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Art illustration by Ramaya Thomas

WHY AMERICA? A STORY OF 9:27

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Years turned into months. Months turned into weeks. Days turned into hours. Hours turned into minutes. Minutes turned into seconds. Seconds turned into moments. As the clock struck 9:27, we have once again lost another Black American man who deserved every right to live. Although many may refuse to say his name, he will forever be remembered as Brandon Bernard. A father, son, brother, a friend and a changed man. America, you have failed us once again. This country claims to be “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” however, our Black skin remains invisible with our blood smeared on the streets of this nation. We continue to survive, thrive and die. Innocent, transformed and neglected Black men die in the jail cells that they call their home. The question becomes: Why America? Your people are fed up and tired of fighting a war that seems as if victory is out of reach.

At that moment a light starts to shine … and the leaks stop. You walk out with your hands held high and let the sun warm your cold body. You no longer need the roof … you are finally free. When you look out you see an army of people … holding up the wall and patching the leaks … you see that whole time you were never alone and in the front you see the smiling face of Jesus letting you know that he was there the whole time. – Brandon Bernard via Shannon Sedgwick Davis’ Instagram

In 1999, Brandon Bernard was one of five gang members convicted in the killing of a Texas couple, Todd and Stacie Bagley. According to CNN, “He was the youngest person in the United States to receive a death sentence in nearly 70 years for a crime committed when he was an adolescent.” Christopher Vialva, who was the ringleader, shot the Bagleys, leaving Todd dead, and Stacie supposedly unconscious (has yet to be proven). 

At the time of the crime, Brandon Bernard and Terry Brown were both 17, they were both involved in getting rid of the evidence. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Bernard and Terry Brown, then 17, poured lighter fluid on the car’s interior, and Mr. Vialva shot the victims with Mr. Bernard’s gun … the Justice Department said. Mr. Bernard set flame to the car.” To continue, it states, “Though the government executed Mr. Bernard and Mr. Vialva, Mr. Brown and another man involved in the crimes have been released from federal prison, and another accomplice is projected for release in 2030 … Each of those three, ages 15 to 17 at the time of the crime, were ineligible for capital punishment under the Federal Death Penalty Act.”

This article is not justifying Brandon Bernard’s actions, nor the morality of this case. This article is dissecting the unsatisfactory standards of our justice systems. I had the great honor to sit down and interview attorney Tiffany Williams Roberts who works at the Southern Center for Human Rights as a civil rights and criminal defense attorney in Atlanta. Throughout her legal career, she has volunteered with organizations promoting justice, fairness and equity in the criminal justice system. She was also highlighted by the Atlanta NAACP and Dekalb Lawyers Association. 

Roberts said, “The death penalty is disproportionately harmful to Black people. Data shows whether or not you are executed is not necessarily dependent on your race, but the race of your victim.”

Two wrongs will never make a right. Terry Brown, who poured lighter fluid on the couple’s car, avoided a life imprisonment due to still being 17 years old while this case went to court. The question becomes: Why didn’t Brown get a longer sentence? Why didn’t Bernard get a shorter sentence due to the attorney’s office’s lack of evidence of Ms. Bagley being unconscious, and not dead? 

Then again, Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old boy who shot three while killing two Black Lives Matter protesters last year, was charged with counts of first-degree intentional murder but is treated like a saint as he walks free until his court dates are set. In 2015, Dylan Roof, then 21 year old classified as a white supremacist and Neo-Nazi, became a mass murderer due to walking into a Bible study and shot and killed nine people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Police officers then bought Roof a meal from Burger King once they were told that he hadn’t eaten after being detained by the police department. 

Attorney Roberts continues to elaborate on the criminal justice system, and said the following: “The administration of this country relies so heavily on the rehabilitation of punishment … it is built in an extension of slavery. The death penalty is used to keep Black people in their place. The purpose of the criminal legal system is to protect white people before protecting anyone else.” 

This is why we ask the question: Why America? How come our skin holds so much power that others become scared of the color we wear? Our Black men, women and children become scared of a blue uniform because sometimes it becomes our death sentence. Rayshard Brooks. Daniel Prude. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Atatiana Jefferson. Aura Rosser. Philando Castille. Freddie Gray. The list of our Black brothers and sisters who died at the hands of those who are supposed to protect us continues. Say their names. Police officers who view our Black bodies as threats to eliminate get away with murder. America, is that what you mean when you sing “land of the free?” How come they can’t face the punishment that they deserve? According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, the risk of being killed by police officers in America while being Black is about 1 in 1,000. In America we are scared, because we can no longer live; we can only survive. Our blackness is not a trend, it is survival. 

A man who had the ability to transform. A man who wrote beautiful words to describe his journey. A man whose fatherhood was taken from him. A man whose last words were “I’m sorry … I wish I could take it all back, but I can’t … that’s the only words that I can say that completely capture how I feel now and how I felt that day.” A man whose story ended on Dec. 10, 2020 at 9:27 p.m. A man who deserved to live. Say his name. Brandon Bernard.

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