At first glance, when you look at the image above, you clearly think of the stereotype of a violent black thug shot over some trivial turf war or some other senseless beef. Just another hood story. Just another nigga shot over some dumb shit. Who cares! Right? Well, Not today. In America, the last thing you would call a black man is a hero. For in Black America, heroism is a right reserved for martyrs of some great cause in the name of the race. For better than the last 20 yrs, the image of black men have been indistinguishable from that of a savage beast stalking America’s streets in search of vulnerable prey. But in minutes, a demented elderly white man altered that picture when he fired shots from a hotel window onto concert goers in Las Vegas. In that moment, 30-yr old Jonathan Smith showed the courage and heroism from the higher angels of human nature, when he risked his own life to shepherd over 30 people to safety. In the ensuing chaos, Smith took two bullets. One in the arm, which was non-fatal, and a more serious wound in the neck, when he was trying to usher other young women to safety. Laying on the ground in what he thought were the last moments of his short life, the universal law of karma, would smile on him this day. It is almost certain that off duty San Diego Police Officer Tom McGrath never believed that he would come to Vegas and leave a national hero. But destiny is indeed a fickle mistress. As an injured Smith lay bleeding from his wounds, it was Mcgrath that would come to his aid. It was McGrath who encouraged Smith to hold on. Then Mcgrath uttered the words that will resound in the depths of Smith’s psyche for the rest of his life when he said: “I gotchu.” True to his word, Mcgrath put his finger in Smith’s wound to stop him from bleeding to death.
Americans have a childish habit of reducing human complexities to simple black and white narratives of good and bad guys. These narratives have been shaped by our perceptions about how heroes and villains are supposed to look. In fairness, there is some truth to these perceptions, as they are shaped in dynamic environments of poverty, isolation and crumbling family structures. It seems as though good and bad guys are confined to specific uniforms. TV shows and cable news media outlets have neatly shaped our visions of what constitutes heroism and villainy. These depictions make no considerations for individual or social circumstances. It’s simply brief generalizations prepackaged for rapid hourly consumption. Absent Las Vegas, Smith’s very presence would elicit silent feelings of apprehension. Likewise, in the black community, Officer Mcgrath’s arrival in a conspicuous police cruiser would elicit fear and disdain from many working class Black Americans. And sadly, virtually no one would suspect Stephen Paddock because in America, elderly middle class white men are beneath suspicion. His purchase of high powered rifles only validate his status as a “Real American” (shout out to the Hulkster). In the absence of the shooting, he is a poster boy for the NRA. A tea party member baptized in the colonial history of the United States. He was made more anonymous by the fact that he passed all background checks required to purchase the weapons.
A white police officer helping a black shooting victim in the aftermath of the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille, provides us with an inconvenient irony by which to see police officers. It shows us that although structural inequalities exist, some people really do believe in the words to serve and protect. It also shows that despite malevolent intentions and abusive bureaucracies, in the darkest hour of greatest need, real men with or without badges always rise to the occasion. In the aftermath of this national tragedy, the one silver cloud is that at some point, the face of terrorism in America cannot be simply reduced to a white turban and a free-flowing beard. Antiquated definitions of the enemy can no longer mask our convenient prejudices. We must break out of the reclusive prisons of Hollywood formula, media controlled narratives of good guys and bad guys. Jonathan Smith will do more for the collective image of black men than Barack Obama. Whether or not they will accept it, he will provide White Americans with an insight into the complex images and definitions of black masculinity. He will clearly show, that while there may be instances of criminality, there are instances of heroism. While the negative depictions in rap music may generalize us as being obsessed with mindless consumption, there is a depiction of black men respecting the sanctity of human life. Additionally, while the battle cry maybe “fuck the police,” we must reconcile our rage with reality. It is also possible that we may gradually lose that feeling of dread at the sound of police sirens coming from behind our cars. Dare we all get to the point of a common understanding of a shared humanity? If we do, and I am not so optimistic that we can, we have two of the most unlikely heroes in American history to thank for our epiphany.
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