We Say Black Lives Matter [AGAIN] because …. It’s Groundhog Day

Back for more:  July 15, 2016

I wanted to further update my post after having had a chance to listen to both the remarks of both Presidents Obama and Bush at the Dallas memorial service.  Some have extolled Pres. Obama’s remarks, while others have found them to be political, and I wanted to hear for myself.

Some of my friends who are current or former law enforcement, or close to folks in those communities felt like what President Obama said was too political in some regards. As he spoke, the President was flanked by two Dallas officers, both white, one male and one female.  The male officer mostly applauded politely, but really seemed to connect with the President when he said (at minute 11:25) that the killing of the 5 Dallas officers was, “an act not just of demented violence, but of racial hatred …”   I hope that with time, we will all come to understand that that feeling alluded to by the President, and articulated by me here: “They hate us; they are targeting us for who we are,” is how many Black folks feel when they learn of the death of another Black person in a traffic stop, while fleeing law enforcement — which as I have previously pointed out, is a sane act of self preservation, given how frequently things go awry once you get stopped — or in custody. The same is true for my LatinX peeps, and my Native peeps. It was that feeling of being under siege again — I belive, anyway — that caused the Dallas shooter to act.  I don’t condone his actions, obviously, but I am stressing that what he did was a direct consequence of what he saw happen earlier that week in Louisiana and Minnesota. That is thread that ties all three places together and that is why the President spoke as he did, and rightly so, in my opinion.

I’m going to close this out with excerpts of the end of President Bush’s remarks.  He was speaking directly to the families of the 5 Dallas officers, but could have, as I excerpt them, have been speaking to the Sterling and Castille families as well.  However we go forward from this, let us try to be aware that all 7 families suffered grievous and irreparable loss last week.

President Bush:  “Your loved one’s time with you was too short.  They did not get a chance to properly say goodbye.  … Your loss is unfair; we cannot explain it …We can stand beside you, and pray that God will comfort you with a hope deeper than sorrow and stronger than death.”

Ground Hog’s Day edition July 12, 2016:

I often find it hard to write at moments like these because there is precious little to say that I haven’t said already.  It’s true today, but I want to reflect on a few articles that I’ve seen because they are evidence of a dangerous reaction to the events of the last week. There’s this one about the Kansas cop who threatened a little black girl who he does not know and got fired, there’s this one  about the Columbia fire dept. captain who got fired for threatening BLM protestors, and this one about law enforcement walking off the job because the MN Lynx, the WNBA team, wore t-shirts that demanded justice for all that transpired last week: the deaths of the Dallas police officers AND the deaths of 2 black men at the hands of law enforcement. And finally, there’s this:  Rudolph Giuliani thought privacy was an appropriate response for his daughter’s run-in with law enforcement, but had the temerity to be all over the air waves this week lecturing people of color about how to raise their children.

I have a “book shrink.” A family psychotherapist whose books and wisdom I turn to frequently (Harriet Lerner, author of the “Dance of … ” series of books)  She has a name for the situations that are described above: “change back.”  Change back is what happens when you raise a concern or issue, and someone else pushes back because they are used to the relationship the way it is.  It’s what happens when you tell your parent their belittling you is hurtful and they say, “get over it,” or accuse you of being thin-skinned.  It is also what happens when people say #Black Lives Matter, and are greeted by #AllLivesMatter.  Face it:  only those who don’t have to teach their sons to fear law enforcement could embrace #All Lives.  Because #All Lives is already true for them. Thus, it makes it difficult for them to see what Black Lives Matter means, on many levels, is “Black Lives Matter, TOO” versus “Black Lives Matter MORE,” which is a common misunderstanding.  Thus, they might respond, “Black Lives Matter is … divisive, or anti-law enforcement, etc.”

I continue to be in the posture that I talk about below: #All Lives is aspirational.  We are not there. Nor can we get to where we want to be: a society that equally values the lives and perspectives of all, whether Black  folks, or others of color, LGBT people, law enforcement, people of different political perspectives, or women without doing the hard work that I have seen start on social media in the last week.  Of course, that begs the question of whether the perspective I just described is something that we all subscribe to. Frankly, I think it’s harder for some than others to wrap their heads and hearts around … I’ve seen it said that when one enjoys a position of privilege, then being challenged, or ceding ground to the demands of others for equality can feel like a loss.  Let’s be frank for a moment:  in this country, law enforcement has enjoyed a position of privilege. They have also put themselves in harm’s way daily, and had to consistently deal with people at their worst.  That said, the privilege has been abused by some.  A few examples include: 1) the detaining and lengthy questioning of Philando Castile’s girlfriend; 2) the widespread use of stop and frisk policies in communities of color; 3) the preying on vulnerable citizens, as Oakland police did when several sexually assaulted a 16 y.o. sex worker, or as Daniel Holtzclaw did when he made poor Black women with criminal infractions that he blackmailed them with submit to sexual assault, and 4) see additional stories below.

