On Monday afternoon, like millions of Americans, I was watching Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin’s press conference. It was awful. Seeing Trump willfully dodge and deny the overwhelming evidence that Russia tried to intervene in the 2016 election was disturbing. Journalists did a good job trying to corner Trump: attempting to get him to either give a very clear response to the allegations of Russian meddling or show that he was shirking his responsibilities as president of the United States. Well, Trump sided with Putin – saying he could see “no reason” why Russia would ever do such a thing. When asked whether he trusted his own intelligence agencies or Putin, Trump’s weird, almost incoherent rambling about Hillary Clinton’s email servers may very well be the lowest moment of any presidential press conference in modern American history. It was low.
I was flabbergasted – as were millions of others.
It was not the first time I’d seen a government official stare right into the camera and say that up was down, left was right, and one plus one no longer equals two.
Monday, however, was not the first time I’d seen a government official stare right into the camera and say that up was down, left was right, and one plus one no longer equals two. I’ve seen it over and over again.
To be black in America is to constantly be told that what you know — the facts you’ve actually experienced, the life you’ve actually lived, and all of the pain and problems and injustice that comes with that life — only matters when a white person in authority says so.
As I flipped through the channels and watched cable news networks after Trump’s press conference, I saw (white) person after (white) person seeming to undergo a new experience for the very first time. They had been betrayed either by a person or an office that they thought they could count on when the shit hit the fan. The notion that the president of the United States would proudly stand next to the president of another country — just days after 12 government agents from that country were indicted for interfering in our elections — and defend that president was a betrayal. Even I felt betrayed.
Of course, I don’t trust Trump, but to actually see him side with Putin in that moment was stunning. Soon after I watched it, I started realizing just how familiar that feeling was.
In 1999, I was student government president at Morehouse College when a 23-year-old African immigrant named Amadou Diallo was shot at 41 times and killed by the New York Police Department on the doorstep of his home. He was unarmed and nonviolent. He had broken no laws. He was sweet young man — a beloved son of a proud family who traveled to the states so that he could pursue higher education.
What happened to Diallo was wrong. It was a grave injustice. He posed no threat to anyone. Yet not a single officer involved in that shooting was ever held criminally responsible.
It hit me like a ton of bricks. As a young leader and activist, the Diallo case and the outright rejection of any semblance of justice that came with it quickly taught me a lot about this nation. Facts be damned. Justice is often administered by the powerful, for the powerful.
Seven years later, a new set of NYPD officers fired 50 shots at a young man named Sean Bell just hours before his wedding – killing him right there on the spot. He too was unarmed and nonviolent. It seemed like an open and shut case. But again, justice was elusive, and not a single officer, was held criminally responsible for what they did that day.
That happens a lot in this city. Almost exactly four years ago to the day, NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo choked Eric Garner, an unarmed, nonviolent black man, until he died in the middle of a Staten Island sidewalk in broad daylight. It was filmed. Witnesses saw the entire ordeal from start to finish.
Yet here we are. Not a single soul has been held criminally responsible. My dear friend Erica Garner, who was Eric’s oldest daughter, passed away late last year. She literally gave her life fighting for justice around the clock for her father. It was her obsession. I’d struggle to believe that she would be dead right now if the NYPD had not killed her father — they effectively took two lives when they choked Eric Garner to death.
This thing, though — of knowing that a grave injustice took place, and having people in authority basically tell you that it didn’t — is not just a New York experience.
Ask the family of Emmett Till.
Ask the family of Trayvon Martin.
Ask the family of Tamir Rice.
Ask the family of Rekia Boyd.
Ask the family of Sandra Bland.
Ask the family of Freddie Gray.
Ask the family of Philando Castile.
Ask the family of Terence Crutcher.
Ask the family of Alton Sterling.
Black families in this country have been told straight-faced lies more times than I could ever enumerate.
There are a hundred more names that I’ve committed to memory of black men, women, boys, and girls that were all denied justice in this country. And just like how Trump flippantly stared down reporters this week and told them water isn’t wet, black families in this country have been told straight-faced lies more times than I could ever enumerate. They have somebody look them in the face and tell them that, in spite of all of the evidence, in spite of all of the feelings and facts, in spite of all of the investigations, there would be no justice or even anything that looks like it.
By and large, white people get justice in America. The system was built with their justice in mind. Now I’m not glad that Trump is doing what he’s doing right now – not at all – but if you ever wanted to understand what it feels like to be black in America in the wake of a critical injustice — to feel betrayed by the most powerful people in the country, who are supposed to be representing you and your interests — now you know.