Al Sharpton delivered the eulogy for 7-year-old Aiyana Jones last Saturday. On the previous Sunday, May 16, 2010, Jones was killed by Detroit police officers during a raid of a home harboring a 34-year-old suspected of the murder of a 17-year-old high school student. While the police allege that Aiyana was killed when an officer's weapon accidentally discharged during a struggle with her grandmother, members of the family allege police officers fired into the house before entering. An A&E film crew was present, shooting video for the show The First 48 (the police officer who allegedly fired the shot that killed Aiyana was a show regular) that will undoubtedly shed light on what really happened.
Sharpton's eulogy excoriated black-on-black violence and police misconduct. ''I'd rather tell you to start looking at the man in the mirror,'' Sharpton said. ''We've all done something that contributed to this.'' ''This is it,'' he added. ''This child is the breaking point.'' Using this frame allows Sharpton to point the finger at black cultural dysfunction and police misconduct at the same time.
In as much as Aiyana's death occurred while the police were trying to detain a murder suspect, I understand this. Common sense would suggest that there is blame to go around in this instance, right? If the police story is correct, then perhaps young Aiyana's grandmother shouldn't have struggled with police, perhaps she shouldn't have allowed the murder suspect into the house in the first place. Even if the family of the victim is right, the family still bears some responsibility because the murder suspect was able to stay in the house in the first place.
Again, this is the common-sense narrative. It comes to mind without even thinking about it. But I suggest we broaden the perspective to ask another set of questions, a set of more critical questions. Why was a reality TV show on the premise? We now take real-life crime shows like The First 48 and Cops for granted. But these shows not only bring ''real life'' into our homes, but they also sensationalize crime, arguably even more than shows like the recently canceled Law and Order, because they are real life.
In Detroit, citizens are questioning whether the filming affected Jones' murder, positing that the only reason officers used flash grenades was because the video crew was present. There is a dire need for critical stories that shed light on where Detroit has been and where it goes from here. But shows like The First 48 are nothing more than pornography and generate far more heat than light and, as such, reduce peace and security.
The use of the flash grenade brings up a related question. Why are military devices now standard in police departments? U.K. special services designed the flash grenade in the '70s as a non-lethal counter-terrorism device. The use of military tactics and ordinance in cities has been on the rise ever since the War on Drugs and took a particular turn for the worse after 9/11. Crime in Detroit is high for a number of reasons, but if the police is armed like a military force they cannot ''serve and protect'' without acting like an occupying army.
These three questions should be understood together. The economic and political devastation visited upon Detroit creates a siege mentality among citizens and political officials. This siege mentality, combined with a police force that views itself as an army, breaks communities even further apart.
And the resulting chaos makes perfect television. Eulogies designed to get black people to ''act right'' may be cathartic for some. Rev. Sharpton may feel that it gives him the best opportunity to responsibly critique police misconduct. But it's the absolute wrong message to deliver in a city wracked by violence and economic hardship. Even if it did make sense to categorize crime racially (it doesn't), black people haven't all of a sudden gotten more ''thuggish.'' Black wayward fathers haven't abandoned even more children. Black cultural dysfunction (the root of ''black-on-black violence'') explains nothing here.
Aiyana's death is tragic. As the father of five children (my youngest daughter is Aiyana's age), my heart aches. But as a black citizen, I think we need a message that brings communities together for peace and security that starts with an attempt to create a new economic and political reality.
Lester K. Spence is an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.