The other night my wife and I were talking about the murder of Walter Scott when our eleven year old daughter asked, “Why?” And she looked at my wife and me. She looked for what felt like a long time. Exactly why would a policeman shoot an unarmed man—Walter Scott—in the back eight times? She knows about what happened to Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and so many others. She knows that these things happen over and over and that they have happened countless times when there was no one around to tell anyone.
As for what exactly happened, we tell her the truth. I shudder to think of the parents out there who, when their children ask them, will say that the policeman thought he was in danger. That it was an accident. Or that the person who was shot had used drugs, or had stolen something. Anything to justify the murder of the innocent. And anything to help perpetuate the continued privilege of whiteness. Which isn’t to say that when Michael Slager shot Walter Scott he didn’t feel danger of some sort. It’s just that it wasn’t physical danger. Because when he shot Walter Scott in the back, when he shot a man who posed no physical threat, what was in danger and what he was trying to protect was the order that was in his head. An order in which his own life mattered, but that of the man running away from him didn’t.
At this young age, our daughter is learning about injustice and inequality. There are some children who have to learn about these things at an even younger age, and about how the cloak of privilege provides protection for others, but not for them. Then there are those who will never learn, whose privilege will allow them to lead lives spent in pursuit of simple entertainments, and who will never learn to ask a question more complex than, “What’s in it for me?” This, our daughter has learned, is not the first question to ask.
And when she asks “Why?” it’s not simply the asking of a question. What she’s saying is, “I can’t believe this is happening” as well as “We can’t let this continue to happen.” And as for the look in her eyes, it seems that she’s asking, “What do we do now?” It’s a question she’s asked for years now, as in this photograph taken five years ago shortly before her brother was born. All of which is saying that it’s a question to ask in times of joy as well as in times of sorrow. All of which is saying that every day, one way or another, we must try to rise.
Photograph by Jose Padua