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A message to blacks from law enforcement

Once, in Harlem, a policeman killed an unarmed youngster. But he sent a very different message than the one sent by Ferguson officer Darren Wilson.

Penn State student Zaniya Joe, among the many people who felt the impact of the Ferguson grand-jury decision.
Penn State student Zaniya Joe, among the many people who felt the impact of the Ferguson grand-jury decision.Read moreAP

IT WAS BACK in the 1960s, and I was living in Harlem. A white police officer chasing a criminal through the Foster Housing Projects fired at the man and missed. The bullet pierced the skull of a young African-American boy, a bystander.

That lone white officer was surrounded by scores of African-American and Latino residents, and you know what he did? He knelt down and scooped up the boy's lifeless body in his arms, and cried as if it were his own son whom he killed. And do you know what those many housing-project residents did? They tried to comfort the officer. And when the child's mother finally made it to the scene, they told her it was a horrible accident. Many of them then prayed - with the mother and the officer - over the boy's body before it was taken away a few minutes later to the city morgue.

That officer's grief didn't "unshoot" the boy, but it did something else I couldn't name as an 8-year-old watching the scene.

It wasn't until 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Mo., in August that I realized what that something else was. And how much it mattered.

Of course, it would be irrational for anyone to think that Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Brown, should get down on his knees and cry.

But it would also be irrational to believe that a community wouldn't be up-in-arms about the fact that Brown's body was left in the middle of a street - uncovered and unattended - for more than four hours in the hot August sun. Or that they wouldn't be upset witnessing the police refusing to let his distraught parents approach their dead son.

"Having raised two African-American males, the thought of that happening is just unfathomable," said Linda Richardson, a Philadelphia community activist I spoke with shortly after the incident. "I was just distraught looking at the video and screaming, 'When are they going to put something over him?' To show that kind of disrespect was just unreal and unbelievable."

If Richardson felt that way just watching the video, imagine how the people at the scene felt.

Patricia Bynes, a Democratic committeewoman in Ferguson, seemed to feel the same way as Richardson. She told reporters that it was "disrespectful" for the police to have left the body there in plain sight.

"It also sent the message from law enforcement that, 'We can do this to you any day, any time, in broad daylight, and there's nothing you can do about it.' "

The message sent by law enforcement - that was the "something else" that I couldn't articulate way back in the 1960s.

Harlem is no stranger to riots. They rioted in 1935, in 1943, in 1966, and again in 1968. And, yeah, we had a small riot (by Harlem standards) in Washington Heights, a neighborhood bordering Harlem. All of the riots were started in response to either a police shooting or police brutality.

Yes, Harlemites were veteran rioters. So why didn't they riot after that white police officer killed a very innocent young boy? Maybe because that police officer's very obvious grief sent a message that our feelings, our rights, our lives mattered to him.

Maybe the people in Ferguson did riot the day after Michael Brown was shot because they received a very different message.

In Wilson's testimony to the grand jury that decided whether he would be charged for killing Brown, he described the teenager as looking like a demon; not a human.

And although it's true the citizens of Ferguson - which is 67 percent African-American - were not privy to Wilson's testimony when the rioting started in August, they'd had bitter issues with their police force, which is 94 percent white.

Last year the Missouri Attorney General's Office released a report that said Ferguson police were twice as likely to arrest African-Americans during traffic stops than whites. The U.S. Justice Department is currently conducting a civil investigation to see if that police department has a pattern of using excessive force and/or racial profiling.

Hundreds of African-American citizens of Ferguson stood outside that August afternoon: Looking at the body of an unarmed teenager. Staring at the teenager's family, crying because they were not allowed to check to see if they body was really that of their child. Having their questions ignored by police who refused to give any information. Those citizens received a message that they had been receiving for years - that their feelings, their rights, and perhaps even their lives, meant little to the police.

It's a hard message to receive. A hard message not to answer.

The complete opposite of the message sent that 1960s Harlem summer.

Thank God.