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Patrick Lyoya shooting exposes the false promise of American exceptionalism

On Thursday, the family of Patrick Lyoya, a 26-year-old Black man shot in the back of the head by a Michigan police officer during an altercation stemming from a traffic stop, held a news conference demanding accountability.

Lyoya was killed April 4 after a Grand Rapids police officer pulled him over, saying his license plate did not match the car. Dashcam and body camera video from the incident show Lyoya questioning why he was stopped and running from the officer — whose name hasn’t been released — before he was shot facedown on the ground.

“My heart is broken to see an officer being on top of my son and to shoot him in the back of his head,” his father, Peter Lyoya, said during the news conference. “My heart is really broken.”

The Lyoya family is discovering there are few things more American than mourning a gun death — particularly that of a Black person killed by law enforcement.

One of the most tragic aspects of this killing is the Lyoya family’s disbelief and sense of betrayal by a country they justifiably assumed would be their saving grace. 

“I’m surprised and astonished that it is here that my son was killed with a bullet,” Lyoya’s mother, Dorcas Lyoya, said in Swahili through an interpreter, according to NBC News.

“I didn’t believe in this country that there is genocide,” Peter Lyoya said, NBC News reported. “I didn’t know that in America, there can be an execution style to kill someone with a gun and be a police officer.”

The Lyoya family fled the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo in 2014 to pursue what they expected to be a safer life in the United States. Around that time, the DRC was witnessing a raft of human rights abuses, which human rights groups say were committed both by government security forces and armed rebel groups. The family settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan, one of the most popular destinations for Congolese refugees in the U.S. 

Dorcas Lyoya told NBC News the family thought they’d found “a safe land.” And, as Peter Lyoya referenced in his remarks Thursday, there’s a uniquely sickening irony in his son being so cravenly shot to death in this country.

The Lyoya family was understandably regaled by a mirage, a fictitious U.S. that abides by high standards of law and justice. They were drawn here by a false promise of American exceptionalism and equality, only to find that the very violence they sought to avoid — the state-sanctioned kind — would befall them in the place where they sought refuge. 

“I came here to save my family,” Peter Lyoya told CBS News. “My son has been killed like an animal.”

An oft-referenced Emma Lazarus poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty reads, “Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Any refugee arriving to the U.S. is justified in interpreting that to mean this country will accept migrants and welcome them into the American experience. Sadly, the Lyoya family is discovering there are few things more American than mourning a gun death — particularly that of a Black person killed by law enforcement.


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