How Do We Make People Care?

This week in Columbus, Ohio, police shot and killed a 13-year old boy. Tyre King was apparently involved in an armed robbery; the amount stolen is said to have been $10, but that has not been confirmed. Young Tyre had a BB gun that looks remarkably real, even having a laser light on it that real guns have. Police apparently saw the gun and fired; only after Tyre lay dead did they realize the gun was not real. (http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/tyre-king-13-fatally-shot-police-columbus-ohio-n648671)

Columbus authorities responded immediately, the mayor, police chief and public safety director holding a press conference the next day, and the day after that, meeting with faith leaders and finally showing up at a community forum at a local church. (http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2016/09/17/community-city-officials-talk-about-death-of-tyre-king.html). The pain of the community was and is palpable. The cry is, “enough!”

What was striking to me in everything that happened was the attempt of the police chief to make sure people in the community knew that this child was “an armed suspect,” though the gun was not real. In her press conference, Police Chief Kim Jacobs went to great pains to describe the gun, showing a large picture of what the gun looked like and only after all of that, say the child’s name and remind people that the gun was not real.

But the damage was done.

What Chief Jacobs appeared to be doing was protecting her police officer and trying to quell any violence borne of frustration that might erupt on Columbus streets, the kind of frustration that we have seen in the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore. No city wants that experience on its hands. Columbus has spent a lot of money in revitalizing and the last thing people want is some angry group of people setting fires and fighting police.

I get it. And I don’t want the violence, either.

But it hurt to the core to hear this woman dehumanize and criminalize young King in that press conference. For those who believe police can do no wrong, Jacobs’ presentation made them rest in their assurance that what happened to King was his own fault.  As she talked, the chief kept talking about there being an investigation and said that the case would go to the grand jury …but her entire presentation showed a lack of sensitivity to what the pain of the black community is all about.

We don’t trust police investigations; we know, or feel, that the laws in place protect police at all costs, so that even when we, the community, feel like a video shows compelling evidence of police wrongdoing, the officer more likely than not gets off. We don’t trust the grand jury and we don’t trust the prosecutor. We feel like it is open season on black people, male and female, and that this nation doesn’t care about our feeling that at all.

As Jacobs spoke, I kept remembering how, when Michael Brown was shot, the police kept that young man lying on the hot pavement in his neighborhood, dead, while they compiled a report about who he was and what he had done. Before his body was moved, they had criminalized him and left the way clear for Officer Darren Wilson to be cleared of wrongdoing.

Jacobs was seemingly doing the same thing: criminalizing this little boy ( because that’s what he was) so that the officer would not be demonized.

The mayor, the public safety director and the police chief kept talking about there needing to be “transparency,” but even as I write this, nobody knows what really happened. The police in Columbus do not wear body cameras, and everyone knows that in a case where a civilian’s word is pitted against the word of a police officer, the civilian usually loses.

And so Columbus, a city that the mayor said is “the safest city in the world,” is reeling with pain and frustration and anger. There is no sensitivity to the pain. In this, an open carry state, King is the second person to be killed carrying a BB gun. John Crawford was shot and killed by police in a Walmart in 2014. Crawford was carrying the gun in the store and someone called police and said he was waving it around. Police arrived immediately and say they told him to drop the gun, but began shooting even as Crawford said it was a toy. Crawford was killed.

Then there was Tamir Rice who was 12 years old when he was shot and killed by Cleveland police officer. Timothy Loehmann. Rice also had a BB gun. Someone called and said a kid had a gun that he was waving around, but apparently also said that it was probably a toy. Police responded to the call and within three seconds of driving up on Tamir, probably scaring him to death. police shot him. He died later in a local hospital. The officer said he had no choice.

Neither Crawford or Rice were criminals. They were young black men with toy guns – which is legal. They were not bothering anyone. And yet, the judgements against them could be heard loud and clear; their actions, the sentiment seemed to say, caused them to die.

There is much we do not know about what happened to young King. What we do know is that he was a kid. A 13-year old boy. Probably a know-it-all, like adolescents and teens tend to be. His parents may have bought him that toy gun, but may not have; he may have gotten it off the street or from a friend. He had probably seen “the big boys” carry real guns and imitated them. We live in a gun culture, a violent gun culture where “defending yourself” is a standard-bearer. He was probably trying to fit in with his peers. Kid stuff. Things that kids do in seeking love, affirmation and a sense of belonging. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people …but he was a kid. A normal kid in a society which does not allow black kids to be normal like white kids are allowed.