When a group has not been historically subjected to the demands for accountability that the BLM movement makes on law enforcement is hit with such, the result is, “change back,” behavior. Change back is not easy, it is not pretty, but it gives people committed to a process something to work with because at least you pretty much know where you stand.  Please don’t stand on the sidelines.  There is much work to be done. Self educate, show up and be an ally  (and don’t let the title of this article throw you). Our kids deserve better:  we need to give them a world better than the one we inherited, after all, our parents did that for us.

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October 2015

Prologue:  I started this post about a month ago, then got busy.  I am prompted to post it now because of a video that went viral yesterday when a school resource office in South Carolina high school threw a young Black woman out of her chair then dragged her across her classroom for what, I’m not entirely sure.  It is pretty clear that she was putting up zero resistance to the cop, so that his reaction was about 50 clicks past overblown. In one account, a young woman who witnessed what happened said that the resource officer was called because the young woman in question was not participating in class.  My first thought was that in watching this supposed officer (not worthy of the badge, and previously sued twice federally) mistreat this young woman so callously, it is entirely clear how Freddie Gray ended up dead in Baltimore.  Neither was treated as if they had any rights, any dignity any personhood worthy of respect.  My second thought was that all my FB friends, the ones who periodically post about “All Lives,” or “Cops Lives,” mattering have gone to ground … <<crickets>>  It’s probably too much to hope that they have shed those sentiments altogether, but perhaps this video has helped nudge them along.

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We’ve been at this for a year or more … a year if you count back to Michael Brown’s death, more like 3 if you reach back to the murders of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis.

The more there were protests and marches and die-ins, and challenging of political candidates, the more widely we saw the use of the term that describes the movement, “Black Lives Matter.” Increasingly, but particularly in the last month, following the murders of several law enforcement officers, I’ve seen an increased use –judging solely by the very subjective measure that is my Facebook feed, and the responses of some politicians — of “All Lives Matter,” or perhaps, “Cops Lives Matter.” I want to take a moment to talk about why it’s important to say that “Black Lives Matter,” and why everyone should be able to get behind that.

I think this article tells the story very well. In short: 1) a Black woman who’d been taken into custody (context is not shared in the article) expresses her belief that the arresting officers think less of her, and think that she is an animal because of her race.  She says she will sue the department for discrimination; 2) one of the arresting officers attempts to tell his supervisor what transpired during the arrest, including what the arrestee said; 3) he’s interrupted by his boss, who opines that Black people are, in fact animals, and begins imitating a monkey, saying “that’s what they deserve,” (no explanation is offered for what he meant, but in this context, it’s fairly clearly nothing good) and singing, “Look Away Dixieland,” which is regarded by some as the anthem of the Confederacy; 4) the officer is bothered by the behavior, and later expresses his intent to file a complaint against the chief to a second officer who also witnessed the chief’s behavior. The second officer agrees to join in the filing of the complaint; 5) the two officers let their sergeant know about their intent to filed the complaint, and he initially says nothing.  He later tells them that he doesn’t think that anything will come of filing the complaint and says several times that he thinks that the city will make life hell for them if they file the complaint.  The officer indicates in his complaint that in his view, the sergeant was trying to dissuade them from filing the complaint.  6) the complaint is filed; 7) the chief decides to retire before the investigation is concluded; 8) the city council permits this, and the 9) the mayor expresses the community’s gratitude for a job well done upon the chief’s retirement.

A few things bear pointing out here: lest you think that the chief’s behavior was unusual,or isolated, I share this article about 7 racist e-mails shared among members of the Ferguson Police Department and highlighted in a report issued by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Note that one of the e-mails compared President Obama to a chimpanzee.  What was remarkable in this situation was the determination of not one but two officers to do something about the chief’s behavior.  The sergeant’s response to the two officers — silence, initially reluctance to get involved, attempts to dissuade them from filing — are much more consistent with what some call the “blue wall of silence,” where law enforcement officers maybe afraid to come forward for all the reasons that are apparent in this situation:  1) the racism is coming from a superior; 2) other superiors are trying to keep them from filing a complaint and 3) they endure harassment after filing the complaint.  In this instance, one of the complaining officers indicates that he has faced retaliation, that his wife has been forced off the road several times and that people in the community have yelled racial epithets at him.

In this instance, the question of whether the Black woman suffered any discrimination at the time of her arrest– from the author’s perspective, anyway — is far less concerning than the 4 instances where her concerns and her person were demeaned or dismissed, with multiple layers of state personnel:  the police sgt., the city council and the mayor doing nothing to hold the chief accountable, and in the instance of the city council and mayor, basically letting him off the hook with a pension and a “thank you.”  Clatskanie, Oregon where this story takes place is not a model of diversity: non-white races combined total less that 10 percent of the population.  However, it’s about 60 miles from Portland, so not in the middle of nowhere … not that being in the middle of nowhere should excuse either the chief’s actions, of the subsequent inaction of the sgt., the city council and the mayor.

