There were no mostly peaceful protests in Leonardtown, Maryland this week, despite the similarities between the 16-year-old high school student’s shooting death at the hands of a Maryland state trooper and the sensational death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland six years ago. Why is that?
Ham was fatally shot by a state trooper who had responded to two 911 calls about someone “acting suspiciously” and armed with a pistol. A witness to the event told police that troopers encounter Ham in a driveway “in a shooting stance” using an Airsoft gun. A trooper opened fire on the teen and wounded him. A second witness said the wounded boy then took out a knife and tried to get up, whereupon he was shot dead.
Airsoft guns are realistic replicas of real weapons. They shoot plastic BBs. My son collected them; once we had our parked car surrounded by police because he left some of them in the back seat. Pointing an Airsoft at a police officer is an excellent way to get shot, and justifiably so. But the reason there were no protests, demonstrations or riots after his death is that Peyton Ham was white. There is no other reason. (Well, it also wasn’t Portland. More about that later…)
Because the victim was white, there was no immediate presumption of racism and police brutality. Nobody argued that police should have tried to “wing” him. Nobody argued that a social worker rather than police officers should have responded to the 911 call. Ben Crump didn’t immediately make a statement that this was yet another “execution” of an innocent, promising young black man due to cop brutality and racism, and a racist system. The story wasn’t even national news.
Yet the family played by the script that has become so familiar. It quickly put out a statement that made Ham sound like the perfect son. It described him as “an incredibly smart, gifted sweet young man” with a “Alex P. Keaton” type personality, referring Michael J. Fox’s character on the 1980s sitcom “Family Ties.”
“Our family is absolutely heart broken and shattered over this sudden, unexpected loss of life of a talented young man, filled with promise,” the statement says. “Words cannot express the gratitude our family is feeling with the overwhelming love and support being extended by our friends and family in our amazing community.”
Speaking to the AP, Ham’s mother described her son as “an awesome young man.” You know, like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. This kind of statement, which made no sense whatsoever in the context of the facts of Ham’s death, was calculated to spark anger and suspicion against the police, and to shift responsibility from the shooting victim to those trying to protect the community. If Ham had been white, there would have been the assumption of a cover-up, and the presumption of a deliberate racist killing of an innocent boy.