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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Shame on Baltimore for taking system failures out on the kids

What happened on Monday, April 27th in Baltimore is outrageous on many levels. Yes, there was chaos and confusion. Yes there was bedlam. Yes there was law breaking in the form of looting, disorderly conduct and even setting fires. But I do not believe that the teenagers were to blame for most of what went wrong and got out of control that day, and I hope that they will not be the scapegoats. Monday night 21 kids with no record of being in trouble with the law before were put into the juvenile detention center for their infractions, instead of being sent home. And therein lies the huge crack at the foundation of what is not working in this city. Objective decision-making and common sense seem lost, and it’s a problem that must be rectified.

What we know now is that students went to school as usual on Monday, and that at some point there was an emerging plan among a number of youth to congregate (seemingly in protest of unfair treatment by police and because of what happened to Freddie Gray). There have been so many rumors and so much misinformation that it’s not clear what the intent was from there. Somehow adults (whether police officers or other city officials) got wind of this plan and decided to shut down public transportation out of Mondawmin Mall (a major transportation hub for kids to get to and from school).

Public school teachers in the days that followed provided information about how youth were pulled off of buses and left in the street with no way to get home. http://m.motherjones.com/politics/2015/04/how-baltimore-riots-began-mondawmin-purge This decision – clearly a poor one – served to strand hundreds of kids in that area, against their will and regardless of their intent to be a part of the planned gathering. In the midst of all the chaos that ensued, I can imagine that some kids who were not breaking any laws, were caught up and unsure of where to go or what to do and in the confusion, some of them likely got arrested. Others we know were involved in rock throwing and looting.

In the end, 35 kids were arrested, but instead of charging them and calling their parents, they were held overnight. This was not supposed to happen. Whatever the kids were charged with was supposed to be dealt with on a future date – in a juvenile court. There was no reason for those kids to spend even one night in a locked facility.

Juvenile justice is different from adult justice in many ways. Primarily, because young people are known to be impulsive, yet malleable. The standard for holding an adolescent in a locked detention facility (i.e., a jail) is supposed to be to ensure that they will show up to court, or to prevent the commission of a new offense pending resolution of that case. Locking kids in a detention facility is more typically reserved for youth who have repeatedly committed a violent delinquent offense or who have a history of not showing up to court. Best practice in juvenile justice across the country utilizes a detention risk-assessment tool to help make objective decisions on who warrants confinement. When a youth does not score as a high risk to commit a new crime, they are supposed to be released and allowed to go home.

In Baltimore, on Monday, that doesn’t seem to be what happened. And we, the caring public, deserve some answers. 21 kids who previously had not been in trouble (according to the news), who got caught up in a chaotic situation, even if they had thrown rocks or stolen items from a store, should not have been locked up in a cell like a common criminal.  Being locked overnight in a concrete cell is a traumatic event, especially for a youth. It will stay with them for the rest of their life. The decision to do that should not be made frivolously and should never be done punitively. There is a lot of research on this point but somehow in Baltimore it was ignored.

If the police believed they had probable cause for an arrest, then they should have processed the youth, called their parents or guardians, and sent them home to return to court on another day to answer the charges and be held accountable. Once back in court, given the circumstances, these kids should be considered for diversion rather than formal processing. This unfortunate day should not follow them for months and years or subject them to ongoing juvenile court oversight or worse.  There are many ways to appropriately respond to whatever youthful infractions occurred on Monday, and in doing so, the adults should at least acknowledge their part.

It is clear from all that has happened in Baltimore over the past few weeks, that the law enforcement system and the justice system in general needs to be dissected and it needs a revamp. It needed that long before some high school kids decided in their own immature and adolescent way to take a stand. They should not be the scapegoats for this mess. They should not be called criminals and thugs. The adults in Baltimore need to take collective responsibility for sorting this out. If we let our kids take the fall for all that is broken in the system, then shame on all of us!

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

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

Resolving to make a difference in my own community

I recently read some statistics about the city where I reside that 4 out of 5 children in Baltimore City live in such impoverished circumstances that they quality for free or reduced cost meals. This means that a majority of kids in the city in which I live and pay taxes probably don’t have enough food to keep them feeling satisfied on a regular basis. This directly connects with their ability to focus and achieve academically, which also correlates with their likelihood of being involved in the juvenile justice system. This slippery slope is one that does not surprise me (except for the magnitude of the problem) but does move me to consider how I might use my time differently this year.

The beginning of every year is generally a time to refocus, set new goals and resolutions, and endeavor to be better. It’s the time to dream bigger, plan more intently and dare to make a difference – not just for ourselves, but to make the world around us a better place.

