activist named Jack Logan has tried to keep attention on Zachary's death by organizing a rally (that I spoke at) and a few vigils, it is not clear that the broader community in Seneca is willing to "take to the streets."

I found out about Zachary's death the morning after he died, when I got a text from a different local black activist with a link to a local news story. When my wife and I got to the vigil at Hardee's, I had hoped to see a healthy crowd of Seneca residents. I never expected my conservative white neighbors in Seneca to protest for Sandra Bland or Freddie Gray, but surely they would come out to support an alumnus of Seneca High School. There are numerous churches in Seneca and in Oconee County. I expected to see the members and the leaders of those churches out in force, comforting the family. I expected to see numerous posters with Zachary's name and #alllivesmatter.

We were surprised. Where was everyone? A conservative blogger from North Carolina seemed to speak for many in Seneca, which is largely white, with a blog post he wrote about the case and its aftermath 12 days after the shooting.

"The evidence remains very murky on both sides," he wrote, "so those of us with patience and common-sense have refrained from expressing outrage. We prefer that the natural process of justice be allowed to occur without any inference."

That's an important distinction. When a black person is killed by the cops under dubious circumstances, African-Americans tend not to expect the justice system to work with us, or for us, or for media outlets to give air time to these causes without being forced to. In Ferguson, neither Al Sharpton nor CNN showed up until the presence of massive protests initiated by black youth made Brown's death impossible to ignore. As Lincoln Anthony Blades wrote at The Grio, "Michael Brown's death only received media coverage because fed-up Ferguson residents would not simply retreat into their homes after watching his public execution. The idea that black lives receive immediate, special, precious and fair treatment after we're murdered is simply false."

After the vigil in the Hardee's parking lot last month, my wife and I approached Zach's mom and dad to offer our condolences. Tearfully, Angie Hammond thanked us for our support, her pain palpable. I told her a bit about my work on anti-police brutality organizing elsewhere. "Why can't it be All Lives Matter?" she asked me, sadly. I didn't know what to say. At any other time, any other place, I would lay out my belief that by focusing on the most vulnerable among us, all lives become safer, that while the failed war on drugs disproportionately affects brown and black lives, conservative white families in a place like Seneca could help protect lives like Zachary's by joining the fight against militarized policing that this "war" has spawned. That, as Judith Butler recently put it in the New York Times, "It is true that all lives matter, but it is equally true that not all lives are understood to matter. ... If we jump too quickly to the universal formulation, 'all lives matter,' then we miss the fact that black people have not yet been included in the idea of 'all lives.' "

But as I stood there in the parking lot where Angela Hammond's 19-year old son had been gunned down, how could I get into any of those things? I couldn't. I took a deep breath, held her hand between mine, and said something I hope more people in Seneca will start saying out loud. "You're right," I said. "Zachary's life mattered."

Chenjerai Kumanyika is an artist, activist and scholar who holds an assistant professorship in Clemson University's department of communication studies and a creative professorship in the College of Architecture, Art and Humanities. His January 2015 article on whiteness and public radio voice, published at Transom, was featured at NPR, The Washington Post and Buzzfeed, and spawned a nationwide discussion on diversity and voices in public media.