Opinion

After a week, distress over a black life returns to North Texas

People gather for a vigil at the home, right, where Atatiana Jefferson was killed Oct. 12, 2019, in Fort Worth, Texas. A local mosque is on the left. Photo courtesy of Imam Omar Suleiman

DALLAS (RNS) — On Oct. 4, we held our last press conference with the family of Botham Jean, who had been shot in his own apartment by a Dallas police officer. Afterward, I drove Botham’s parents to a restaurant, and we talked about the newly established Botham Jean Foundation. They were determined that every day stolen from him would be filled with the charity and kindness that defined Botham’s spirit. It was clear that this family was seeking to move on from the bitterness of their son’s murder.

After I dropped them off, I made my way to the mosque to give my weekly sermon. I spoke about the pain of watching a mother talk about her departed son, citing the story from the Hadith in which the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) sees a bird hovering over him and his companions because her child has been taken from the nest. Seeing her, the prophet said in anger, “Who has caused this mother distress by taking her child?” If the prophet agonized over the pain of a mother bird, what pain should we feel at the pain of a human mother?

Atatiana Jefferson, in nearby Fort Worth, had likely known about the Botham Jean trial and felt that same distress for Botham’s mother. It was her own mother’s illness that had brought Jefferson to Texas from Louisiana in the first place. She was 28, the same age as Botham. And a week later, in the early hours of Saturday (Oct. 12),  she too would be killed in her home by a police officer.

Atatiana Jefferson. Photo via Facebook

Jefferson was hanging out with her 8-year-old nephew, playing video games — Halo, ironically — late into the night. Because the weather was so pleasant, they had left a door open to let in the cool air through the screen. They heard a mysterious noise in the backyard, and, looking out, Jefferson was shot point-blank in the face by an officer.  A concerned neighbor had seen the door open and had called law enforcement for a welfare check — to make sure everything was all right.

And just like that, another valuable life rendered into a hashtag in North Texas. Another police shooting of an innocent black human being sitting in their home. Another protest with outraged citizens in utter shock, barely a week after we saw Botham’s parents off to their native St. Lucia. 

The protest for Jefferson was announced as a vigil at the mosque near her home. I was intending to be present with the family regardless, but I wondered why a mosque was chosen. When I arrived for the vigil, I got my answer: The home I had seen in the body cam footage is directly beside the mosque. Jefferson was a direct neighbor of, as we Muslims say, the House of God.

The tragic irony of that haunted me all night. How could this precious creation of God be discarded in such an ungodly way only a few feet away from where he is worshipped five times a day? What value have we given to black life in America that it isn’t even safe in the boundaries of one’s own home, from the uniformed officers tasked with protecting black lives as much as any other life?

The diversity of the audience at Sunday night’s vigil was beautiful, but the pain in everyone’s eyes was dreadful. Malcolm X famously said: “We’re not brutalized because we’re Baptists. We’re not brutalized because we’re Methodists. We’re not brutalized because we’re Muslims. We’re not brutalized because we’re Catholics. We’re brutalized because we are black people in America.” You could feel this awareness in the crowd.

In this Oct. 12, 2019, image made from a body camera video released by the Fort Worth Police Department, an officer shines a flashlight into a home’s window in Fort Worth, Texas. A black woman was fatally shot by a white Fort Worth officer inside the home early Saturday after police were called to the residence for a welfare check, authorities said. The Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office identified the woman as 28-year-old Atatiana Jefferson. (Fort Worth Police Department via AP)

Now, some may say that this couldn’t have been a racially motivated crime because surely the officer wasn’t shooting her because she was black, but because he was startled. But the consistent lack of accountability, the readiness to shoot, bears witness to a vicious system and process that clearly values some more than others.

So I stared tonight at the window of that home, then at the entrance of the House of God, then into the eyes of that 8-year-old boy who had seen just a day earlier through those very same eyes his aunt shot in the face and crumbled up into a pool of blood for no wrongdoing of her own.

Imam Omar Suleiman. Courtesy photo

I thought to myself, who has caused this child distress by taking his aunt away? Jefferson meant something to her family. She meant something to us. She meant something to God. And as her home, now the scene of a deadly police shooting, stands next to the House of God, it would be a crime for a people who honor God to turn a blind eye to this grave injustice against one of his precious creations.

(Imam Omar Suleiman, an American Muslim scholar, activist and civil rights leader, is the founder and president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research and is an adjunct professor of Islamic studies in the graduate liberal studies program at Southern Methodist University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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