The last quarter of 2014 made it really clear that our world and our communities need healing. That we need a better resolution to law enforcement so that those sworn and paid to protect our neighborhoods can do their job appropriately, safely and in a manner that law-abiding people can respect. We also need enhanced strategies to help our youth find a path forward that will allow them an opportunity for a better life. And I believe all of this starts with everyone joining together to strengthen our families, our schools and our communities. And I mean “our” in the collective sense – as in all of us in this together. Mutual responsibility and accountability.

If we are to keep our kids unnecessarily out of harmful court systems, we need to start by building them a stronger community. So, I resolve in 2015 to be more involved in my community. To reach one and teach one and hopefully make a positive difference in the life of a youth. Too many of our kids are hungry – and not just for food. They are in need of responsible and caring adults to genuinely care about them and offer them a strong hand of support. I intend to be that for a young person in 2015 and I challenge all other adults who want to make a difference to do the same. I will continue to shine a spotlight on injustice that impacts our youth, but I also will lend a personal hand to someone who I hope to inspire to achieve great things. I have not yet identified this youth, but I have submitted an application to be a volunteer and am looking forward to being connected to someone in the near future. This is my mission – and it can be yours, if you choose to accept it.

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

The quest for justice reform should include the kids failed by the juvenile court system

As horrific as it is that so many lives have been lost to seemingly biased police practices and rushes to judgment, there are many more who are blessed to be alive but who are nonetheless in harm’s way that warrant our attention. At the top of this list are the kids who may not have been shot or choked to death, but who were handcuffed and shipped away to court and incarcerated with little due process. No one is telling their story, but they should not be ignored as they represent a growing number of statistics that fall under the radar.

Consider this: if Mike Brown had not been shot and killed, but instead lived would there still be the same level of discontent? If the Ohio police had man-handled 12-year-old Tamir Rice and mashed his face in the ground, handcuffed him and hauled him off to juvenile court, would we be similarly outraged? What if the bullet miraculously missed Trayvon Martin but when the police came they charged him with assault and then a judge placed him in a juvenile correctional institution? This happens to thousands of kids (and primarily kids of color) in every state across the country. There are literally tens of thousands of young people right now who are behind bars, many for behavior that most of us engaged in as kids (skipping school, underage drinking, missing curfew).

Why does it take a death, or several deaths to spark protest? The underlying police practice and failures in our justice system is the same, it just falls a bit below the surface and has a less final result.

The disparities in the juvenile justice system are staggering. The number of Black and Latino youth who are pushed into court systems from school, forced into lengthy archaic probation contracts, and then ultimately locked up far outweighs youth of other races and ethnicities – and yet where is the outrage on their behalf?

Does anyone lament the teenager brought into court in shackles for cursing at his teacher, or sent to a locked detention facility for arguing with his parent? What about a 12-year-old held in a locked facility for months for testing positive for marijuana? Or a 14-year-old sent to juvenile prison for 5 years for burglarizing a neighbor’s garage? These situations are common in most states across the country, and I have personally witnessed them. So many of our young people are in danger, and no one seems to notice. They are in danger of being traumatized, assaulted, disconnected from their families and under-educated. They miss out on normal adolescent experiences, are forced out of school and yet no one champions their cause.

Are we satisfied simply because they remained alive, even though they are locked away for years as their unjust penalty for noncompliance? Are youth of color not worthy of our outrage when their consequence is hand-cuffs and a cell instead of a loss of life? If we truly believe that #Blacklivesmatter and #Alllivesmatter perhaps we should broaden our thinking to address the injustices in our law enforcement and court systems in a full and meaningful way – not just in the most extreme situations?

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

#CrimingWhileWhite provides a unique opportunity for dialogue about racial disparities

The hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite has been trending on Twitter and was captured in an article on USA Today Network on Dec 3, 2014 #Crimingwhilewhite puts focus on police and race. I’ve read comments on both sides either in favor of the expressions or wondering if they somehow mock the differential treatment endured by African Americans by many law enforcement.

I am one who not only had a positive impression of the trend, but commend those individuals who happen to be white who shared in tweets their experiences committing common youthful transgressions that resulted in privileged disparate treatment. Several mentioned underage drinking and driving, mischievous theft and even blatant disregard for the specific directives of law enforcement. In response they were barely chastised, considered to be “good kids” and often simply allowed to go on their way without arrest, being mistreated or further escalation. Perhaps these young people were not aware at the time of the different experience of Black youth and Black people? But now they are, and I appreciate their acknowledging it.

As someone who works professionally to achieve reforms in juvenile justice systems across the country, I often struggle with the best way to lift up the racial disparities in the treatment of youth. Overwhelmingly when the data is analyzed, it is evident that Black youth are more frequently arrested, sent to juvenile court from school for minor or non-violent behavior, sent to locked detention facilities, and to juvenile correctional facilities. When confronted with such data on racial disparities, the responses are often mixed. Some are appalled and interested in correcting the practices, but others remain in denial, preferring to blame the differences on poverty, single-parent households, or bad neighborhoods. The reality is that there are studies that have accounted for such factors and still the disparities exist.

