50 years after Selma we have more bridges to cross

I was moved today by the memories of Selma shared through powerful words by those who went to Alabama to mark the anniversary of Bloody Sunday. 50 years since men and women, young and old dared to march in hopes of realizing a just America. An America where we all could be judged by the content of our character, rather than the color of our skin, the differences in our religious beliefs, or who we choose to love.

Congressman John Lewis noted the progress as evidenced by the fact that 50 years after he stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge beaten and with a concussion, he was now standing on the same ground introducing the first Black President of the United States to commemorate the occasion. That is progress we can all be proud of! But he also reminded us that there is work left to be done, and challenged us to stand up for what we believe. President Obama grounded us in the words of Scripture that we should “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” as he spoke of an America that is strong enough to be self-critical in our pursuit of a more perfect union.

This week’s report on Ferguson by the United States Department of Justice is a somber acknowledgement of our need to continue what our parents and grandparents started. We cannot be complacent in allowing disparities in how our laws are enforced. We can no longer stand silent when young Black men are shot dead in the street, or when they are locked in juvenile correctional institutions for non-violent offenses or youthful transgressions. We must exercise our right to vote so that men and women who believe in justice and fairness are elected to uphold our laws. Justice reform is the civil rights issue of today, and one that requires us to join together and cross the bridge for.

Much has changed in the last 50 years, but we must now carry the torch forward to improve our justice system so that it works for us all. This is our responsibility. It is what we must do to honor the lives lost during the struggle for equality; to continue to push for a better America. In the memory of those who sacrificed their lives so many years ago — Jimmie Lee Jackson, Reverend James Reeb, Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney to name just a few; and as we remember those lost more recently who represent how far we have left to go – Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice. Today, on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, I was renewed and inspired to remember, reflect and find ways to march on.

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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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

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

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