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

The Danger of Cultural In-competence

Every generation has its own way of expressing itself through slang, dress and music. Things that are “cool” for one generation become “hot” for another. Fashion that is popular during one decade is reversed by the next. Clothing styles move from baggy to fitted; long to short. That’s the way it’s always been and yet such changing trends these days can have serious implications, especially for youth of color.

In the spring of 1989 teenagers from New York City were hanging out in the park. Someone (not them) committed a serious crime against a young woman who had been out jogging, and before they knew it, several of the kids were pulled into a police station for questioning. When asked what they were doing they said they were “wildin’.” The use of this term was spun to infer that they were admitting to running around engaged in criminal activity, when in reality it was just young person’s vernacular for having fun together or in other words just socializing. “Wildin’” was slang, not a confession. Tragically, these young men were intimidated into making false admissions, prosecuted and incarcerated for many years. The Central Park Five were ultimately exonerated in 2002, but only after spending years in prison, being cheated out of an education, as well as their youth.

Trayvon Martin was walking in his father’s neighborhood in Sanford, Florida talking on his cell phone and wearing a hoody. Despite the fact that a hoody is commonly worn by youth from all backgrounds (on some level a fashion statement) George Zimmerman thought he looked out of place. Zimmerman, as well as many others across the country, stereotyped this attire and assumed that it meant that Trayvon was up to no good. The result was dire as Trayvon was killed in part due to this misinterpretation.

In 2012, Jordan Davis was in his car at a gas station with his friends in Jacksonville, Florida listening to loud music as is typical for teenagers to do. A complete stranger who also was getting gas took it upon himself to challenge the youth about their music. He then claimed that he feared for his life and ended up shooting at them and killing Jordan. It’s hard not to wonder whether his trepidations would have been the same if he and the youth were of the same culture?

Why is it that some youth can express themselves freely whether through rainbow colored hair, black “Goth” clothing and make-up, or other provocative representation with little more than a raised eyebrow, and yet others are presumed dangerous or otherwise worthy of suspicion and confrontation? Is there a cultural disconnect that can explain this? And if so, what are our obligations to address it?

At a minimum, it should be imperative that someone in a position of authority be held to a higher standard. Perhaps cultural competency training might help familiarize such individuals to common colloquial phrases and behavior – to keep them up to date with the rapidly changing youth culture.

Teachers, law enforcement, prosecutors, probation officers and judges are among those who play critical roles in the lives of youth. Their decisions can mean the difference between kids staying in school or being expelled; remaining with their families or being sent to confinement; being killed or staying alive. We have a responsibility to the youth of each generation to allow them all to express themselves. We don’t have to like their style, but we must do what is necessary to ensure that decisions that impact them are unbiased, just and fair.

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

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

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