A White Teen Was Killed by Cops. Working Class Lives Need to Matter, Too | Opinion

Hunter Brittain should have been celebrating this Fourth of July weekend. A seventeen-year-old white boy from McRae, Arkansas, Hunter was a rising senior at Beebe High School. Like so many country boys, Hunter enjoyed the little things in life: fishing, riding dirt bikes, 4-wheelers. He dreamed of becoming a NASCAR driver.

But instead of spending the holiday weekend fishing, wheeling and dreaming, Hunter spent it being laid to rest by his family. He was the latest victim of police brutality in the United States.

Last week, after being stopped by a police officer, Hunter's truck wouldn't shift into park, so he got out of the car to get a blue oil jug to put behind a tire; he wanted to make sure it wouldn't roll back and hit the police cruiser. According to a witness, without warning, the officer who had pulled him over shot and killed Hunter.

Like George Floyd before him and Eric Garner before him and Michael Brown before him, Hunter Brittain was killed in cold blood by the police who ostensibly were there to protect him. Like Floyd and Garner and Brown, he was unarmed. Unlike Floyd, Garner, and Brown though, you probably haven't heard Hunter Brittain's name. That's because Hunter Brittain was white.

Some on the right like The Federalist's Eddie Scarry have latched onto Hunter's death and the fact that poor and working-class white people suffer from brutality as a means of discrediting the Black Lives Matter movement. "Hunter Brittain's life mattered just as much as Andrew Brown's," he writes, referencing the killing of yet another Black man by police earlier this year. "Say his name, even though he's white."

We should say Hunter Brittain's name, but not for the reasons Scarry and his ilk would have. Yes, Hunter represents an often-overlooked reality: White working-class and poor Americans are also disproportionately victims of police brutality. But rather than using identity politics to stoke racial divisions, Hunter Brittain's death should serve as a call-to-action for everyone interested in justice to join a diverse coalition committed to ending police violence against unarmed Americans.

Over the past several years, we have begun a reckoning in this country about violence committed by agents of the state against Black and brown citizens. It is as right and just as it is long overdue. Studies show that Black people are more than three times as likely to be killed by police as white people.

But lost in this discourse is an important fact, one tragically represented by the killing of Hunter Brittain: Working class and poor white people are also disproportionately victims of police brutality. A 2020 study by the People's Policy Project found that "whites in the poorest areas have a police killing rate of 7.9 per million, compared to 2 per million for whites in the least-poor areas." This experience is mirrored in attitudes towards the police, with a 2016 CATO Institute study finding that white folks making more than $60,000 a year had a much more favorable view of police than those making less than $30,000 a year.

Hunter Brittain

Over the years, cases of unarmed white boys being killed by the police have occasionally made the headlines. In 2014, 18-year-old Keith Vidal was killed by a cop in North Carolina after suffering a schizophrenic episode. The officer reportedly said, "I don't have time for this shit," shortly before killing Vidal in his home, while his parents watched helplessly. In 2015, 19-year-old Zachary Hammond was shot and killed by an officer when the passenger in his car attempted to buy marijuana from an undercover cop. He was unarmed. And last year, a Salt Lake City, Utah officer shot and killed 13-year-old Linden Cameron after his mother called for a crisis intervention team while the autistic teen has a "mental breakdown."

And yet, none of these cases ever solicited outrage from the #AllLivesMatter brigade. No one on the right organized marches or protests for these boys. No one said their names, except preceded by "what about" whenever police brutality against Black Americans was brought up. Instead, they use these deaths to stoke racial division and keep white working-class Americans from joining in arms with our Black brothers and sisters to demand justice for our slain children.

Meanwhile, Black civil rights leaders are left to speak for white victims of police brutality—as they have done for Hunter Brittain, standing alongside his family and friends in their own community. Crowds gathered last week outside the Lonoke County Sherriff's Office chanting "No justice, no peace" just as they do when unarmed Black people are killed.

The local NAACP chapter pledged to support the family as they seek justice for Hunter. Benjamin Crump and Devon M. Davis, the attorneys who represented the families of Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, are representing the Brittain family. The Reverend Al Sharpton will speak at his funeral today.

"At his funeral today." Those words fill me with an incandescent rage and inconsolable sadness. I think of my own teenage brother, two years older than Hunter and, like him, a racing fan who just graduated from the NASCAR Technical Institute. I think of all the crazy ass redneck boys I grew up with in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky who drove too fast, smarted off too much, even the ones who bullied me, who were just kids themselves.

I think of Hunter. He was 17. A child. Just trying to fix his truck.

Maybe you disagree with certain tactics or tenants of the Black Lives Matter movement. That's fine. One needn't want to defund the police to recognize that something's rotten when a good ol' boy can't even fix his truck without the law shooting him like roadkill. If, like me, you are white and working class or poor, I want you to consider the injustice and inhumanity of this. I want you to consider Hunter.

Saying Black Lives Matter doesn't mean Hunter's didn't. Recognizing the material reality of racism in policing does not diminish Hunter Brittain's life, nor the pointless and evil taking of it. But failing to demand justice for Hunter and all victims of police brutality insults the memory of that precious boy whose family will lay him to rest today. It is downright sinful.

The time has come for the white working class join hands with our Black brothers and sisters and say, quite simply, enough is enough. We will not sit here while our children, our neighbors, our friends and family are gunned down like dogs on the side of the road. Enough is enough is enough. It is time for the white working class to join the movement for Black lives—and for all lives cruelly and needlessly taken by this barbarous and inhuman system we dare call policing.

Skylar Baker-Jordan writes about the intersection of identity, politics, and public policy based. He lives in Tennessee.

The views in this article are the writer's own.