ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The Justice Department is looking into another police shooting - the death of Zachary Hammond. The unarmed teenager was killed in South Carolina earlier this summer during an attempted drug arrest. His death hasn't sparked the kind of protest or social media attention of other questionable police shootings. Hammond's family wonders if this is because Zachary was white. Chenjerai Kumanyika lives close to where the shooting occurred and has this commentary.
CHENJERAI KUMANYIKA: Just after sunset on a muggy August evening, my wife and I were standing outside the Hardee's in Seneca, S.C., the place where Zachary Hammond died. We were at a modest memorial, about 50 people including family members and journalists. I spoke with Zachary's uncle. We stood over the spot where his nephew 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. I understood what they were hoping to see. Their beloved boy was gone, and they wanted the world to mourn him in the way other young people killed by police have been mourned and for the world to demand answers.
Before coming to Zachary's vigil, I asked Deray Mckesson, an influential Ferguson protestor with a huge following on social media, if he had any advice for those trying to generate more interest in the Hammond case. Mckesson put it simply. We have found taking to the streets to be a successful strategy. But after talking with the Hammond family, their supporters and many residents in Seneca, it's not clear if the community here is willing to do that.
Twelve days after the shooting, a conservative blogger seemed to speak for many in Seneca, which is mostly white. He posted this. (Reading) The evidence remains very murky on both sides, 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 interference.
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 airtime to these causes. In Ferguson, neither Al Sharpton nor CNN showed up until our massive outcry made Michael Brown's death impossible to ignore. To bring attention to black lives that are lost, we know that we have to organize and protest.
As the vigil for Zachary Hammond ended, my wife and I offered our condolences to his parents. Tearfully, his mother thanked us for our support. Why can't it be All Lives Matter, she asked. I didn't know what to say. At any other time, at any other place, I would lay out my belief that by focusing on the most vulnerable among us, all lives become safer. The conservative white families in a place like Seneca could help protect lives like Zachary's by joining the fight against militarized policing spawned by the so-called drug war. I also thought about Judith Butler's words in the New York Times. She wrote this. (Reading) 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.
SIEGEL: Chenjerai Kumanyika is a professor of communications at Clemson University. His commentary is part of a broader essay posted on NPR's Code Switch blog.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.