CONTENT WARNING: Police Violence; Anti-Black Racism.
On April 29, fifteen-year-old Jordan Edwards was shot and killed in Balch Springs, Texas, after leaving a house party with two of his brothers and two friends because the group had heard gunshots and feared for their lives. Officer Roy Oliver—who has since been fired and charged with murder—claimed he fired upon the car containing Edwards and the three others because the vehicle had been aggressively speeding towards officers, though body cam footage, upon review, clearly showed the car moving in the opposite direction. Allegedly armed with an AR-15 automatic rifle, Oliver fired three rounds, one of which struck Edwards in the back of the head, killing him in front of his friends and brothers.
As with all recent cases of police murdering young Black men, the details here feel both uniquely horrific and infuriatingly routine. They are part of an all-too-familiar tale of state-sponsored killing coupled with denial and minor attempts on behalf of related police departments to assuage communities while obfuscating their guilt. Despite the officer’s dismissal and a statement from the Belch Springs police claiming that the conduct that led to Edwards’ murder is in conflict with the values of the department, it’s naive to imagine that Oliver will be indicted or jailed for the killing. This would require a level of awareness and desire to make serious change that continually elude the institutions of American law enforcement. It would require an acknowledgment that Oliver was not some loose-cannon lone wolf, but an agent of an all-encompassing system of anti-Black racism.
It’s important that those of us not directly affected by this individual tragedy or the pattern into which it fits take the time to reconsider how we approach discussing this murder and trying to prevent others from occurring. Certainly, we must steel and dedicate ourselves to pushing for large-scale cultural and institutional change, whether by donating to the organizations that work to protect communities of color from police violence or by investing time in protests, large and small. However, it’s also necessary for us white Americans to examine the language that we use to speak about Jordan Edwards, police violence, and the responses to it in communities of which we are not a part. While we may find ourselves eager to engage in self-congratulatory denunciations of this specific incident, such murders continue to occur because these denunciations are so often uttered in the short term. They too often give way to self-righteous judgment of those most affected, paired with prescriptions on how those who experience things we cannot possibly imagine should act moving forward and amplified by our inability to center ourselves in this narrative.
The most obvious way to do this is to reject any narrative that tries to excuse Officer Roy Oliver’s behavior or generally romanticizes the police as an institution dedicated to justice that fails only in rare instances or in the case of extraordinary circumstances. This means not talking about how difficult it is to be a police officer or how dangerous or how emotionally trying it may be. This means rejecting the idea that the blame for police murder falls solely on the shoulders of the officer who committed the killing and not on the structure and history of U.S. law enforcement. This means being willing to accept the obvious connections between “isolated” shootings, to address them as part of a history of militant and state-sanctioned racism.
Roy Oliver may have acted of his own volition, but unless this statement is followed with “on behalf of racist institutions that conditioned him to do so,” you are more or less erasing the tragedy of all the shootings that have come before and denying your individual responsibility in preventing others in the future. If the killing of young Black men was simply a defect in Roy Oliver’s character, then our nation wouldn’t be tasked with trying to use the same flimsy excuse to justify the slaughter of Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, and countless others. If Roy Oliver were the exception as opposed to the rule—an aberrant independent actor, as opposed to one more in a long line of police officers and self-appointed law enforcement—then we wouldn’t need to have this conversation multiple times a year.
Another aspect of how allyship must continue to reform is with regard to how white allies frame the response by Black communities, how we talk about Black grief and Black anger. The erasure of the emotional pain felt by African Americans in the wake of these killings is no different from the long-standing idea that somehow Black bodies were biologically capable of enduring more pain than those of their white counterparts, a key component of painting people of color as subhuman. If we refuse to acknowledge the extraordinary pain that these murders cause, then we continue the project of dehumanization that depicts Black Americans as emotionless and dangerous. The flip side of this is how we choose to discuss Black anger, specifically in regards to protest.
In the wake of Mike Brown’s murder by Officer Darren Wilson, the Ferguson protests were framed as violent and unhinged, as if they were more or less temper tantrums by a community that didn’t have the—what? Maturity? Strength?—to calmly handle the reality of routine unjustified violence against them. It’s absurd and grotesque to suggest that there should be some expectation of decorum in the face of ongoing butchery, that after watching loved ones and friends killed and hearing their killers make excuses that are so eagerly lapped up in the white mainstream, rage is an illegitimate emotional response, despite the fact that white Americans are free to express far more anger in the wake of even the slightest perceived indignity. After centuries of violence, and with the seemingly perpetual promise of more from the institutions that coddle anti-Black racists, the suggestion that the victims should be expected to abide by the racist standards of a nation that has regularly denied them any outlet for mourning or justice is an explicit endorsement of a status quo founded on the dehumanization of African Americans.
This ugly suggestion extends to the ridiculous idea that Black Americans should be forced to engage with or make space for the voices that seek to uphold this culture of dehumanization. These killings are traumatic. En masse, that trauma could never be conveyed by someone who has not felt it. Also traumatic, though, is the language that is ultimately used to vindicate the police officers who commit these killings. Compounding that trauma are the excuses institutions make for allowing this language to carve out a space for itself. In these inane debates about free speech on college campuses, one often hears the argument that students who are offended can simply not listen to the speech, which is stupid and perverse. Not listening to the speech isn’t the half of it. It’s perhaps equally dehumanizing and traumatic to force people of color to reckon with the fact that they go to school, live, and work around others who consider this speech legitimate enough for a paycheck and a podium, for an interview slot on “The Daily Show.”
Imagine the fear one might experience knowing that this speech, which is demonstrably linked to the rationales that jeopardize and delegitimize Black lives and Black dignity, is being given the opportunity to infiltrate and infect the space in which you live, the chance to sway others to its cause and help them excuse the violence that they’ll never have to directly experience. Sure, there are examples of bigots being brought around because their ideas received pushback in a public forum, but these are few and far between. (They also predominantly occur when the bigot had not been exposed to any competing ideologies at all—such as with Megan Phelps-Roper of the Westboro Baptist Church—which is itself a rarity.) Most often, these people simply wave off any criticism, certain as they are of their own superiority. Is that slim chance worth the trauma people of color have to experience? Is it worth forcing someone to fear for their life or their emotional dignity? No. It’s not.
America could have saved Jordan Edwards. It could have saved Michael Brown, and Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile. It could have saved Dontre Hamilton, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and Walter Scott. It could have saved them long before they were even born. Each time we don’t try, blood is shed, lives are lost, communities and families are splintered. Each time we don’t try, it is an unimaginable failure. It’s impossible and unconscionable to simply perform tangential mourning and say we’ll do better next time. Next time expired long, long ago.
Rest in power, Jordan.
With the permission of Jordan’s parents Odell and Charmaine Edwards, Mercedes Jackson, a family friend, has set up a memorial fund in Jordan’s name.