Joe McKnight Is Dead And His Killer Is Free Because His Life Didn't Matter Enough For Him To Be Alive

NFL via Getty Images
NFL via Getty Images

Birthday parties for babies tend to be more for the adults present than the actual baby celebrated, and my daughter's first birthday party — which, due to rush of people who happened to be in town Thanksgiving weekend, was pushed up to the Saturday after Thanksgiving (the 26th) instead of her actual birthday (the 30th) — was no different. I doubt she gave much of a damn about the grade of barbecue sauce purchased with the tray of boneless chicken wings or the fancy new Pack 'n Play her grandmother bought her. And I know she gave no fucks about the party's superhero motif, because the first thing she did when seeing the bedazzled Batman shirt I wore was attempt to eat the bat.


I'm not much of a party person myself, but I looked forward to this day just to be able to witness her experiencing it. Her face when opening and playing with her gifts. (Which, as usual for her, landed somewhere between slightly bemused and slightly annoyed. My daughter is British, apparently.) Her eyes when she heard the “Happy Birthday” song sung to her for the first time. Her tiny legs as she walked from the cake stand to the couch her cousin was sitting on. And those same tiny legs an hour later when she apparently forgot she actually knows how to walk now and just started crawling everywhere.

She is my Feminist Octopus — a name I’ve given her because her favorite words currently are “stop” and “no.” And also because she’s so damn curious and engaged with her surroundings that it’s like she had eight limbs; all simultaneously grabbing and touching and pulling and pinching. I know it’s not the most creative nickname, but I’m her dad and I’m allowed to be corny.

Our house right now is an emporium of random baby shit shoehorned into an adult living space. It's like someone went to Babies R Us, emptied 20 shelves into 50 different bags, drove to IKEA, and arbitrarily sprinkled the bags' content throughout the store; a GRACO easy fold highchair parked adjacent to the living room mantle and both the fireplace underneath it and the 65 inch Sony 4K Ultra HD TV on top of it; Chicka Chicka Boom Boom laying on a SVÄRTAN limited edition collection tray table. When babies arrive to couples who've never had children before, their presence is a colonization. A welcome colonization of course. A colonization with footies and frequent viewings of Sesame Street on YouTube (in Spanish though because we want her to learn that too). But a colonization nonetheless. Your resources are devoted to them, your thoughts possessed with them, your instincts stirred by them.

And its with this context that killings such as the killing of Joe McKnight are so fucking brutal. So fucking complete. Not necessarily to me. I, like many others who heard of the circumstances surrounding his death, felt an appropriate amount of outrage, sadness, and perplexity. But I wasn't devastated by it the same way the grandmother who rented the space for his first birthday party 27 years ago, the uncle who first taught him out to catch a football, and the mom and the dad who had their lives upended and colonized by him 28 years are most definitely today. I can't conjure many fates more cruel than to have a life that was treasured, prayed over, sacrificed for, led, and loved snatched away so senselessly. And for everyone — including the police — to know exactly who did it. And for that person to be free. As if those decades of memories and moments and gallons of formula and refilled diaper genies and doctors' office visits and Polaroids of first steps meant nothing. Like none of that mattered. Like it didn't even happen.

Its no secret that the undervaluing of Black lives isn't as much about a conscious and seething racial animus but more the inability to regard us as fully human; a dynamic that manifests as a reluctance to give our capacity to hurt, bleed, double over in pain, and die any benefit of the doubt. Its not that our lives and the diversity of life within each of our lives don't matter at all. They just don't matter as much. And for Black men and Black women as strong and sturdy and brown as Joe McKnight was, this modicum of empathy becomes nonexistent. He's been "grown" his entire life; a "man" since before he could ride a bike; a threat since before he could spell. Perhaps Ronald Gasser will eventually be arrested, charged, and convicted of his murder. But his freedom today — that he's receiving a consideration, a benefit of the doubt, that Joe McKnight did not, could not, and would never have — synopsizes America's feelings about men and women like the one he killed and the broken and brutalized families they leave behind; communicating to them and to us that those birthday parties didn't matter. That cake and those candles didn't matter. That 28 years of life didn't matter.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)


Black athletes need to pull out of all leagues and start their own. I feel like people as a whole aren't going to start respecting us until we starting making them see out value and taking things away. This man should be locked up and the NFL should be loyal enough to speak the fuck up for Joe and his family. They (the NFL) have money so you know they got influence. Why do we even bother trying to be apart? They don't care about you. We need pull the fuck out of everything and own and support our own… in the very least until they (whitey) learns to value what we continue to contribute to this awful country full of hate and racism.

With all the money our retired athletes have made and what our current are making we could do it. Add some black celeb, black corporate money we could do anything

Could you imagine completely shutting down all football and basketball for a year until some serious changes to laws and the justice system were implemented?

Nike, Adidas, Powerade, etc… what would they do?? ESPN? FoxSport? No more sports or even Super Bowl commercial profits.