The “weekend of resistance” in Ferguson, MO, in response to the fatal shooting of Michael (Hands Up, Don’t Shoot) Brown—and my view that his death is a public health problem—seems like a distant memory. After the non-indictment verdict for the officer involved, tensions across the country were further compounded by the failure of a Staten Island, NY, grand jury to indict the police officer who killed Eric (I Can’t Breathe) Garner. At the same time, people across the nation, and communities of color in particular, anxiously await the outcome of cases in Cleveland, OH, regarding the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir (Playing in a Park) Rice, and in Brooklyn, NY, regarding the fatal shooting of Akai (Tragic Accident) Gurley in the stairway of a public housing complex. In all of these cases, the victims were unarmed.
Sadly, the list of unarmed black men killed by police continues to grow, and recently prompted the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund to post a series of tweets naming 76 men and women of color who were killed while in police custody since 1999—14 of which have occurred just this year. The rapid succession and publicity of these cases is tantamount to a public health crisis.
Tensions between law enforcement and communities of color have been well documented. Long before the Ferguson shooting, generations of parents instructed their children of color about “what not to do when stopped by the police.” Reaction to the indisputable video that captured the fatal choking of Eric Garner represents a pivotal moment in our nation’s history as it pursues fair and equal protection and treatment of all citizens when confronted by law enforcement. For the most part, persistent, peaceful protests continue in cities throughout the nation and in many places around the world, with protesters chanting that black lives matter, and calling for systemic change in the handling of these types of cases. For the first time, people of all ages, races and political persuasions are coming together to address the not-so-silent epidemic that has resulted in the failure to indict—much less convict—law enforcement officers for shooting unarmed people of color.
Thanks to social media, a movement is underway that far surpasses anything we have seen since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. As a parent of a young man of color and as a public health professional concerned with the need for increased access to safe opportunities for physical activity, I can’t help but wonder what the public health message should be to the parents of Tamir Rice, or to my own son, for that matter. Are even public parks no longer spaces where children of color can safely play? Can men of color afford to be physically active? If so, where, and under what conditions?
We are working at the intersection of healthy eating, active living, and personal and community safety. These issues are inextricably intertwined in communities of color and cannot be addressed in isolation from each other. Creating safe and open spaces for children and adults to be active is only one part of the solution for ensuring the health of a community. At the same time, we must figure out which policies and strategies will contribute to the creation of a cultural shift that pieces together the shattered trust between local law enforcement and communities of color. Change that can be believed in is a community priority.
I can’t breathe. Black lives matter.