By now, you may have heard the story: On April 12, 2018, 14-year-old Brennan Walker missed his bus and found himself running late to school in Rochester Hills, Mich. When he stopped at a random house to ask for directions to the school, Jeffrey Zeigler’s wife opened the door and started yelling at Walker, asking why he was trying to “break in” to the house. Moments later, Jeffrey Zeigler, who is a 53-year-old retired white firefighter, grabbed a shotgun and shot at the teen. He missed, and Walker fled.
Zeigler’s violent response to the boy asking for directions has been met with heavy criticism from Brennan Walker’s mother, Lisa Walker, as well as Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard. Zeigler has been charged with assault with intent to murder and possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony. He appeared in court on April 24, where his attorney argued that since he was a retired firefighter who had dedicated his life to saving others, Zeigler had no racial bias at the time of the shooting. Zeigler is due back in court on May 22.
The disturbing reality, however, is that Jeffrey Zeigler and his wife immediately assumed that since Walker is black, he was trying to break into their house. Had Walker been a white kid, the situation undoubtedly would have played out differently. Believing that a black youth is trying to break into a home simply because he’s ringing the doorbell on the front porch plays into racist stereotypes and the bigoted trope that black people are trying to “steal” white people’s property. In an unreleased security video that police and Lisa Walker viewed, Mrs. Zeigler is heard asking, “Why did these people choose my house?” Her immediate reaction to a kid asking for help, combined with her husband’s violent outburst, seems to solidify that race had everything to do with this.
There’s the circumstantial evidence that points to this, but there’s also the well-known trend of policing black children much more harshly than white children, both by law enforcement and civilians. Whether it be 14-year-old Emmett Till who was brutally lynched in 1955, Tamir Rice who was shot at age 12 while playing with a toy gun, the 16-year-old girl who was thrown from her desk by a school resource officer when she refused to hand over her cell phone, or 19-year-old Renisha McBride, who knocked on a neighbor’s door in a Detroit suburb after crashing her car nearby, black children and young black adults are continuously seen as a threat by white people. And of course, as in the case of Trayvon Martin, there are neighborhood vigilantes who use intimidation, policing, and murder against young black people as a way of safeguarding white supremacy.
Studies show that black boys are seen as older and more violent by society. And black girls are 5.5 times more likely to be suspended from school than white girls. It’s bad enough that cops, and many people in the public, already see black adults as a threat. It’s horrifying, however, that this distrust and hatred extends to black children as well. The criminalization of black youth leads to more death, violence, and higher imprisonment rates against black children. White boys are allowed to act immaturely and irresponsibly well into their adult lives; black boys are profiled and presumed dangerous when they are barely teenagers.
Walker escaped with his life, but this incident is a painful reminder that modern-day lynching is real. Walking while black can end in death. Going to school while black can end in death. Asking for directions can end in death. And as long as society continues to see black people as the “other,” and as inherently dangerous, we will continue to witness barbaric acts of violence by white people against black bodies under the guise of “self-defense” and “protection.”