Moving from talk to action to address issues of race

As more and more videos and news reports get shared about people who look like me (i.e., people with brown skin) being harmed – whether at the hands of police or their neighbors, under color of law or a blatant criminal act, I’m just left stunned. Not sure what to think, how to feel or what to do. Seems like each week I brace myself — who will get hurt or killed this week and at whose hands, and how will the public and the media respond? I’m underwhelmed by the inability of many news outlets to appreciate the important and sensitive aspects of so many violent incidents that seem predicated on race. The motivation to sensationalize and capture the story of moment appears to trump getting underneath the similarities in the issues to highlight the root causes in order to make a case for resolution.

So many random acts of senseless violence against people of color across the country are beginning to seem like a public health crisis. From impoverished neighborhoods to gated communities, as a result of drug-related, gang-related or other criminal activity, or via traffic-stop or other police-stop; from older people to young kids, walking down the street or shopping in Walmart; children in grade school playing in the park, high school kids celebrating the end of the school year, or honor students in college. Each situation seems random, each person unique, yet they share one common characteristic – skin color – which makes this scary and unsettling for me and I hope would ignite a collective call for action.

When incidents involve police malfeasance, we often hear unnecessary justifications to explain away the harm. Or the topic gets inexplicably changed to a conversation about Black-on-Black crime (as if that is at all relevant to a discussion about police misconduct). When police are harmed, all of a sudden we start hearing about escalating crime (even if it’s untrue) and blaming those people who desired to call attention to aggressive policing. When we hear of multiple murders in one city in a month’s time, some want to ignore that and focus on policing. None of this makes any sense!

Why can’t we judge and comment on the sadness of each situation on its own merit with objectivity and integrity and then work towards change? When a police officer is killed in the line of duty, it is unjustified – always — with no excuses! Good men and women put their lives on the line every day and we should acknowledge and appreciate the risks they are taking. But, when someone in uniform crosses the line and abuses their authority and harms someone, that is equally inexcusable and we all should be able to agree on that. When week after week, city after city, situation after situation involves black and brown people getting harmed, that is also something that requires collective acknowledgement. And when a city like Baltimore has multiple murders in a matter of weeks, we should all be able to call that what it is – simply a tragedy! When a city like Charleston has multiple incidents involving Black people being shot and killed in a matter of months, we should all stand up and call the question.

What I rarely hear in any discourse is a genuine expression of how we can move from talking about situations to actually understanding and hopefully resolving the issues. Why are black and brown people being harmed in such high numbers? Why do our children look “suspicious” when they are doing nothing wrong? Where are natural opportunities in our communities to talk about race, policing, crime, education, jobs? Who are the authentic leaders who can host such conversations? What data can be shared and monitored to establish target outcomes that we all can join together in pursuing?

Enough of the rhetoric. Enough of the 24-hour news cycle that plays more like reality television than sensible reporting. It’s time to move from talk to action if we want change the narrative. Who is going to stand up and DO instead of just TALK?

Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Share your thoughts at http://www.justicecorner.com

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq/ email her at justicecornerblog@gmail.com

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Changing the discourse about law enforcement and the black community

Seems like every week lately I have to brace myself before turning on the news. Months ago it was Mike Brown, Eric Garner, then Tamir Rice, weeks ago Martese Johnson, then Walter Scott, and now it’s come to the city in which I live with the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Young males, older males, teenagers – it doesn’t seem to matter – for one reason or another, black males are being responded to aggressively and ending up choked, tasered, slammed to the ground, bloodied, beat up or shot. In the worst scenarios (such as with Walter Scott and Freddie Gray), they end up losing their life, and often the officers seem to not be held accountable.

As tragic as the news of the events themselves has been, what hurts and perplexes me the most is that more often than not I don’t hear a response that helps me to make sense of this. The commonalities seem simple – law enforcement encounters a black male, the situation goes horribly wrong, the black male ends up harmed. The reality though is much more complex. There are usually several versions of how the encounter unfolded: Version 1: officer confronts black male, then “fears for his life”, attempts to apprehend black male, there is a “struggle” or the appearance of a “weapon” and then officer feels compelled to use excessive force; version 2: officer confronts black male, black male questions the legitimacy of the stop or otherwise appears to not comply, and then officer responds with force; version 3: often depends on whether there are witnesses or a video of the confrontation. We actually may never hear a third version, but when we do, as in the recent case of Walter Scott, it is evident that there is an important reality to police encounters that we must confront in a transparent and different way if we are to pursue much needed resolution. In the case of Walter Scott, because it was on video, we can and should have a different conversation. We first should ask about the legitimacy of the stop, then we should challenge the level of force utilized especially when it seems excessive. When it seems that the confrontation was without reasonable cause, or that the use of force is inappropriate, there should be an objective investigation and officers who act improperly should be held accountable.

To change this trend of harmful conflicts, it’s time that all caring citizens be willing to ask hard questions and then be prepared for honest dialogue. I can imagine that law enforcement is not only a hard job, but at times is also a scary one. More importantly, however, it’s a responsibility that requires individuals to use their authority with honesty, integrity and humility. This is not a job that can or should be entrusted to just anyone, and especially not to individuals who are easily agitated. So we as citizens should be willing to ask, “what are the character traits and skill sets necessary to be an effective police officer?” We also should be willing to challenge the idea of what it means for an officer to legitimately fear for their life, as well as the legitimacy of the initial confrontation.

When I see a video of several officers surrounding someone they are attempting to comprehend, but instead use that opportunity to beat them, punch them, kick them or choke them (such as with Eric Garner and Martese Johnson) what comes to my mind is that the behavior is unnecessarily excessive, not befitting of an individual in uniform, and in extreme situations it seems to cross the boundary of the law. And that is regardless of whether the person being apprehended has violated the law or not. When a young person is apprehended and it does not appear that the law has been violated (such as with Freddie Gray), and that person ends up dead – that is alarming at an entirely different level.

It is time to call the question about police confrontations and demand that we change the dialogue, the expectations, and the response. We need the system to work better – for the safety of the community as well as law enforcement.

Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Share your thoughts at http://www.justicecorner.com

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq/ email her at justicecornerblog@gmail.com

When the caged bird stops singing: thoughts on Ferguson

I know why the caged bird sings, and I think I might have an idea about why he stops. Maya Angelou wrote “A bird that stalks down his narrow cage can seldom see through his bars of rage his wings are clipped and his feet are tied so he opens his throat to sing.” But after the songs are gone and the voice gets hoarse, frustration and hopelessness can quickly follow. It is then that the bird may stop singing and instead fling himself against his cage.

I can not and do not condone violence against anyone, and I (as are others) am saddened by the events in Ferguson. But I pause because it seems unfair to only respond to the portrayed acts of rioting as if they occurred in a vacuum. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and it is therefore disingenuous to narrowly focus on the “reactions” as the main issue while ignoring the improper “actions” that precipitated them. A friend wrote on social media that it may be akin to being so mad that you punch a wall – you destroy the wall, and you hurt your hand. Is this logical? Perhaps not, but it may be all that you can think to do amidst unrighteousness.

I don’t live in Ferguson, but unjust acts are occurring all across this country primarily to people of color who are left to feel not just targeted, but inappropriately left out of our justice system. Young black men and boys are being shot and killed in the street, in the stores and in the parks, without retribution. When youth of color are accused of violating the law, “due process” works differently – the word of any person who takes the stand and testifies is taken at face value as “evidence.” It is common for someone to be accused, arrested and locked up before a shred of proof is submitted. But when youth of color are the victims, the standard somehow changes.

The appearance of justice is as important as justice itself. We cannot continue to leave whole segments of our communities, states and country out of a fair process and expect that they will just “sing” or stand in quiet protest. At some point, if not let out of the cage, the bird stops singing and what happens next may be much less palatable.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still and his tune is heard on the distant hill for the caged bird sings of freedom.” Maya Angelou

Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Share your thoughts at http://www.justicecorner.com or the Justice Corner Facebook page. Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq/ email her at justicecornerblog@gmail.com