For the second time in ten days, a grand jury convened to consider criminal charges in deaths of unarmed black men killed by police officers. Last week, it was the St. Louis county grand jury that declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. This week, it was a Staten Island grand jury that did not indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo who put Eric Garner into a choke hold during an arrest for selling loose cigarettes. Mr. Garner, who suffered from asthma and diabetes, repeated that he could not breath eleven times as the Officer Pantaleo continued to hold him around the neck and other officers pressed him against the sidewalk. He died minutes later. The entire incident was recorded on a cell phone camera.
Protests are going on in New York City right now as I write this, and protests are planned for tomorrow. The back to back decisions by separate grand juries to not press any criminal charges against two different police officers in deadly confrontations with unarmed black men leads me to wonder what could it possibly take for an officer today to be held accountable for unjustified force and why these events keep happening to unarmed African American men. It reminds me of a panel discussion hosted on NPR by Michel Martin on her show “Tell Me More” following the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida. Her panel of African American men in broadcasting and journalism all discussed “The Talk,” a very specific conversation African American parents have with their sons about behaviors they have to avoid in public in order to avoid getting in trouble with the law. The panelists wondered what could that talk say now in the wake of Mr. Martin’s death. I can only imagine what they would say today.
I got the news on my way home from work, and for much of the evening, I kept finding myself looking at our kids, especially our son. I kept thinking about the experiences that they will NOT have because of their skin color, and the momentary sense of of relief at that was repeatedly overwhelmed by unspeakable sadness and welling anger at the 100s of 1000s of parents in this city who cannot ever look at their own children with the same assurance.
It is past time to admit that the “broken windows” philosophy of policing has been a failure. Communities that did not practice it saw similar drops in crime since the 1970s, but where it has been practiced, it has led to two generations of police trained to be aggressive and confrontational in the very communities they are meant to serve. It has led to the vast majority of people in those communities to not be able to see police as allies in keeping the peace but as antagonists who confront and harass people abide by the law. It violates their rights. It puts them in danger. And it makes police work harder and more dangerous — when police are trained to treat entire communities as suspects then how can cooperation and trust ever happen? And when police departments nearly everywhere have become increasingly militarized, how can we avoid more and more tragedies born of tactics designed for war zones?
This isn’t a problem solely of how police have been trained to work in communities with higher crime rates. It is a problem of what we who live in communities and neighborhoods not impacted by significant crime have demanded in order to feel “safe” from crimes that we have rarely ever been subjected to. Our politics consistently rewards candidates who vow to be ever “tougher on crime,” leading to broken windows policing, mass incarceration, and vastly disparate incarceration and sentencing by race. This has made a lot of people in low crime communities feel “safe” at the expense of the civil rights and hope for all elsewhere. And it has allowed opportunistic politicians to make bank bragging about how their brutal methods reduced crime while blaming communities victimized by those policies for any injustices they have suffered.
We are complicit in these injustices, especially if we keep mistaking grinding communities into submission with making society safe.
I have repeatedly written in this blog that education is a hope based enterprise. It is exceedingly difficult to help a student learn if he or she has trouble having faith in a future where that learning will be respected and rewarded. I can only think of two things this week that might provide some lift for those hopes. Children and their communities need to believe that their anger is both justified and that it can become productively aimed at injustice. And those of us not directly suffering those injustices need to start rewarding a different kind of leadership than we have for over 4 decades.
And those of us who teach? It is time to think about what it truly means to be stewards of the children in our care. Will we challenge to comfortable? Will we raise up the afflicted? Will we be moral?