Last year for some unknown reason I became enthralled with North Korea and started reading and watching videos about North Korea. I was stunned at the way people lived under the dictatorship of what they call, “their supreme leader,” Kim Jong Un. While Americans can visit North Korea, their visits are often very staged by the administration in North Korea. There is an image that North Korea portrays to the world and the reality of living in North Korea a totalitarian state. Most of its citizens are programmed to be loyal to Kim Jong Un and support his policies with no questions asked. Some have managed to flee North Korea and enter South Korea, but it has not been without fear, heartache and sometimes the murder of those they have left behind. While I found the information on North Korea fascinating, there were two things I was certain of after watching countless documentaries on North Korea. 1. I would never visit North Korea and 2. If I ever found myself in North Korea for some reason unknown to me, I would be certain to do everything by the book. North Korea is not a country where I would play around.
That’s why when I first read of Otto Warmbier stealing a propaganda poster in North Korea I immediately knew that he had made a horrible mistake. The poster Warmbier attempted to steal is propaganda and as stated on Wikipedia, “is crucial to the formation and promotion of the cult of personality center around the founder of the totalitarian state.” The poster Warmbier stole stated, “Let’s arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong-il’s patriotism.” Any affront to their leaders former or present can be punishable by hard labor or death and stealing the poster met those guidelines. Otto Warmbier was arrested at the airport trying to depart North Korea and charged with a hostile act against the state. It should be noted, the other Americans that were traveling with Warmbier were able to leave North Korea without incident. Warmbier confessed to his crime and was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. Unfortunately, Warmbier’s minor theft ultimately resulted in a death sentence. Otto Warmbier was sent back to the United States in a coma. On Monday, June 19, 2017, Warmbier died, doctors citing, a severe neurological injury which resulted in significant loss of brain tissue.
The news of Warmbier’s death shook social media with many American’s being in a state of shock and outrage over what appears to be a senseless death over something incredibly minor. America feels the way it feels because NO ONE should be given a death sentence for committing a minor infraction against authority.
Otto’s death should not be met with cries of, “He shouldn’t have been breaking the law.” “He should have just followed the rules.” “He shouldn’t have been there anyway.” “That’s what happens when you don’t listen to authority.” Otto was just 22 years old. From all accounts he was a bright, young man, a student at the University of Virginia, studying commerce and economics. Seemingly Warmbier had his entire life ahead of him, and that life shouldn’t have been taken over something so minor.
NO ONE SHOULD DIE OVER SOMETHING SO MINOR.
No one should have to die for failure to signal, walking home, riding a bike, selling loose cigarettes, reporting a burglary, walking back to their car, asking questions, challenging authority, opening their front door, playing their music too loudly, leaving a party, playing on a playground, waiting for a subway, reaching for their wallet, wearing a hoodie. The list is almost endless of minor reasons that people should NOT die, but sadly, right on American soil, Black people have died for these minor and hardly punishable offenses. And certainly, no one should die over taking a poster.
I remember just almost three years ago a young Black man was at a convenience store in Ferguson, Missouri. A recent high school graduate, he was 18 and had his entire life ahead of him. Some reported that he allegedly stole several packages of cigarillos.(Recent video footage shows an exchange between Mike and the store clerk in which the cigarillos were a part of this exchange and Mike forgot to take them when he initially left the store.) Be that as it may, a pack of cigarillos is $6.50. Six. Dollars. And. Fifty. Cents. We can dispute him taking them or them being a part of an exchange but what cannot be disputed is that this young man was murdered in the street over a pack of cigarillos. The murder of Mike Brown at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson shook the nation and ignited a movement. It was also a murder that made some distinctively clear lines in the sand with many White people saying, “He shouldn’t have broken the law.” “He should have listened to authority.” And many Black people saying, “None of that matters. No one should be sentenced to death over such a small thing.”
If we are outraged at the senseless death of Otto, we must be outraged at the sense deaths of Black people. If Otto’s life mattered despite him making a foolish mistake, then we must concede that the lives of Black people matter even if they make a silly mistake. If we are not inundating Otto’s story with cries of, “He should have just obeyed,” then we must agree that we cannot say, Mike Brown should have just obeyed. If we can have compassion for someone that made a minor mistake, then we must have compassion for Black people that have made minor mistakes. If US Senator Mark Rubio can say, “Otto Warmbier should never have been in jail for tearing down a stupid banner. And he most certainly should not have been murdered for it,” then we must concede that so many Black people should not be in a jail for minor crimes and not given a death sentence for minor infractions.
If you are outraged and upset at Otto Warmbier’s story, we are waiting for you to be just as outraged at the death of Black people at the hands of police officers for committing minor and often unpunishable offenses.
As Martin Niemoller said,
First, they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
In 2017 I say; First, they came for Black people and the world said…who cares? And now here we are.
Either you care about humanity, or you do not. If you are upset about Otto Warmbier but not upset about Mike Brown and countless others like him, stop and honestly ask yourself why not? Your response to that question is your truth and that is what should keep you up at night and why we continue fighting daily for freedom.