This kid, this little boy, is dead. I cannot wrap my head around it. I see in my mind’s eye his little body lying lifeless in an alley, and I hear the cries of his family and loved ones, weeping with a pain that is too deep to even describe.

Many who believe police are right all of the time don’t get it. While police lives are important, so are the lives of the victims of police. Someone said King shouldn’t have run when police showed up. True. But everyone who has ever been a kid and has been involved in something wrong has run when “the grown folks” have shown up.

It’s what kids do.

How do we make people care? How do we get white people, those who are so ready to demonize black people, care about black people on a human level, relating to the things that humans do when they do not feel loved, supported, affirmed and/or needed? I’ll bet this kid was trying to fit in, trying to have friends, trying in his 13-year-old way to find meaning in his life. He may have been getting ready to go down a path of crime, or he may have been involved in one stupid episode…that cost him his life.

There are a lot of things to think about in this case, but I am hoping that authorities will look at this boy as just that … a boy who did something dumb and not as someone who deserved to die.

He didn’t.

A candid observation ….

When Leadership Feeds Hatred

It occurs to me that the vast number of police officers are not bad people.
It is highly possible that many officers, who come to the force when they are very young, and most of whom are white, grow up in environments where they are told that black people are bad, that they are to be feared.

I thought of that possibility when I was in Palestine; a red sign appears in areas of Palestine that are under Israeli control and the sign says that the area is inhabited by Palestinians and that Israelis are not allowed to enter.

These Palestinians, the sign says, are dangerous.

Let’s face it: the narrative on black people in this nation is not good. It’s not true …but it’s not good. The spin given is that white people need to be on guard with black people because they are bad. The assumption is that black people are naturally and inherently bad. The best course of action is, then, subliminally shared: they are the “enemy” which should be taken out.

Police recruits are, for the most part, very young, some just out of high school. Many come from rural areas or suburbs where they have had little to no interaction with black people. They really are scared of black people because all they know is what they have heard from their families, their churches, the media, and television.

The line used by officers to justify excessive force is, “I was in fear for my life,” and I would wager that for many, that is true, regardless of the circumstances. The killings of John Crawford and Tamir Rice – two young black men in the state of Ohio – came from officers who did not take the time to converse with them, which would have enabled them to understand that the “weapons” these two young men had were actually toys. The officer who killed Laquan McDonald, similarly, shot first and asked questions only after he had pumped 16 bullets into the child as he lay on the ground.

Be clear: many officers are not afraid; they use the phrase to justify their actions and in effect commit murders that they know they can get away with. Those are rogue cops who should be identified and fired. The silence of their superiors as these cops commit offense after offense is a travesty; these officers are no less worthy of staying on the force than were priests who for years molested children and were allowed to remain in their parishes or be sent to new parishes, only to repeat the objectionable behavior.

Leadership has to be brave and above societal prejudices, which is too often not the case. Unfortunately, in too many cases, leadership has been more interested in saving face and maintaining power and control than in admitting wrong and making tough decisions and choices.

There are, however, a fair number of officers who are sincerely afraid. They do not know black people. They do not talk to or with black people except in the worst of circumstances. Fear makes us all act in ways we normally wouldn’t. Officers who are afraid approach black people like they are “the enemy,” no less dangerous than an “enemy” in a combat zone, and the action demanded, based on the fear, is to take the enemy “out” before he or she takes the officer out.

If or since fear is such a big part of white American culture, and since the majority of police officers are white, it seems that police procedures and training ought to significantly change. It seems that leadership should see and understand what is going on and include in police officer training some cultural immersion, or some other training, that mandates that officers get to know as human beings the people with whom they will interact once they get out into the community. There ought to be stringent requirements for the officers to meet, internships, if you will, with the young recruits getting to know black people by name, getting to understand African-American culture and values, before they get a gun and are sent onto the streets. There ought to be continuing education courses, so that the officers’ community relations skills are constantly improved upon …and so they can share with fellow officers and incoming recruits what it is like on the streets, what the people are like, as opposed to what they assume to be the case.