So it is encouraging to me to have the qualitative information in the form of tweets from conscious young people speaking honestly about white privilege. #CrimingWhileWhite is a powerful acknowledgement that I hope will be persuasive and spark dialogue among communities to stand up for what’s right.

Walking down the middle of the street, playing in the park with a toy gun, buying gas with the music turned up too loud, or walking in the neighborhood should not yield a death sentence, and yet they did for Michael, Tamir, Jordan and Trayvon, and likely for countless others. But there are many more youth who are fortunate to be alive, but are locked in juvenile facilities for similar behavior. We don’t have their names, and yet they deserve our attention because they are in harm’s way and we can still do something about it.

All youth should be afforded the opportunity to live their lives or even make mistakes without being killed or locked up and #CrimingWhileWhite may be just what is necessary to change the discourse by providing real life examples that give a different credibility to the notion of racial disparities. I am encouraged and hope that we can both start these conversations and identify strategies to address the issue because all lives matter which means we all need to be involved in the resolution.

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

ALWAYS ask for a lawyer when detained by the police

Anyone who has ever watched a television show or movie in which the police apprehend a suspect is familiar with what’s known as the Miranda warnings: “you have the right to remain silent; anything you say may be used against you; you have the right to an attorney; if you cannot afford one, one may be appointed for you.”

One of the biggest and most regrettable mistakes young people make when detained by a police officer is to not ask for a lawyer. Whether you believe you have done anything illegal or not, if the police are detaining you, it is likely because they have some reason to believe that you have violated the law, or that you know something about an incident they are investigating. In either one of those scenarios, you are better off with the assistance of an attorney. Legal counsel is also more protective of your rights in the event there is an offer of a more lenient consequence, or in any plea negotiations.

Although states differ in how they interpret the 6th Amendment constitutional right to counsel (varying in such things as whether they are required to provide counsel free of charge, or when the right to counsel actually is triggered) individuals best protect themselves if they make it their practice to ask for a lawyer before answering any questions (other than basic identifying information such as name or address). Of course to avoid unnecessary conflict when invoking your right to counsel, it is best to do so calmly and politely (see Justice Corner blog post “’Pearls of wisdom’ for young Black men and others who encounter the police”).

I have seen the 6th Amendment right to counsel most trampled on in juvenile courts with our most vulnerable population – our kids. Routinely youth or their parents are allowed to “waive” their right to counsel either by a judge from the bench, or as part of the intake process. Often people don’t even know what is happening as court procedures typically move quickly, and with little explanation.

This scenario recently was illustrated in the book and documentary “Kids for Cash” which shared the juvenile court scandal in Luzerne County Pennsylvania. One of the most egregious violations that prompted the investigation was the routine practice of allowing parents to sign waivers of counsel with little explanation of what was at stake. In Luzerne County, it was customary to inform parents and youth that things would “go easier” if they signed the waiver, but then kids were locked up even though it was clear that neither they nor their parents understood that their freedom was at stake.

In the end, it is a better option to have an attorney who is assigned to represent your best interests in criminal or juvenile court matters. After all, the United States Constitution guarantees this right, so why not use it?

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice. Seek an attorney with knowledge of the laws in your state if you have the need for specific information.

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

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

“Pearls of wisdom” for young Black men and others who encounter the police

This is not legal advice, but if you are a male of color between ages 10 and 30 (or know one) you may want to keep reading. The ongoing news reports of young Black men who are being targeted, harassed and killed is keeping me from sleeping and has prompted me to respond. I feel obligated to offer a few tips for managing such confrontations with hopes that they prevent someone from an unthinkable fate. I practiced law for 13 years, including juvenile and criminal defense, as well as civil rights. As a result of this experience I have heard more than my share of incidents, allegations, versions of events, and complaints. And although nothing I can share should be construed to be legal advice, I hope that the few “pearls of wisdom” (as my grandmother would have called them) can serve to prevent at least a few people from unnecessary harm.

I can imagine how exhausting it is to have to prove to the world every day that you are worthy of respect; to feel accused with every raised eyebrow and clutched purse just for walking down the street or getting into an elevator. I can understand how draining it is to be considered a suspect as a result of the generic “Male-Black” description (no height, no weight, no age, no specificity required). This description that seems to authorize every police officer within ear shot to target the nearest male of color and stop them for questioning (or something more). I can appreciate how scary it is not knowing whether the person approaching you, or stopping you in your car may have a nervous glitch or be trigger-happy and likely to cause you harm.

