Jazmine Barnes’ Life Matters

On Dec. 30, Jazmine Barnes was murdered in a seemingly random drive-by shooting as the 7-year-old was on her way to the store with her mother and three sisters. The tragedy in Houston was once believed to have been perpetrated by a white man (presumably in his mid-30s to 40s). But over the weekend, two black male suspects in their 20s were arrested in connection with the shooting.

Following the arrests, the public outrage over Jazmine’s death has already begun to dissipate. In the days immediately after the shooting, there were candlelight vigils and fundraisers for her family, but now that a suspect has been caught, it’s likely the momentum will decrease. In some ways it’s a relief that the shooting may not have been the hate crime we feared and that it was more likely a case of what the police are calling “mistaken identity.” Now that two people are in custody, some of us may be ready to move on to the next thing, as we tend to do.

But we shouldn’t simply move on. Regardless of who did it and why, a killer took a little girl’s life. Whether it was a hate crime, rage aimed at a different person, an issue in the family’s history or a truly random shooting, the fact remains that a child is dead.

And when a child is killed in an act of violence, it should be abundantly clear that we have a problem in this country.

We should look at the history of violence in this country … that allow such an attack to be seen as commonplace, normative and forgettable ― especially if the victims are black.

To be sure, motives matter and give us a window into our culture and world, but focusing on selective empathy can carry movements for justice only so far. While we ought to respond with especial concern to a white supremacist attack, we should also recognize how this case has, more broadly, exposed the darker side of the reality we live in.

Incidents like this are often considered one-off attacks by explicitly hateful people (and that may very well be what happened here) who have held onto backwards ideologies. However, those backwards ideologies don’t come out of nowhere and they don’t just lead to one-off incidents. They arise from a culture that normalizes acting out one’s rage with violence against other people.

We should look at the history of violence in this country and the issues around guns, poverty and poor policing that allow such an attack to be seen as commonplace, normative and forgettable ― especially if the victims are black or other minorities.

From the failure to act after the Sandy Hook and Marjory Stoneman Douglas school massacres to the obtuse responses to the fatal shootings of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, Americans have been dead set on ignoring our own history and the political factors that contribute to the violence that we write off over and over again.  

People say: We don’t have a problem with gun violence; there are just a few mentally ill outliers. We don’t have a racist police system; our police officers are color-blind and sometimes they legitimately fear for their lives. We don’t have a culture of identity politics that leads to violence against places of worship and LGBTQ clubs and Planned Parenthood centers; we just have people with strong beliefs (who are emboldened by a racist president).

It’s easier to believe this and forget about the people who die than to accept that America has always been a place where violence can lurk around any corner, any school, any Walmart parking lot.

Jazmine Barnes was a child, a second-grader. Her life mattered.

Jazmine’s murderer may not have shot at her family because they’re black (we don’t have all of those details), but this child was still killed in a culture that will chalk up her death as collateral damage to the way things are. And so, her story may fall into the category of ignored, forgotten or excused away, like many before her.

To downplay Jazmine’s death is to lean into this country’s legacy of violence and rage. To normalize her death is to dehumanize all black death, to assume that Americans as a whole are generally unaffected not only by the killing of children but also by the everyday, commonplace violence that presents great risks to all of our lives.

With the government shut down and President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about brute force at the border permeating the media, Jazmine’s death has largely been a blip in the news cycle. But she is not a political object; she was not a bystander. She was not in the wrong place at the wrong time, because in America today, anywhere can be the wrong place and any time can be the wrong time.

Jazmine Barnes was a child, a second-grader. Her life mattered.

Brandi Miller is a campus minister and justice program director from the Pacific Northwest.

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