Throughout America’s history, there have been strategic efforts to silence black voices to fulfill two purposes: to further subjugate blacks while simultaneously uplifting whites. According to Ida B. Wells in a speech delivered in Chicago in 1900: “It has been to the interest of those who did the lynching to blacken the good name of the helpless and defenseless victims of their hate. For this reason they publish at every possible opportunity this excuse for lynching, hoping thereby not only to palliate their own crime but at the same time prove the Negro a moral monster and unworthy of the respect and sympathy of the civilized world.”
On March 30, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman’s announcement that there would be no charges filed against the two white Minneapolis police officers who killed an unarmed Jamar Clark with a shot to the head gave no validity to the eyewitness testimony of blacks. In addition, Freeman flagrantly distorted the statements of RayAnn Hayes to paint a different picture of what happened on Nov. 15.
Hayes, the woman whom Freeman referred to as Clark’s girlfriend (which was the first of many lies) stated in her initial report that Clark was not her boyfriend, that he posed no threat to her in his attempts to see her in the ambulance and that while he did attempt to stop her from breaking up a fight, she had hurt her ankle in a fall while wearing high heels. These crucial facts were disregarded.
The book “Silencing Her Black Voice” by Nokwazi Zimu (2012) points out that black women “are often portrayed as victims of gender-based or domestic violence, villains or sex objects.” Freeman chose to support this narrative by claiming the officers were responding to a domestic violence situation with a black assailant who was acting “kinda odd.” Why were Hayes’ words twisted? Why was her account not considered during Freeman’s stated 31-hour review of the evidence? Now her name has been made public, and she receives death threats, further silencing her.
Black Codes once prevented blacks from testifying in court. Today, while blacks have the right to testify in court, their words are rarely validated when referring to law enforcement officials. One eyewitness in the Clark case, Teto Wilson, has consistently described what he saw the night Clark was killed: “Jamar Clark was not, absolutely not resisting.” Why wasn’t this taken into account?
While there is divisiveness between police and the black community, Freeman had an opportunity to shrink this divide by acknowledging the many black voices to come forth. Instead, he chose to gloss over the fact that officer Dustin Schwarze shoved his gun into the skin next to Jamar’s mouth (another attempt to silence) moments before firing the fatal shot. “I was upset about what Freeman reported happened. Clearly, it was based off what the officers reported,” said Wilson, the eyewitness. Silencing the black voice was critical in Freeman’s decision to clear officers of any wrongdoing.
The one black voice Freeman was willing to acknowledge was secondhand, via the white officers. Freeman claims to believe that Clark stated: “I am ready to die.” Furthermore, he supports the officer’s willingness to honor Jamar’s last words. While black voices are continuously silenced, Jamar’s alleged statement (which neither paramedics nor eyewitnesses heard) was acknowledged. Schwarze also claims that officer Mark Ringgenberg yelled “shoot him” in the “most sincere panic voice” Schwarze had ever heard. (Neither paramedics nor witnesses heard this.) Why does Freeman ignore all of the statements from blacks except this one coming through accused white officers? Why were these statements chosen for the news conference? The statements were extrapolated to reinforce a stereotype and justify the killing.
During slavery, if blacks were to go against the wishes of their master, the master utilized methods of punishment — which typically involved violence — in order to reinforce his authority and power. Jamar Clark didn’t have a chance to walk away from that fatal encounter as he was approached by two officers who each have a history of lawsuits for excessive force — Ringgenberg in San Diego in 2012; Schwarze in Richfield two weeks before Clark was killed. (According to the San Diego lawsuit, which was settled, Ringgenberg grabbed a man from behind without identifying himself and held him in a choke hold. Ringgenberg’s official reason for leaving the San Diego force technically remains secret; however, the Minneapolis Police Department was eager to put him back in uniform while knowing his past. Schwarze, on the other hand, was sued 10 days before Clark’s death; the filing alleges that Schwarze tased a Richfield man after his partner beat him.)
Freeman stated that the killing of Jamar Clark was much different from those of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice and Walter Scott in other U.S. cities, but it wasn’t. Last year in an essay at Essence.com, Michelle Alexander wrote: “Just as lynchings were not the only thing wrong with the old Jim Crow system — but merely the ugliest, most frightening reflection of it — today’s police killings reflect the unrelenting punitiveness of a new system of racial and social control in this country.”
In our view, a murder was committed by two officers of the Minneapolis Police Department, and Mike Freeman chose to shape the narrative for his announcement by silencing the black voice.
Jason Sole teaches criminal justice at Hamline University and Metropolitan State University and is chair of the Minneapolis NAACP Criminal Justice Reform Task Force. Rachel Wannarka is a task force member, a special education teacher at Boys Totem Town in St. Paul and a member of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers.