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What If Henry Gates Jr. Had Been a Working-Class Black Teenager?

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opednews.com Headlined to H2 10/19/09

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Two black males are seen attempting to enter a house and a concerned neighbor calls the police. When officers arrive on the scene a confrontation occurs and the resulting press coverage results in a debate over whether the alleged burglars should have simply been quiet and obedient. For anyone familiar with the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in July, 2009, this story not only became front page news but part of the conversation at the dinnertable across the nation. Even President Obama stepped into the conversation. There was substantial debate about what happened, as well as what should have happened, but Gates' voice was heard and charges against him eventually dropped.

But what if instead of a nationally known academic, the individuals involved were working-class Black teenagers? That was exactly the case in Champaign, Illinois, where two Black, teen-aged males were seen trying to enter a house on October 9, 2009. A concerned neighbor called the police and the resulting press coverage has resulted in a debate over whether the officers acted appropriately or if the alleged burglars should have simply remained quiet and obeyed. Letters to the local newspaper the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette have both expressed outrage at the officers and the suspects in the case. Yet, there is a significant difference between what happened to Professor Gates and what happened to young Kiwane Carrington. Gates suffered a loss of dignity and experienced what happens to many black men in society today, but Carrington wound up paying with his life. This did not happen in a well-to-do neighborhood, and these teenagers did not have the type of social capital and academic clout that Professor Gates had at his disposal.

Later at a press conference held at the Urbana Champaign Independent Media Center it was revealed that Kiwane Carrington had, at one point, lived in the house he was accused of breaking into. The resident, Debra Thomas told reporters that Kiwane was a good kid who was always welcome at her home. According to various news reports Carrington and a companion was seen trying to enter the house through a back door. A neighbor called the police and two officers, including Champaign Police Chief R.T. Finney responded to the call. What has been described as a 'scuffle' ensued and a firearm was discharged fatally wounding young Kiwane Carrington in the chest. The fatal shot came from Officer Daniel Norbits who is on paid administrative leave from the police force. It was also revealed that Carrington is the second person that has died at the hands of Officer Norbits.

Hundreds of people gathered on Wednesday October 14, 2009 to hold a vigil for a life that was taken too soon and many friends, family members, and teachers remembered him as a young man who wanted to be an astronaut someday. It was also reported that Kiwane had some troubles due to losing his mother to cancer and was attending the READY school which is geared towards students with behavioral and emotional problems. As a result, some of the blog posts I've read have painted this young man as a potential thug who could have avoided harm had he just shut up and obeyed the police. This is in direct contrast to the warm memories that have been shared by the people who knew him.

As it is, there are only three people now who can testify as to what happened that day. Police Chief Finney, Officer Norbits, and the other teenager involved who is facing felony charges for resisting arrest. The second teenager was initially charged with burglary, but since he was welcome into the home, those charges have been dropped. Still, he may be convicted of a felony just because he refused to 'obey' the police. It will end up being the word of a teenage boy who is dealing with the trauma of seeing his friend killed against two men with badges. I have to wonder how fair that is.

In following the news coverage and letters written regarding the murder of Kiwane Carrington, I am still deeply disturbed to see how many people are quick to jump to the defense of an officer who took the life of a 15 year old boy. This, despite the fact that I have yet to see any reports that Carrington was holding a weapon or that the life of the officer was in any danger. Yet this is the second time that this particular officer has killed someone during a 14 year career. Kiwane was just a kid, a kid whose brain, like those of any 15-yeard-old, was still developing. Even if he and his companion did not respond to police orders the way they should have, it is unreasonable to hold these children to an adult standard. If this situation involved a couple of white kids in an upper class neighborhood would this have happened? As a mother of a teenager I know that there are times when kids will simply react to a situation on an emotional level, instead of carefully thinking through what they want to do.

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I believe Finney is going to defend the actions of Officer Norbits if for no other reason than to save his own skin. After all if Officer Norbits committed a senseless murder then our Chief of Police is an accessory to a criminal act. However, the history of this community has shown many times that a badge gives one a free pass to engage in unlawful acts towards the citizens that these individuals have sworn to serve and protect. For example in Urbana, Illinois a police officer named Kurt Hjort was accused of raping a woman while on duty. The States Attorney appointed a special prosecutor to investigate and Hjort admitted to having sex with the woman while on duty (perhaps to explain his DNA) and no charges were ever filed. Yet, Urbana had to settle a civil suit with the woman who accused Hjort. What made this situation even more appalling to local residents was that Hjort was on the verge of being hired by a police department in another community when the story came to light and the public outcry resulted in his offer of employment being withdrawn.

The Hjort incident was not an isolated event. Former Champaign detective named Lisa Staples was stopped while driving her police issued vehicle the wrong way down the interstate. She was arrested for drunk driving and allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor after the case was investigated by another 'special' prosecutor. Staples later resigned from the police force. How many lives did she put in danger the night she drove drunk on the interstate? These are examples of individuals who are able and free to live their lives without bearing any real or tangible responsibility for the abuse of public trust and safety they committed. How can we teach our children and grandchildren to 'respect' the police when officers are not held to the standards they have sworn to uphold?

There is a parallel here to churches who have leaders that abused their positions. Perhaps the most well known examples involved priests who spent years abusing children and being moved from parish to parish before finally facing criminal charges. Then you have the Rabbis in New Jersey who were arrested in connection with money laundering. Some years ago a local minister was caught in a lie when he was having an affair with a member of his congregation who had been to counseling with him - and he married her after divorcing his wife. Just as we have members of the public who defend the police there are church members who refuse to see any wrongdoing on the part of priests, rabbis, and pastors. It's as if we train ourselves to leave our brains at the door or bury our heads in the sand to avoid dealing with the discomfort of these situations.

I believe that, as human beings, we are as sick as our secrets, and I believe that the reason why these situations are allowed to continue is due to the conspiracy of silence that is ingrained into these institutions. We see this when Special Prosecutors and outside police agencies rule in favor of officers. We see this when bishops transfer priests to another parish or when a local church chooses ot retain a pastor until he can find another position. We see this in church members and citizens who refuse to believe that a trusted servant is capable of evil. In the case of young Kiwane - his death came not only at the end of an officer's bullet - but as result of the secrecy and silence that has long festered within the police department and poisoned the surrounding community.

It's time to break the silence.

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Martha "Marti" Wilkinson earned her MA in Communication Studies from Eastern Illinois University in May 2010. She also holds a BS (1991) in Mass Communication from Illinois State University.


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