By Ryan Swanzey
Life, Liberty, and The Pursuit of Happiness: these ideals are explicitly stated in the Declaration of Independence as examples of natural rights. Natural rights are endowed by the Creator of your choice. In a country sworn to protect religious freedom you have every right to believe or not believe in such a creator, and that choice has no bearing on the fact that you are born with those rights. The United States government is a mechanism to uphold those rights; it is not, however, the source of those rights. We live in an age where this distinction has been blurred. We live in an age where unalienable rights are infringed upon as if they are the property of the state, and not the duty of the state to maintain. Over 300 million Americans are observing the violation of an intangible social contract with its representative form of governance. However, this is a tangible contract. The contract is declared within our country’s founding documents.
When unarmed 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot by Cleveland police officers in a public park within seconds of their arrival on the scene, his right to life was denied. When unarmed 28-year-old Akai Gurley was shot in the stairwell of his Brooklyn apartment by a trigger-happy police officer, his right to life was denied. When unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot six times by a police officer facing no criminal charges, his right to life was denied.
The Supreme Court established a precedent in its ruling on Tennessee v. Garner (1985) that a police officer can only use deadly force if he or she “has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.” Unarmed citizens do not pose a significant threat of death or serious physical injury.
According to an August report by The Economist, British citizens are about 100 times less likely to be shot than American citizens. The police force of Alburquerque, New Mexico, has been responsible for 23 fatal shootings of civilians in the past four years by itself. FBI data indicates hundreds of “justifiable” killings by police offers every year, even though justifiable is a nebulous term, and reporting this data is voluntary and thus may underestimate the scope of the problem.
A disproportionate number of these victims are minorities. This phenomenon extends to the US prison population, as more than 60 percent of all inmates are minorities. While police aggression affects people of all ethnicities, it is not difficult to understand why there are racial overtones and deeply rooted distrust and anger.
Returning to the Declaration of Independence, it states: “In every stage of these oppressions, we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms. Our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.”
Frederick Douglass, a leader of the movement to abolish slavery, stated that power concedes nothing without a demand. As the holiday season continues, we ought to be thankful to live in a country where our right to speak and assemble freely cannot be infringed upon or taken away. We also ought to recognize that we are stewards of the communities within the larger community of a country that we live in. If someone sees and hears something they believe to be wrong without speaking and acting upon it, they share responsibility for the continuation of that wrong. What will you stand for?