A couple of weeks ago, I saw a disheartening story trending on my newsfeed. It read that a thirteen year old prized lion in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park named Cecil was cruelly killed by an American hunter for sport. The article explained that the lion was first wounded by an arrow, and after forty hours, was shot by a gun. After visiting an animal reserve myself not one month before in Bloemfontein, South Africa, I thought about all of the passionate conservationists I met that worked to protect animals from poachers or hunters, and how situations such as these prove that despite their valiant work, there is still more to be done.
However, I never expected the response I would see by individual citizens, government officials, and news reporters soon after the incident. All over my newsfeed, my own friends and acquaintances exclaimed their horror at the infringement upon an animal’s most basic rights. World leaders vowed that they would pass domestic and international legislation to prevent future deaths. Newsreels showed majestic photos of Cecil to make viewers mourn the loss of his life and it’s impact to his pride.
I took a couple weeks to decide how that made me feel -- I was angry but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. And it was at that point that I saw the horrific irony.
In other words, I saw the large lion in the corner of the room. People expressed more outcry to the death of a lion than the multiple victims of police brutality, such as the recent death of Sandra Bland -- and even worse -- didn’t see why such narrowed advocacy was problematic.
At first, I tried to give people the benefit of the doubt. Americans arguing passionately about the state of affairs on the continent of Africa should be heralded, most cannot even locate more than one or two countries in it on a map! Yet, I realized that those same people on my newsfeed that were horrified about Cecil’s death never uttered a world about other incidents or mass atrocities including the kidnapping of women and girls by Boko Haram, the recruitment of child soldiers in Uganda, or the deprivation of clean water and sustenance that kills children on the continent every single day. What then made this lion garner more sympathy?
After researching the mission statements of various animal rights support group pages, I came across two recurring themes of why the killing of animals uniquely tugs at the moral consciousness of human beings. First, animals are seen as innocent and rarely commit actions that justify their end. Second, because they are unable to communicate their grievances to human beings, animals have little control over what happens to them. It is then the responsibility of human beings to protect animals from the greed and sport of human beings. For the sake of this article, I am excluding arguments about animals we slaughter for the purpose of consumption. Although they too experience inferior living conditions for their entire lives, the overwhelming majority of individuals defend the rights of domesticated and wild animals.
Therefore, after identifying those two themes of innocence and lack of control, I attempted to see whether or not these same arguments applied to people of color and their interactions with police specifically. In almost every single case of police brutality, the initial responses seemed to be the same:
“He shouldn’t have been walking down that street.”
“She should have been more polite to that police officer.”
“He shouldn’t have been playing with a toy gun in a park.”
In many cases, it seemed that the victim’s actions were responsible for their demise and that despite the mismatch in response by the police officer (that being their death), the officer was within his or her right to act because the citizen was doing something they shouldn’t have. It was normal, every day actions such as walking on a street, forgetting to use a turn signal, or playing with a toy that killed them. But at the same time it wasn’t that at all; Someone’s skin tone alone was a reason for their guilt.
Moreover, when there are conflicting narratives regarding these events, there seems to be an automatic presumption that the law enforcement officer’s version is correct. I do not attempt to assert that one should automatically believe the citizen, but the lack of investigation and indictment of officers proves that there is little interest in garnering the actual truth. In comparison, as soon as it was discovered that the lion was killed, an investigation was started and arrests were made. Not once did they, perhaps, inquire into why the lion left the reserve. Couldn’t it possibly be Cecil’s fault that he left the protection he was provided to chase a dead animal? Shouldn’t the lion have instead opted for a vegetarian diet? Of course not. And yet similar arguments are made for police brutality victims. The questions listed above prove that individuals are more inclined to blame the victim without even beginning to consider the political, social, and economic circumstances that got them there in the first place.
Therefore, instead of critiquing what would be seen as a normal or justifiable action for a lion (or a minor, unlawful action), people instead maintained that the death of Cecil should not have occurred and vowed to help prevent similar deaths in the future. Why could the same standards not apply to victims of police brutality? If you’re still not convinced, keep reading.
