By Kirsten West Savali, The Root
Debates about Harambe – a 450-pound, 17-year-old western lowland, silverback gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo that zoo officials were forced to shoot to death May 28 after a 4-year-old boy fell into his enclosure – have reached fever pitch as the hashtag #JusticeForHarambe continues to circulate online.
Harambe – whose name is derived from harambee, which is Swahili for “all pull together” – has become the biggest martyr of the animal rights community since Cecil the Lion. For many people, his life and death not only have amplified awareness of the cruelty of animal captivity but also have placed a bright spotlight on the child’s parents in the ugliest of ways.
People, black, white and all in between, have dragged the parents through the mud for what they believe to be complete negligence, and Sheila Hurt of Cincinnati has even gone so far as to create a Change.org petition to have them investigated by Ohio’s Child Protective Services – a petition that has 459,450 signatures to date.
Of course, the child and his parents are black, which leads us to the blatant racism at the root of the attacks against them. It also provides further evidence, as if any were needed, of the utter lack of concern for black lives, including the lives of our children.
The parallels are clear.
Tamir Rice, 12, was fatally shot in under two seconds because officers allegedly believed that he had a gun. Many white people blamed him and his parents.
Aiyana Stanley-Jones, 7, was fatally shot by police after they stormed into her house. Many white people blamed her parents.
Michael Brown Jr. was fatally shot many feet away from a cop who claimed that he felt threatened. Many white people blamed Brown and his parents.
Eric Garner was choked to death by cops on the corner. Many white people blamed him.
Akai Gurley was walking in a dark stairwell and was fatally shot by a cop who was scared of the dark. Though people didn’t blame him, mainstream media still reported his criminal record as if grasping for ways to criminalize him in death, and members of the trigger-happy cop’s community took to the streets to support his fatal negligence.
Rekia Boyd was in the park. She was fatally shot by a cop who fired over his shoulder because he could.
Laquan McDonald … executed on a public street by cops.
Where were the media’s tears then? Where were the mourners? Where were the strangers declaring their innocence? Where were all the white people pilgrimaging to Cincinnati when Sam Dubose was executed by a cop while trying to put his car in park?
They were elsewhere, perhaps at a Donald Trump rally screaming #AllLivesMatter.
But, now, zoo officials have shot a gorilla in the Cincinnati Zoo to protect a black child, and people are protesting. People are sobbing. Despite expert opinions, such as Jack Hanna’s below, and zookeepers informing the public that Harambe was clearly agitated and ignoring their “special calls” to leave the area, many people insist on blaming the child’s parents because, “Why, oh why, did this beautiful animal have to die?”
People magazine has done several features on Harambe with no mention of the injured child’s condition (he’s fine, for those who care) – or that his family is reportedly receiving death threats.
This is not surprising, but it is always telling. There are some white people who look at Harambe with his black coat and a child in his grasp and feel compassion for him; they look at that black child’s black mother’s brown skin and feel contempt. They look at his black father and see a criminal, thanks to a Daily Mail hit piece that I will not give them the satisfaction of linking to here. They do not see a child; they see a mistake, a hindrance and, along with his parents, an accessory to murder.
And if this beautiful black child had died, many of these same people would have said he deserved it.
Despite this, there are some black people joining in to cast stones, and for what? Points? Gold stars? Brownies? Pats on the head?
News flash: The “bad black mother” trope that so dominates our society is at the center of this narrative, and no claims of #NotAllBlackParents will stop it. They put our black children in cages and throw away the key, if they don’t gun them down before they get there. But now we have some black people flailing about over the sanctity of life and crying that animals need to be free, as if that’s new information.
Just as black people are expected to forgive those who murder us, we are now expected to add caveats about the gorilla not deserving to die in order to prove our humanity. We have to say his name, when these same people sobbing over him don’t even know the names of black women and girls who are killed and raped by police officers, and if they do, they don’t care enough to say them.
So what is the “natural habitat” for black people? Clearly not the park, as Tamir’s family will attest; or driving in our cars, like Sandra Bland, or listening to music in them, like Jordan Davis; or in our homes, like Eleanor Bumpers; or in the supermarket, like John Crawford III; or walking in our gated communities, like Trayvon Martin – or anyplace where white fear of black bodies lives.
Where can we go so that when we’re shot down by state-sanctioned terrorists and bigots through no fault of our own, it’s not our fault?
It is more obvious than ever that some people will “all pull together” to protest the killing of African animals even though they give less than a damn about African-American children. They will violently oppose necessary actions to protect black children while justifying the violence done to black children. They will call their push to have a mother’s children taken away just, while they call the very idea of justice for black people slain by state violence unfair. They will cry and rage over a real gorilla while, throughout history and into the current day, they have called us gorillas, apes and monkeys at every turn and celebrate our deaths.
Make no mistake: We see those people for the racist hypocrites that they are.
We always have.
(Kirsten West Savali is a cultural critic and senior writer for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.)