If white America truly thinks Black Lives Matter, our society has a strange way of showing it | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

If white America truly thinks Black Lives Matter, our society has a strange way of showing it

Twelve shots seem like vengeance, not justice

Black Lives Matter.

Those three words have been part of our lexicon for nearly two years now. You’ve heard them. You’ve read them. But do you really believe them? A lot of people of different races believe it; but do you?

Before you answer yes, I want you to think about it. Think about your reaction every time you’ve heard that phrase in the past. Did you recognize the words for what they are, a symbol of the epidemic of African Americans being senselessly killed by police? Or did you give the answer that police officers and white conservatives are fond of giving: “All lives matter.”

I think more people than I’d like to believe have uttered this latter phrase, and it’s alarming. So much so that I begin to wonder whether black lives do matter to a lot of white America. I’m just not sure anymore, and it’s sickening.

click to enlarge If white America truly thinks Black Lives Matter, our society has a strange way of showing it
Artwork by Rashad Jamaal

I finally came to that realization following the shooting death of Bruce Kelley Jr. a couple of weeks ago. Most people know the story by now. Kelley and his father were drinking in a bus shelter; they were approached by officers and a fight ensued. The younger Kelley got away from the cops and back-up arrived, including a K-9 officer and his police dog, Aren. Kelley was surrounded and he had a knife. 

According to written reports, including a masterfully written column on the tragedy by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Tony Norman, Kelley indicated that if Aren attacked, he would kill the dog. Aren was released, Kelley killed the dog and officers put him down with 12 shots. Twelve shots seem unnecessary; 12 shots seem like vengeance, not justice. 

The days that followed brought a massive funeral for Aren. His coffin was draped in a flag; hundreds of human police officers came to pay their respects, buses were rerouted and streets were closed. Bruce Kelley was laid to rest by his family. Streets weren’t closed and buses weren’t rerouted. Why would they be? After all, Kelley killed a police dog who was trying to tear his throat out. I know undoubtedly that there are people out there that think Kelley got what he deserved when the dog’s handler put 10 shots into his body and another officer put two.

It makes me sad. It makes me sick. It makes me angry.

Black Lives Matter? Not more than a dog’s, apparently.

Although I have to question how much the dog’s life actually mattered. In the wake of Aren’s death he was called an officer and a hero. But he was neither. He was a tool of law enforcement, trained to attack when ordered. I’m sure he was loved by his handler, but when you think about it, he was there to serve the same function as an officer’s Taser or gun. How do I know he wasn’t a partner? A partnership usually indicates some level of equality, and that equality simply did not exist. I know because that dog was sent into a situation with zero regard for his life. He was sent into a situation that no human officer would enter. Aren didn’t have to die that afternoon. 

But more importantly, Bruce Kelley Jr. didn’t have to die that afternoon. He was outnumbered. And at the time he was shot, it appears that no human life was in danger. A dog was wounded and that’s a shame, but did Kelley deserve to die for that? If these men weren’t police officers, and had shot Kelley for killing their dog, would it be justified? I don’t think so. Does the life of a black man matter more than the life of police officers? Does it matter more than a dog’s?

I know that some of you answered no to those last two questions. I know it because I know the reaction and public outrage that comes when an animal is killed. I also know what the reaction of a lot of people is when a black man dies after an incident with police: “If he was obeying the law, police would have left him alone.”

But have we really devolved into a nation that thinks it’s OK for a black man to die during a traffic stop or because he was drinking in a bus shelter? I don’t want to believe that, but more and more evidence piles up every day. Yes, all lives matter, but as a white man in America, I have no fear that if I get pulled over for running a stop sign that my life will end with a bullet.

Black men in America don’t enjoy that confidence. That’s why we have to keep reminding our society that Black Lives Matter. They matter just as much as yours or mine.

And certainly they matter more than a dog’s.