The second theme of lacking control answered my question. While humans assert that animals have little control over what happens to them, they believe that people do have the autonomy and liberty to do whatever they please. The Pew Research Center found that seventy-one percent of Americans believe that “personal attributes such as hard work and drive are more important to economic mobility than structural issues”. Regardless of socioeconomic and racial conditions, people always have the capability to make the ‘right’ decision and succeed. As a logical extension, the issues that POC have with the criminal justice system have a lot more to do with their personal actions than the system itself.
Cited in the New York Times, Lisa Bloom in her book “Suspicion Nation” states that while whites can and do commit a large percentage of minor and major crimes, their race is never tainted by that act. In other words, the whole Caucasian community is not blamed for the actions of a few. In comparison, when blacks violate the law, all African Americans are seen as suspect, with dangerous (and sometimes deadly) stereotypes ensuing. That means that African Americans are seen as violators of the law and a threat to police officers, long before they do anything ‘wrong’ in the first place. This is despite the fact that, according to FBI reports between 1980 and 2013, more white offenders have killed police than black offenders. Therefore, despite evidence indicating otherwise, black Americans have little control over how they perceived and this lack of control often costs them their life.
In light of this disparity in social and political power, I asked myself what society was capable of changing and, perhaps more importantly, what society had an incentive to change. By looking at the reaction to Cecil’s death, you would see immediate action by both the United States and United Nations, which illustrated a prioritization of animal rights. Senator Bob Menendez introduced the Cecil Act to curb trophy hunting of endangered and threatened species; The United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution to initiate global efforts to tackle illegal poaching of wildlife. Despite the complexity and international cooperation necessary to combat the issue, people felt as though the rights of animals were worth fighting for.
Do you think the same could be said about the lives of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Samuel Dubose, and countless others? Admittedly, institutionalized racism has been ingrained into our system with slavery, continued with Jim Crow laws, and perpetuated with our current race blind policies in the status quo. One extension of this legacy -- police brutality -- is not something that will be easily solved through one piece of legislation. However, that is by no means an excuse to put your hands up and say nothing should be done at all. Although solutions like body cameras have been proposed and enacted in some parts of the nation, there is still progress to be made.
Step one should be starting recognizing the problem within ourselves, insteading of cowering away from it because you’re uncomfortable.
We must uphold the innocence of citizens until proven otherwise, as our criminal justice system mandates. We must remember that no one is deserving of death. No matter the circumstances, the life of an individual should be mourned, especially when it is ended too short and the ‘crime’ was nonexistent or not parallel to the punishment. Moreover, we must be cognizant of the fact that certain groups will be more highly targeted than others: African Americans are approximately thirty-times more likely to be killed than their white counterparts. We must recognize what contributes to this statistic: the ingrained racism within our institutions and the more subtle racism that exists in Americans today.
Yes, kids. Racism still exists and kills people every single day.
Now let’s engage in some real talk. If you are unable to sympathize with the death of a POC killed by police but are upset when a lion is hunted for sport, you are a part of the problem. As aforementioned above, institutionalized racism has allowed people to assign ‘innocent’ and ‘guilty’ and ‘capable’ and ‘helpless’ to animals and people for a very long time. Because there is a growing sentiment among populations that we live in a ‘post racial society’, you don’t always see how this ingrained prejudice, and it’s role in creating an inability to deconstruct these labels, is problematic to people of color.
So consider this your reminder.
Instead of posting a #RIPCecil hashtag, patting yourself on the back and going on with your life, consider the many people in your own country that are fighting to stay alive and could use your support, or at the very least suffer from your ignorance. I challenge you to notice and identify the obvious problem in the room that people don’t seem to want to talk about: racism and it’s effects on POC. More than that, I challenge you to actively have those conversations about how one can support both animals and humans in a way that doesn’t devalue the innocence and struggle that POC experience every single day.
You do this by not excusing atrocious actions committed by anyone -- a hunter or a police officer. You do this by supporting measures to curb police brutality, even if it’s an uphill battle and only one step on a very long journey toward racial equality. You do this by acting as a true ally to injustice everywhere, not just in places and situations when it is convenient, socially acceptable or easy.
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