I consider these harsh realities facing young men of color . . . and my heart aches for you! But more than that, I want you to stay safe, to survive, and to thrive. And to do that you have to stay alive! So these “pearls of wisdom” as simple as they may seem are what I have to offer and I pray that they somehow will help.

If you believe you are facing a criminal charge (or a civil action) you should consult an attorney who knows the laws of the state in which you live. With that disclaimer, I want young people to wake up and realize (if they haven’t already) that currently while walking around doing average things that others do – you are in harm’s way! But, I have a few ideas (again, not legal advice) that you may want to consider as . . . well, let’s just call them “prevention techniques.”

Let’s be clear though – these guidelines are not kryptonite; if someone is set out to hurt you, there is little you can do. In the event, however, that a situation can benefit from various interpretations it may help for you to be pro-active and do what you can to avoid unnecessary escalation. I’m warning you in advance, these tactics may not be easy to do, especially when you feel that you are being unfairly singled out, but keep in mind that the result you are seeking is to walk away from the situation safely, and ideally without being handcuffed or arrested.

  1. Stay calm

No matter what type of tone or harsh words someone uses against you, do your best to remain calm. Do not raise your voice or appear agitated. It is important to give the impression that you have self-control, rather than seeming hot-headed and reactionary. Often when an officer responds with force, they assert that it was necessary to bring order to a chaotic situation. Remaining calm can help avoid such an escalation. Don’t give them an easy excuse.

  1. Show your hands

Although this didn’t seem to work for Michael Brown, making it clear to someone approaching you that your hands are free of weapons that may injure them usually is enough to at least get them to pause. It is considered to be a universal signal that you mean no harm. Even I, as a (let’s say mature) woman of color when stopped while I am driving make it a point to place my hands on the steering wheel in clear view. I also ask the officer for permission before attempting to reach for my purse to get my license or registration (“officer my license is in my purse on the seat, is it okay if I get it?”). It may sound silly, but if it puts them at ease, and helps me get through the traffic stop with less headache, to me it’s worth it.

  1. Be polite (even when you are offended)

Although it’s hard when an officer (or in Trayvon Martin’s case a civilian) approaches you with negative assumptions and accusations, I encourage you to remain level-headed. People like this are usually expecting a gruff response – so it can disarm them when instead you respond with the opposite. Since I was raised by Southern parents I was always taught to say “Sir and Ma’am” and have found that to serve me well in many situations. A well placed “sir” or “ma’am” signals to the recipient that you are disciplined and well-mannered and may prevent an ugly confrontation. If that sounds like a stretch, at least be polite in whatever way you can.

  1. Show ID when asked

I have heard so many misinterpretations of whether or not a person is required to show identification or answer simple questions when approached by law enforcement. My rule of thumb – in general, when asked, if you have one go ahead and show it. It’s just ID. I actually don’t feel the same when asked to consent to a higher level of intrusion such as a search. But, when asked for basic information such as your name, or where you live, it’s often less eventful to respond with basic information rather than challenge their right to inquire (especially if you are informed that there was a report of suspicious activity — whether you believe it or not). After all, who wants to be placed in handcuffs, or taken down to a police station unnecessarily when simply responding to a few questions could avoid it?

  1. Don’t run

Another sore subject is how fast or how slow to walk to avoid suspicion, and for that I have no bright ideas. But, if you believe an officer is trying to get your attention, running away is more likely to stimulate their anxiety than not. And you know if they have to chase you, when they apprehend you, it won’t be pretty.

When I practiced civil rights law, I had the opportunity to visit a police academy to learn how young recruits were being trained. We were investigating stop and frisk practices known to be prevalent in communities of color. One clear message that I left with was that police officers are trained to protect themselves – first and foremost! And it is with that in mind that I implore our young people to stay calm, show your hands, be polite, show identification if you have it, and don’t run. Don’t give them a reason to fear for their safety – or to claim it.

I in no way mean to condone improper actions by law enforcement or to disparage the good ones. Clearly I have not attempted to provide an exhaustive list of suggestions or presented the various sides of the issue, but rather just a few thoughts that I hope will come in handy, and may serve to keep everyone safe. I also know that many may disagree with me, preferring civil disobedience or other protest strategy when confronted without just cause. For those, I understand that point of view in the context of an informed action plan, but not for our youth to act upon alone.

In the end, if you believe that your constitutional or civil rights are being violated, or that you have been unfairly stopped, it’s better to get through the situation without being handcuffed, arrested or hurt and then consult an attorney, rather than trying to raise that argument in the moment.

Your bright future depends on you staying safe, staying healthy and staying strong!

Please share your thoughts and comments and let’s have a healthy dialogue.

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

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

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