It is an unfortunate fact that the way policing is done in America, treating black people as “enemies” requiring a military approach, has a historical reputation. Black people were never considered to be “people,” but, rather “objects” and pieces of property. When, during slavery, they managed to escape, “the law” went after them with the full sanction of government, to shoot to kill if they did not surrender willingly. The Fugitive Slave Acts allowed the hunting and capturing of African slaves in any way their hunters wanted because they were, in fact, considered to be property and not worthy of humane treatment. The added incentive was that if the captor did in fact catch an escaped African, he was many times deserving of a monetary award. Our history has bled mercilessly into our present.

But, history aside, the slaughter of innocent and unarmed black people needs to stop. There needs to be an acknowledgement that the justifying phrase, “I was in fear for my life,” as maddening as it is, is a truism for many young officers…as much as it is an excuse for rogue cops to murder people in the name of law and order.

An examination of cases involving police shootings of black people reveals that that dreaded line is used over and over, and it has been the case that if an officer has perceived danger, and has said he or she was afraid, the case is closed and the shooting is ruled justifiable.

It is time for police policy and procedure to be examined and changed, with the result that these young kids with guns can lose their fear and do the job they are called to do – to protect and serve – not to kill indiscriminately.

And it is time for rogue cops – who are not afraid, but who know they can use that sentence and get away with murder – to be identified and weeded out. We don’t need legal murders any more than we need molestation of children done in the name of God.

A candid observation …

An Uncomfortable Truth

All of us who have followed the scandal of Roman Catholic priests sexually molesting children have been horrified.

We have been horrified at the actual incidences of molestation …but we have also been horrified that the hierarchy of the Church apparently ignored what was going on and kept aberrant priests in the loop – meaning that far too often, these priests were merely transferred from one parish to another once their behavior was discovered or reported.

The late Joe Paterno, the beloved football coach at Penn State, was accused of much the same – ignoring something some say he knew was going on. Jerry Sandusky, who served as an assistant coach to Paterno, was eventually charged and convicted of multiple counts of sexual abuse of children; he was indicted on 52 counts of child molestation and was convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse. After the scandal broke, the beloved Coach Paterno was fired by the Board of Trustees of the university. It was assumed or believed that he had known what was going on and simply ignored it, allowing Sandusky to not only keep his job but to keep on doing what he was accused of doing.

The commission of acts that are harmful to people over whom the alleged offenders have power is bad in and of itself, but the continual ignoring of those acts by superiors of those accused offenders, leaving them free to continue their harmful behavior, is just as disturbing. There can be no healing if the truth of what is going on is not acknowledged and the alleged offenders dealt with. At the least, those who abuse their offices ought to resign or be fired. What they should not be allowed to do is to continue in their positions.

Sexual offenses ought not be ignored, and neither should abuses of power as have been demonstrated by some police officers. Far too many unarmed, innocent black, brown and poor people have been beaten and/or killed by police officers – not just since Trayvon Martin, but, in this country, historically, perhaps heightening after the Civil War and during Reconstruction. Even when it has been obvious that police officers have been in the wrong, they have been either found to have used proper force or, if they have gone to trial, they have been acquitted of wrongdoing or given light sentences and …have been let back on the streets.

While sexual abuse of children is particularly heinous, so is the use of excessive and/or deadly force on innocent civilians. The “Blue Wall of Silence” has long protected police officers who are not in control of their emotions, any more than are sexual offenders in control of theirs. At the least, police officers whose actions have clearly been found to be questionable ought to have to go to some kind of treatment and be kept off the streets. Sometimes, the jobs we love to do are not the jobs we can or should do. That would be the case with priests (or others) who sexually abuse children, and that would be the case with police officers who believe that their badges give them an excuse to commit murders or horrific beatings, and know their behavior is sanctioned by law.

It is uncomfortable to think this way, but there is a truth within it which cannot be denied. It is clear that some officers, certainly not all, have some issues which they have not resolved. There is no reason for some of the excessive force situations which by now we have all seen via video. It is insulting that these officers do what they do and are not too worried, because they know they will be protected by their superiors and peers.

Sort of like the priests have been …supported and protected…by their superiors and their peers.

Lawsuits against people in power who abuse their power are a pithy way to deal with institutions which protect their members and continue to release them or reassign them so that they can be free to repeat their behavior. Survivors yes, get money …but far too often, offenders have been allowed to go free and the offenses never stop.

Something is wrong with that.

A candid observation …