By Norma Adams-Wade
Founding member of NABJ
“Mind your own business!” That’s a new rallying cry since a man’s request that the Fort Worth police do a wellness check on his neighbor ended with an innocent woman being shot dead in her family’s home. News reports about the tragedy have circled the globe since officer Aaron Dean fired the fatal shot that killed Atatiana Jefferson, 28, who was babysitting her nephew, 8, playing video games with him in a bedroom around 2:30 am on Oct. 12. Yes, it was late.
But the two were enjoying the games. Then they heard a noise in the backyard. The aunt went to the window. The officer in the dark backyard did not identify that he was the police but yelled a command and fired through the window in mere seconds. Jefferson fell and died. There is much discussion about whether her grabbing a legally-owned gun before going to the window to check on the noise will boost the officer’s claim that he felt threatened. There also is discussion about the officer’s various errors in how he handled what should have been a wellness check, also called a welfare check.
By procedure, the officer was expected to check that the family was safe because neighbor James Smith felt it suspicious that Jefferson’s front door was uncharacteristically open for some time during the wee morning hours. I was just thinking…it is peculiar that Smith’s action in involving the police set off a social media firestorm of angry posts. Many who commented condemned Smith’s apparent concern that an open door might indicate that his neighbor was in peril or needed help.
In media interviews, Smith himself said “I am devastated,” as he expressed deep remorse that his requests for a wellness check on his neighbor led to her death. The social media anger aimed at Smith and his concern also is a barometer that today is no longer yesterday. “You can’t think in terms of the ’50s and ’60s in which you grew up,” said one post. “That old man should have been sleeping somewhere,” said another post.
“Mind your own business!” Still another defended Smith, saying “Be nosy if it’s going to save a life.” And I was just thinking, too…what IS my business? And what constitutes a good neighbor? The Biblical Cain asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” And the poet and cleric John Donne seems to answer, “No man is an island, entire of itself…” It’s disheartening that apparently we have become a society of “every man for himself; every woman for herself.” Social media overflows with videos where onlookers whip out their phones to record a troubling scene.
Few step forward to intervene and help. I do understand the personal safety issue, though. To intervene carries its own risk that the helper may become the victim. It’s a tough call. One social media commenter disdained uninvolved onlookers and uncaring neighbors: “People like you are the reason the world is going to s__t,” this person wrote. And another questioned “what if” something really had been wrong at the neighbor’s house? Would Mr. Smith have been wrong then to look the other way and ignore the open door? With growing distrust of police, there was much talk that the African-American community may have to begin policing itself – a move the Black Panther’s championed in the ’60s and ’70s.
Here was one urgent post: “Do not call the police to check on black people! Call a family member. Call a friend. Gather neighbors within the community. Go check for yourself. Be creative. I repeat. DO NOT CALL THE POLICE!” Nothing will bring back Atatiana Jefferson, an accomplished, caring young woman who earned a biology degree from Xavier University in 2014, was studying Pre-Med, and caring for her ailing mother. But social media commenter Vanessa Robison suggested that at least her family may get justice for her wrongful death. Concerning the trigger-happy officer, Robison posted: “Time for him to drop that cop suit, Zip on that orange suit, and get ready for a lawsuit.” Nothing is guaranteed. But time indeed will tell.
Norma Adams-Wade is an award-winning journalist. A founding member of the National Association of Black Journalists, she was inducted into the NABJ Hall of Fame.