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COMMENTARY | Jeneé Osterheldt

Good black guys with guns get killed. White boys throwing up Nazi salutes get grace. Why?

A woman held up a sign with Jemel Roberson's image at his funeral in Chicago.Tyler LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times via AP/file 2018

A group of mostly white kids throw up a Nazi salute and won’t be punished because of First Amendment rights and because school officials could not know “the intention in the hearts of those involved.”

Two black men tried to save lives. They were the proverbial “good guys with guns” that the NRA keeps calling for. Yet they were killed by cops.

Because this is America. And the good intentions — or rights — of black men don’t seem to matter.

On Thanksgiving night, Emantic “E.J.” Fitzgerald Bradford Jr. was in an Alabama shopping mall when shots were fired.


The 21-year-old, who had a concealed carry permit, was misidentified as the shooter and killed by Hoover police. Police have changed their story a few times, finally admitting he probably wasn’t involved at all. Some say he was trying to help. Body-cam footage has yet to be released.

Despite the news spreading on social media, his family wasn’t formally notified of his death until Friday morning. On Tuesday, Hoover officials apologized to the family.

He was shot in the face.

Now we must kneel for a black man whose black life mattered. A good guy.

After a gunman opened fire at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh last month, President Trump echoed the familiar NRA talking point.

‘‘This is a case where, if they had an armed guard inside, they might have been able to stop him immediately,’’ Trump said. ‘‘Maybe there would have been nobody killed, except for him, frankly. So it’s a very, very — a very difficult situation.’’

Jemel Roberson was an armed guard. On Nov. 11, the 26-year-old was working security at a Chicago bar. An argument led to a shooting. Roberson, gun in hand, detained the shooter on the ground.


When officers arrived, they killed Roberson. Witnesses tried to explain he was security. Police say they issued verbal commands. And then he was killed.

And then there are good guys sans guns who lived. But they didn’t go unscathed.

Earlier this month, Samir Ahmed was trying to help a neighbor in Maryland. The Washington Post reports police had been called on a drunk man who could barely walk. Ahmed just wanted to get him home and avert unnecessary conflict. Mission accomplished, he walked to his house to see cops near his own driveway.

Ahmed explained to the police he’d taken the intoxicated man home and became a target himself. A cop claimed to smell weed on him.

Instead of letting Ahmed go home, he was surrounded by police, with his face on the hood of his car, and searched like a criminal.

They found less than 10 grams on him — an amount too small to be a criminal offense in Maryland.

He was arrested anyway, charged with disorderly conduct, failure to obey a reasonably lawful order, obstructing and hindering, and resisting arrest.

Maybe the old saying is true: No good deed goes unpunished. Last month, Corey Lewis was baby-sitting the children of his friends. A white woman saw a black man with two white kids and decided they must be in trouble. The kids had just eaten at Subway in Walmart with Lewis.

This woman wanted answers. When Lewis wouldn’t give them to her, she called the police. She followed Lewis to a gas station and then to his home. Luckily, when the police arrived, he wasn’t arrested. But neither was the woman.


She stalked him. She harassed him. And he had to answer to police. For being a good guy and baby-sitting some kids.

Martin Henson of Black Lives Matter Boston describes the problem as what psychologists call fundamental attribution error — the tendency to credit someone’s behavior to their nature rather than external factors.

“With black people, it’s a race attribution error. Errors made by white people are contributed to extenuating circumstances. Errors made by black people are seen as a result of their character and for that reason, black people often end up as collateral damage,” Henson says. “And all we get is a sorry, if we get a sorry. That’s just America. I can’t say that I’m surprised, but we definitely have to always work to stop it.”

We march, we vote, we raise awareness. And still, when you are black, you don’t get the presumption of goodness. We reserve that for Baraboo high schoolers in Wisconsin, who celebrate junior prom by taking a group photo giving the Nazi salute.

A group of Wisconsin high school boys stood on the steps outside the Sauk County Courthouse in Baraboo, Wis.Peter Gust via Associated Press

One student claims the photographer told them to do it. Another boy said the photographer, a parent, asked them for a “high-sign.” The parent himself, Peter Gust, says it’s innocent. He told them to wave.

How that translated to an anti-Semitic gesture and at least one kid tossing up the white nationalist OK sign, we’ll never know.


A Twitter parody account, @GoBaraboo, posted it with the caption, “We even got the black kid to throw it up.” But, they were just waving. And we can’t know what they meant by it.

“As previously stated, we cannot know the intentions in the hearts of those who were involved. Moreover, because of students’ First Amendment rights, the district is not in a position to punish the students for their actions,” Baraboo School District Administrator Lori M. Mueller said in the letter shared with CNN.

To be fair, when Wisconsin athletes at Madison East and Madison West high schools took a knee during the anthem in 2016, school administrators supported them.

Though it’s hardly right to compare a Nazi salute to protests against brutality, this is what we’ve come to.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized E.J. Bradford’s classification with the US Army. He reported to the Army for initial entry training but was “administratively separated” before he completed his training, according to the Army.

Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.