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Notebook on Michael Brown, Kajieme Powell, and W.E.B. Du Bois (part 1 of 2)

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“No one seems to think it significant that upon the policemen’s arrival Kajieme Powell possibly had reason to fear for his life and reacted in a manner consistent with his disability.” ––Article excerpt (Aberjhani)

“Democracy is not a gift of power, but a reservoir of knowledge.” –– from The Wisdom of W.E.B. Du Bois

The month of August happens to be one in which a number of notable events in African-American history, relatively recent in historical terms, have occurred. There are the birthdays of such celebrated individuals as author James Baldwin (Aug. 2), President Barack Obama (Aug. 4), and philanthropist and performing artist Michael Jackson (Aug. 29).

From this point forward, people shall also certainly recall August 9, 2014, as the day when 18-year-old’s Michael Brown’s death served to ignite a series of violent night-time protests eerily reminiscent of similar scenes from the 1960s. The chaos also functioned as yet one more reminder of how readily the lives of African-American men are deleted from this world by violence.

With the 2009 killing of 22-year-old Oscar Grant in Oakland, Calif., the 2011 execution of Savannah’s 42-year-old Troy Anthony Davis, the 2012 shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, and the currently-pending case of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson found dead in a rolled-up wrestling mat at his school in Lowndes County, Georgia, so fresh in recent memory, such a reminder was hardly necessary.

But there it painfully is. As Jaeah Lee reported in Mother Jones and others have written elsewhere, similar occurrences are far more frequent than many might imagine. This reality is nothing like the advantageous diversity that many multiculturalism enthusiasts prefer to believe is possible for the United States. It also says much more about the cost of romanticizing faith in guns and violence than lawmakers and lobbyists seem willing to acknowledge.

Insult Added to Injury

As if the point of Brown’s death was not a strong enough reminder of the genocidal trend that tends to haunt black men’s lives, the equally odd and deadly case of 25-year-old Kajieme Powell occurred just 10 days later, on August 19. Approximately 4 miles from where Brown was shot some six times, including reportedly twice in the back of the head, Powell was gunned down in a barrage of bullets after apparently stealing 2 cans of soda and a pastry snack.

Watching the full graphic cell phone video of Powell’s shooting is difficult but informative. In addition to documenting the shooting itself, and countering initial statements made by police regarding the incident, it also shows what occurred just prior to and after the shooting: passersby staring in disbelief as policemen handcuff the mortally-wounded Powell; the number of white policemen ordering black Americans in the most offensive tones to back away; and the comments of the man taking the video yelling out “Yes sir!” as if to assure them he would not provide any reason for them to shoot him.

It should be noted that Powell was known to have been mentally ill. Several passersby who crossed his path prior to the policemen’s arrival simply kept walking without any apparent fear of him. Policemen have stated they had reason to fear Powell because upon their arrival he pulled out a steak knife. No one seems to think it significant that upon the policemen’s arrival Kajieme Powell possibly had reason to fear for his life and reacted in a manner consistent with his disability.

At the Crossroads of History

It so happened that Brown’s and Powell’s deaths occurred just as the 51st anniversary of the August 28, 1963, March on Washington was approaching. The march is generally considered one of the more triumphant moments in the history of African Americans–– and that of all Americans, in fact, committed to the practice of genuine democracy in the United States. One of the great historical ironies of the march is that the great scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the men whose political advocacy, and who himself had helped lead the first major protest march by African Americans in New York City on July 28, 1917, was not there.

By the time preparations for the 1963 March on Washington got underway, Dr. Du Bois had relocated to Ghana largely because he believed the racism that continuously diminished the quality of African Americans’ lives, and which so often ended their lives, would never cease. He died the night before the march took place. Dr. David Levering Lewis, writing in W.E.B. Du Bois The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 19419–1963, noted the following about that doubly historic moment:

“Du Bois followed the limited news about the impending March on Washington filtered by Ghana Radio and the polemical Ghanaian Times during the last week of August 1963. .. He died in his sleep at 11:40 that night. In Washington, 250,000 of his countrymen and women began assembling along the great reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial…”

NEXT: Notebook on Michael Brown, Kajieme Powell, and W.E.B. Du Bois part 2

by Aberjhani
co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
and author of Journey through the Power of the Rainbow: Quotations from a Life Made Out of Poetry

More Notes on Race and Justice in America

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