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Joe McKnight is dead because his life didn’t matter enough for him to be alive

The shooting of the former NFL player at the age of 28 synopsizes America’s feelings about black men and women – and the families they leave behind

Damon Young -Editor in chief of Very Smart Brothas and  contributing editor for 


Birthday parties for babies tend to be more for the adults present than the actual baby celebrated, and my daughter’s first birthday party — which, due to rush of people who happened to be in town Thanksgiving weekend, was pushed up to the Saturday after Thanksgiving (the 26th) instead of her actual birthday (the 30th) — was no different. I doubt she gave much of a damn about the grade of barbecue sauce purchased with the tray of boneless chicken wings or the fancy new Pack ‘n Play her grandmother bought her. And I know she didn’t care about the party’s superhero motif, because the first thing she did when seeing the bedazzled Batman shirt I wore was attempt to eat the bat.

I’m not much of a party person myself, but I looked forward to this day just to be able to witness her experiencing it. Her face when opening and playing with her gifts. (Which, as usual for her, landed somewhere between slightly bemused and slightly annoyed. My daughter is British, apparently.) Her eyes when she heard the “Happy Birthday” song sung to her for the first time. Her tiny legs as she walked from the cake stand to the couch her cousin was sitting on. And those same tiny legs an hour later when she apparently forgot she actually knows how to walk now and just started crawling everywhere.

She is my Feminist Octopus — a name I’ve given her because her favorite words currently are “stop” and “no.” And also because she’s so damn curious and engaged with her surroundings that it’s like she had eight limbs; all simultaneously grabbing and touching and pulling and pinching. I know it’s not the most creative nickname, but I’m her dad and I’m allowed to be corny.

Our house right now is an emporium of random baby shit shoehorned into an adult living space. It’s like someone went to Babies R Us, emptied 20 shelves into 50 different bags, drove to Ikea, and arbitrarily sprinkled the bags’ content throughout the store; a Graco easy fold highchair parked adjacent to the living room mantle and both the fireplace underneath it and the 65 inch Sony 4K Ultra HD TV on top of it; Chicka Chicka Boom Boom laying on a Svärtan limited edition collection tray table. When babies arrive to couples who’ve never had children before, their presence is a colonization. A welcome colonization of course. A colonization with footies and frequent viewings of Sesame Street on YouTube (in Spanish though because we want her to learn that too). But a colonization nonetheless. Your resources are devoted to them, your thoughts possessed with them, your instincts stirred by them.

And it’s with this context that killings such as the killing of Joe McKnight are so brutal. So complete. Not necessarily to me. I, like many others who heard of the circumstances surrounding his death, felt an appropriate amount of outrage, sadness, and perplexity. But I wasn’t devastated by it the same way the grandmother who rented the space for his first birthday party 27 years ago, the uncle who first taught him out to catch a football, and the mom and the dad who had their lives upended and colonized by him 28 years are most definitely today. I can’t conjure many fates more cruel than to have a life that was treasured, prayed over, sacrificed for, led, and loved snatched away so senselessly. And for everyone — including the police — to know exactly who did it. And for that person to be free. As if those decades of memories and moments and gallons of formula and refilled diaper genies and doctors’ office visits and Polaroids of first steps meant nothing. Like none of that mattered. Like it didn’t even happen.

It’s no secret that the undervaluing of black lives isn’t as much about a conscious and seething racial animus but more the inability to regard us as fully human; a dynamic that manifests as a reluctance to give our capacity to hurt, bleed, double over in pain, and die any benefit of the doubt. It’s not that our lives and the diversity of life within each of our lives don’t matter at all. They just don’t matter as much. And for black men and black women as strong and sturdy and brown as Joe McKnight was, this modicum of empathy becomes nonexistent. He’s been “grown” his entire life; a “man” since before he could ride a bike; a threat since before he could spell. Perhaps Ronald Gasser will eventually be arrested, charged, and convicted. But his freedom today — that he’s receiving a consideration, a benefit of the doubt, that Joe McKnight did not, could not, and would never have — synopsizes America’s feelings about men and women like the one he killed and the broken and brutalized families they leave behind; communicating to them and to us that those birthday parties didn’t matter. That cake and those candles didn’t matter. That 28 years of life didn’t matter.

  1. Editor’s note: It was announced on Tuesday 6 December that Ronald Gasser has been charged with the manslaughter of Joe McKnight

  2. This article first appeared on Very Smart Brothas

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