Renée Graham

The constant threat to black lives

Atatiana K. Jefferson was killed inside her home.
Atatiana K. Jefferson was killed inside her home.Handout via The New York Times

Aaron Dean, a white former Fort Worth police officer, was arrested for Atatiana Jefferson’s murder. That does not change the fact that the 28-year-old black woman never should have been shot dead through her bedroom window.

Responding to an early Saturday call from a worried neighbor, Dean and his partner made a wellness check. Hearing someone moving outside, Jefferson did what any of us would have done — she went to the window. According to body cam video, Dean never identified himself as an officer. There’s no indication that he knocked on the front door, which was open. Within four seconds of barking commands, he fired a fatal shot through the glass.


Jefferson had been playing video games with her 8-year-old nephew, who witnessed his aunt’s murder.

Another black life ends because another police officer decided it did not matter. A city in Texas mourns, and many others nationwide struggle to make sense of an act beyond comprehension.

And so we find ourselves in this painfully familiar place again. Jefferson’s name is added to a soul-rending list without end: Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. John Crawford. Rekia Boyd. Philando Castile. Terence Crutcher. Walter Scott. Sandra Bland, and more names than our memories should have to carry.

At a news conference, Fort Worth’s police chief Edwin Kraus said, “We’re trying to train our officers better, we’re trying to shore up our policies, and we’re trying to ensure they act and react the way that the citizens intend them to, that they act and react with a servant’s heart instead of a warrior’s heart.”

Or a warrior’s fury. How else does a woman end up dead, shot by the same officer sent to check on her well-being?

TAYMULLAH ABDUR-RAHMAN: For African-Americans, home is not a safe haven


This is exactly why people of color feel uneasy, even at risk, around the police. It doesn’t matter where we are. We know our innocence will not protect us from a cop’s perceived threat, which seems to heighten at the sight of any black or brown person.

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend accidentally triggered our home alarm. Although she quickly deactivated it and called the security company to report that everything was fine, the cops were still dispatched — one at the front door, one at the back. When one asked for proof of residency, I ran, probably too fast, to retrieve my wallet. With every step, I wondered whether they might perceive my sudden movement as a threat.

They did not. Even after the officers left, I couldn’t shake the fear that, had the officers responded differently, the home alarm we’d installed to keep us safe might have cost us our lives.

It wasn’t always that way. Growing up, I feared nuns from the local Catholic school more than the cops from the local precinct. I did not yet know about the history of American police departments as the foot soldiers of white supremacy. “Peace officers,” as they were more commonly known in those days, regularly visited my school to talk with us about their jobs and how they saw themselves as members of the community whose function it was to protect the neighborhood.

My attitude changed as cops evolved from peace officers to law enforcement officers.


Now, too many officers seem to subsist on the ready knowledge that, if they say they feared for their lives, they can kill with impunity. Amber Guyger’s murder conviction for shooting Botham Jean after she illegally entered his Dallas apartment, is an outlier; since 2005, only 35 out of 98 police officers have been convicted for on-duty fatal shootings, more often for manslaughter or negligent homicide, not murder.

More common is the not-guilty verdict Robert Olsen got Monday. A white former Georgia cop, Olsen killed Anthony Hill, a black Afghanistan war veteran with a history of mental illness who, when he was shot, was naked and unarmed.

Even with Dean’s arrest, there’s no way to tell if a jury will believe that a woman in a room with her young nephew posed enough of a threat for Dean, who ignored even the most basic protocol, to fire his weapon.

What I already know is that I ache for my cousin’s 19-year-old son who, coming of age in an era of social media and police violence, worries about becoming a hashtag. I want to offer comfort. Yet I don’t have the heart to lie to a kid who saw the news when Eric Garner was choked to death by a police officer in 2014 — the fact is, this nation will never alleviate his fears or value the sanctity of our black lives in the streets or in our homes.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.