What Does It Take For Justice?

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?


Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Activism, politics, Social Justice

5 responses to “What Does It Take For Justice?

  1. I’m ashamed that I don’t know what “the ‘broken windows’ philosophy of policing” is, but I do agree with your sentiments about police who victimize neighborhoods. I only wish we could stop talking about it as a racial issue. I am aware of how ignorant that sounds, but continuing to separate each other by race, no matter what the reason, seems to perpetuate the racism. I think we should be discussing this as an accountability issue, which the rest of your post seems to do.

    • Elizabeth,

      I think I understand from where your desire comes from, but I have to disagree with it. This is a racial issue because such police tactics vastly disproportionately impact communities of color, but are supported primarily from voters who live in neighborhoods and communities that are not endorsing politicians who promise to “get tough on crime”. The reality is that people LIVE race much as people live gender and nationality.

      Racism is not perpetuated by being conscious of how race contributes positively to many people’s identities and by being conscious of how racism negatively impacts those same people. Racism is perpetuated by the prejudices people have based on race being backed and amplified by institutional power. When we who live in predominantly white communities support policing tactics that harm people who live elsewhere we are supporting racism.

      I can look at my son and know that there are injustices he will never live because of his skin color. I am infuriated about how many parents in my city can never know that for their own children. Not “talking about it as a racial issue” will only ignore the root issues.

      • I see your point, however, I am not white, but grew up in a white household, so I view race quite differently than most. I tend to not see race at all when I’m talking to a person, because I see all people as people first.

        My point was that we shouldn’t be accepting those policing tactics in ANY community. When you say that people living in white communities should not support policing tactics that harm people in other communities, nothing changes by removing the word white.

        By saying it is a white versus black problem means that only white people live in safe communities and only black people live in these bad neighborhoods. It suggests that white is inherently richer and it promotes this idea that the color of one’s skin determines a person’s fate. That is not so.

        By continuing to discuss it in terms of color instead of saying “we will not stand this treatment, no matter what the color,” we perpetuate this myth that only white people can be educated and live in good neighborhoods, and that is a supremely racist idea.

      • Elizabeth,

        Thank you for your input and your experience. I appreciate the chance to dialog here.

        I also understand your point, but I have to disagree with it not because we SHOULD accept these tactics anywhere, but because I think it is important to highlight just how the people who do support these tactics are, in fact, perpetuating institutional racism by giving in to fear of crime as some sort of “otherness” requires such extremist practices.

        My wife and I can teach our children that if they get lost or need help, they can approach a police officer. The Mayor of New York himself has stated publicly that his conversation about police with his son had to be very different. Why? Because in 2011 over 600,000 men of color in this city were stopped by police when they were doing absolutely nothing worthy of even a citation. Akai Gurley could not even walk down the stairs in his apartment building and when the officer who shot him saw him dying or dead at his feet, he waited over six minutes before calling it in to get EMT there — he called his union rep first to protect himself. Eric Garner is dead because “broken windows” policing states that you stomp out ALL crime as if tiny violations matter as much as big ones and the big ones won’t happen — so police in the NYPD make huge numbers of arrests and put people into the system for violations as small as turnstile jumping. The police tactics for which we need accountability overwhelmingly negatively impact communities of color.

        You are correct that it is false that only white people can be rich, well educated, and secure. However, it is also true that the rich and the secure are overwhelmingly white. They are also a constituency that is actively courted by politicians and whose wishes are more likely to be put into effect. And because of America’s very high levels of income segregation they do not live in the neighborhoods and communities where such policing takes place. They are essentially blind to the impact of the policies put in place by politicians elected with their vote.

        This is an issue related to race because the impact of it is felt in vastly disproportionate ways depending upon the race of the person looking at that impact. That cannot be wished away. It cannot be changed by not saying it. I dare say it won’t be changed by not saying it because people need very much to SEE what is happening in places where they do not usually look in order to understand what is wrong. The nation needs to be ashamed, and that will not happen if the racism at the center of this is not forced into the open and people made to take a good, hard stare at it.

        I’ve read a lot this past week on the question of what can white people do to be allies in this. Much of the advice is very important — such as listen to the voices of the people, mostly of color, who are living with this day in and day out. It also says learn when to follow instead of to lead because leadership cannot be co-opted from the outside if this is to be authentic.

        I think another piece of advice that I would offer to people who, like me, are white and who live where we do not often see what is happening to people of color is to make sure we vote differently. Make sure we take responsibility for the ways that mostly suburban, mostly white, people have voted for the past 4 decades and how those votes have devastated other people.

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