I told a friend of mine the other day that, “All Lives Matter,” was an aspirational statement and that it in no way reflected my reality.  Stories like this explain what I mean by that:  An “All Lives Matter,” world is one where the arrestee’s complaint is investigated, and not dismissed or mocked, much less in overtly racial ways.  An “All Lives Matter,” world is one where the officers who file a complaint against their chief are given support from their immediate supervisor (note: the officers who filed the complaint say they did not receive any assistance from their immediate superior, and that they felt that his several statements the the city would make their lives hell should they choose to file were intended to dissuade them from doing so).  In an, “All Lives Matter,” world, law enforcement officers are not penalized, harassed, threatened or worse, for doing what I hope we can all agree is the right thing: calling out the bias that infects their workplace. (See also this piece re:  NYPD officers’ complaints that they were retaliated against after refusing to meet ticket quotas in of color neighborhoods, and in which one officer alleges that he was told that the Puerto Rican residents who lived within the precinct where he worked were animals.)

To sum up, we say #BlackLivesMatter, not because we don’t believe that all lives should matter, but because we know that not only is that not the case everywhere, but also that some workplaces are stuck because their leadership does not believe that, “All Lives Matter.”  My point is simply and unapologetically  this:  if you are a first responder, and you don’t believe that all lives matter (see also, this story re: a racist fire chief), either be prepared to leave that attitude  in  the  parking lot when you come to work or get another freakin’ job.  Because you are not more entitled to your job than I am to be treated with simple human dignity.

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On Mass Shootings, Mental Illness and More …

Crazy is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. Every time there is a mass shooting — and what kind of country is this where this sentence rolls easily off the page and reader’s back because such shootings are ridiculously commonplace — we start talking about people with mental health challenges. As a practical matter, we can be but so concerned because all we ever do is talk.  No proposals materialize:  not in response to the mass killings or in response to the many times that someone who has mental health challenges ends up dead after an encounter with law enforcement (see, e.g. the cases of Natasha McKenna and Michelle Cusseaux).

This cycle of dismissing mass shooting episodes as the work of people with mental illness is both dangerous and wrong.  It’s wrong because even as we dig further into a particular shooter’s background and discover that they did not have mental health challenges AND that there were motivations for the shootings, we don’t go back and correct the narrative. Neither do we dig deeper to find that typically, the perpetrators of these crimes are disaffected white males who feel wronged by a particular group of people (Elliot Roger blamed women who were not interested in him socially, Dylann Roof professed to want to start a race war), and therein lies the danger:  we repeat this syndrome where we act as if the tragedy resulted from the “one off,” action of someone with mental health concerns, and in so doing, we absolve ourselves of the responsibility to make guns less available, generally, and to challenge the dangerous and problematic notions of masculinity that often underlie mass shootings.

So, let’s change the narrative.  Let’s stop repeatedly going to a place of assuming some psychosis on the part of the shooter.  I spent a lot of time in a psychiatric facility when I was growing up:  my dad worked there, my mom volunteered there twice a week, and when I was not in school, that’s where I spent my Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons alongside my mom. There was one building that housed the “criminally insane.”  John Hinckley lived there for years.  But, there were many other buildings.  Translation:  the proportion of people with mental health issues who act out violently is a lot lower than we are led to conclude every time a mass shooting happens, and this baseless speculation about the shooter’s mental health begins anew.  We stigmatize without basis a bunch of folks who are already the subject of too much of it.  We must BE better.  We must DO better.  That means that if our mental health system needs improving — which it surely does — we need to do more than talk about it every time a mass casualty event happens, then let drop as it drops from the front pages of our newspapers or the lead stories on our favorite on-line reads. It also means that we have to do far more about the masculinity culture, and about the guns — have you noticed how many mass shooters have posted or taken pics of themselves with their guns beforehand. Not at a shooting range — as friends of mine have been known to do — but out in public somewhere or in their homes or in places that bespeak some kind of dangerous preoccupation.

When these events happen, and there is no response — beyond acknowledging that they have happened again— we subscribe to the doctrine of acceptable loss. Meaning it’s not a question of whether such tragedies will happen again, but when they will. Given the proliferation of guns and the zero percent likelihood that anything our government could or would be willing to do would begin with retrieving guns that people already had — unless they were in illegal possession, e.g. a domestic violence abuser who a court had determined should surrender his/her firearms — we must acknowledge that this tragedy will happen again.  But, if we can pursue strategies that would make this less likely to happen or make it more likely that interventions could be pursued before they did, I don’t see how we can’t opt for that.  Seriously. More doing nothing means waiting for another tragedy.  Are you ok with that outcome?  Because I know I’m not.