Finding our footing in the wake of Election-acolypse

The past week has been rocky and unsettling for some obvious and not-so-obvious reasons and it is now time to figure out our path forward. The results of a typical election when there are major candidates who have a basic competency and understanding of the underpinnings of our democratic ideals are easier to digest no matter which candidate prevails. The idea that the United States of America is a dichotomy of interests and priorities is not new, and one that I think most can reconcile after each election. What is different about Election 2016 is that it does not feel that the President-elect is in any way concerned about our democratic values, or the well-being of all citizens. When a person in authority only acts for those in agreement, rather than the good of the country, we have a grave problem.

It is natural for human beings to express happiness when the side they are rooting for is the victor. What is not acceptable and especially unsettling is when harassment and even assaults occur as a part of that expression. Kids whose parents voted for the person who won telling other kids that they belong in the back of the bus, college students assaulting other students while using racial epithets, or threatening people with different religious beliefs to remove their head covering while claiming that right under the mantel of “Making America Great Again.” In the past week, the amount of hate and aggression reported in the name of the President-elect has me once again pondering “just what is this definition of GREAT that a big section of America rallied around,” “what exactly is it that they want to see,” and “how much harm against others are they willing to ignore in pursuit of this so-called greatness?”

The last question is the one that may be less obvious, and one that causes me the most disappointment. Ignoring or pretending not to see the impact the election results are having on the treatment of entire classes of citizens is troubling because it calls into question a basic set of decency and humaneness that should transcend political ideology. Personally, I could not look myself in the mirror or sit idly by while others lost their sense of safety in the name of “greatness.” I could not watch the person I voted for surround himself with people with a lengthy public record of trampling on the rights of my neighbors and justify it. I could not excuse the verbal and physical assault of other people because of the color of their skin, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or who and how they worship. In a democracy, our liberties are not for sale, and why the past week has felt like an apocalypse — Election-ocalypse. This simply is not how I was raised, nor something any true American should accept.

Finding our footing will require a re-acknowledgement and recommitment to principles of justice, fairness and equity. We will need to build coalitions with others who share these values. We will need to invest in strategies that support these beliefs, with a clarity of vision for the outcomes we seek. We must embrace an unyielding spirit of right versus wrong and refuse to accept a country where ALL are unable to pursue life, liberty and happiness. According to the Constitution of the United States, We the PEOPLE, in order to form a more perfect union, have a right to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty.” That is our foundation, our grounding, and the footing we need to steady ourselves and move forward. As a friend reminded me recently, it’s time we all take our rightful place under the flag, our symbol of freedom, and stop letting divisive people co-opt it for their own selfish benefit. Our children will inherit the country that we allow.

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