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

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Implications of Ferguson and other tragic incidents

In July our country was shocked to hear of the fate of Eric Garner, an African American man in Staten Island, New York who was choked to death by a police officer for an unexplained reason. In August a similar outcome for an African American male teenager (Michael Brown) who was unarmed and yet shot 6 times — an incident which sparked community outrage. In Ohio at a Walmart another deadly incident occurred during the same time period – this time with a bit less fanfare. 22-year-old John Crawford III (also an African American male) was shot in the back while shopping and talking on a cell phone because of a toy pellet gun he had in his possession that he planned to purchase from the toy department that day. In Seattle, a 26-year-old African American man (Raymond Wilford) was pepper-sprayed by mall security guards as he walked through a parking lot when security guards mistook him for a trouble-maker (ignoring bystanders telling them that they had the wrong man). I could go on and on as these tragic incidents are unfortunately growing in number with many never reaching national media outlets. What’s more unsettling is that typically they are hard to resolve due to contradictory versions of the facts that more often than not get interpreted in favor of the shooters who justify their actions with such descriptions as “he reached for my gun,” or “he took an aggressive step towards me,” or “I was standing my ground.” I doubt that these explanations pass muster to most, but rather ring hollow and are hard to accept. Often we attempt to get to the root cause of such matters by sorting through a complicated set of questions nearly impossible to get accurate answers to: What caused the confrontation, was a crime committed, was there a perceived or actual threat, why did law enforcement (or citizen) respond with such force? More importantly, it seems that the idea of perceptions in general could benefit from more consideration.

Perceptions of a situation drive actions and responses and unless all parties sense a willingness to engage in seeking solutions, we end up at a crossroads. Can these distressing situations be a catalyst for a healthy discourse? I am curious about the theme that appears to be emerging concerning the perceptions that law enforcement and others may have about young males of color. Is it time to openly inquire whether law enforcement inherently feel threatened when confronting young men of color and as a result fear harm such that they consider themselves justified in using aggressive tactics or deadly force? I also wonder about the ongoing impact of such hostility on communities and whether there now exists a natural perception of bias by law enforcement that undermines expectations for a fair and just resolution? Another important area we should not lose sight of is the ongoing negative impact on the hearts and minds of young people (especially youth of color). This next generation of youth who on one hand are growing up in a post-civil rights time period with greater expectations of equality than in the 1960’s, but on the other hand experience similar mistreatment without understanding why.

The lingering trauma on communities of color when African American males such as Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and even Trayvon Martin are harmed without rationale is significant. It’s not unlike the trauma experienced by victims of hate crimes and the communities who share their characteristics who have a hard time making sense of mistreatment when it seems to be based solely on their race, gender, sexual orientation, or religious affiliation, rather than their actions. The entire community is affected, parents and children alike, wondering what can help them avoid being a target, yet knowing full well that there is little they can do.

Similar to the civil rights era, in Ferguson people and communities took to the streets to demonstrate their dissatisfaction and anger concerning the over-aggression by law enforcement towards the Black community and the lack of a thoughtful or appropriate response. While on some level I can appreciate such a reaction, I’m left asking myself is it enough or could we be doing more to work towards solutions? What’s the ultimate point of protest if it’s not accompanied by an action plan? We’ve all heard the saying “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result.” Does that mean that our communities are insane to continue accepting such treatment without adequate resolution, or perhaps we have gotten somewhat anesthetized to the ongoing pain?

When communities feel disempowered, disenfranchised and disconnected as a result of their perceptions of bias and indifference on the part of government officials, what is left to do other than take to the streets to at least demonstrate discontent? I believe that in order to make a change we will need to raise the bar. In addition to protesting, it’s time to come together to try to better understand why this keeps happening, why youth of color seem to be considered inherently dangerous and less valued? We must work together to begin to outline some potential solutions. Perhaps we should start conversations with law enforcement about cultural competency and safe responses, followed by education and training – of law enforcement as well as our youth? If we are looking for a different result, one that goes beyond empty excuses, I think it’s time that we try something new – an approach that hopefully will transform the hearts and minds of those in authority who are in a position to alter the fate of an unarmed person in an instant. Just maybe if we can speak from one voice interested in both safety and equity in our communities, we will be able to influence those with the power to find the courage to choose another path.

What do you think? What suggestions do you have to strengthen our communities to more effectively steer this conversation in a positive direction and one that is focused on resolutions? It is clear to me that too many young men of color are in harm’s way and that a community conversation is long overdue. How can we work together to reverse this trend?

Tanya Washington is a social justice advocate who seeks better outcmes for vulnerable youth/ Join the discussion at www.justicecorner.com

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq