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

Failed juvenile justice systems: gateways to adult incarceration that must be addressed

Justice reform and the idea of de-incarceration are starting to become familiar considerations in many circles. The idea that long prison terms for non-violent offenses are expensive and unnecessary is a concept that is gaining bi-partisan steam. Several states have passed legislation that has reduced lengthy sentences for adults charged with non-violent crimes. A few have begun considering juvenile reforms, yet still do not fully recognize that improving juvenile justice systems is a critical strategy to achieve overarching criminal justice reform. Why? Because failed responses to juvenile offending is a gateway to adult incarceration.

According to a number of data sources a majority of youth currently behind bars have not committed a violent offense. More importantly, a large percentage of those youth are subject to incarceration as a result of minor infractions that occur at school or for engaging in activities that would not be a crime if they were adults (status offenses). Once in front of a judge, however, these young people are subjected to harsher responses than they would be in a criminal court and at a significantly higher cost (financially and in lost opportunities). After a stint in a juvenile facility, recidivism more often goes up, rather than down.

A recent publication by the Justice Policy Institute (Sticker Shock) http://www.justicepolicy.org/StickerShock outlined the financial implications of juvenile incarceration on states and communities. According to JPI research the average cost of incarcerating a young person in a secure facility is upwards of $400 a day (amounting to more than $70,000 for six months, and more than $140,000 for an entire year). Equally important as the significant financial impact, is the reality that a high proportion of young people who are incarcerated as juveniles go on to be locked up as adults, thereby costing even more money over their lifetime in actual costs to confine, in loss of productivity and an impaired ability to meet their own and their family’s financial needs.

Research indicates that when youth misbehavior is addressed therapeutically, a large percentage of kids can be diverted from deeper system placement and are able to get on a more positive path. Many adolescents who engage in impulsive or risky behavior, but who are otherwise positively connected ultimately grow out of this behavior and go on to lead a productive adult life – even without system intervention. Others who may be more exposed and vulnerable to anti-social environments have a better chance of getting on the right track if responded to with a supportive and nurturing structure. Interventions that provide youth with opportunities to stay or get on track educationally, while also learning pro-social skills is a better deterrent to recidivism, than if they are responded to harshly and confined in punitive settings.

It defies common sense that in every state across this country communities squander the opportunity to more appropriately respond to young people when the results of the alternatives are so dire. When we couple this failure with the data on the racial disparities (African American youth are nearly five times more likely to be confined than similar youth who are white), it’s hard to deny that this should be considered a civil rights issue that is worthy of attention.

If as Michelle Alexander states, we are beginning to appreciate that our failed criminal justice system is tantamount to a New Jim Crow, and if we acknowledge that overzealous police practices need improvements, then we must simultaneously recognize that incarcerating our youth must stop and that finding alternatives is a pragmatic transformation that is long overdue.

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

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

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