Context gets lost in Ferguson Discussion

In the wake of the tragedy over the Michael Brown shooting and the grand jury declining to pursue an indictment of police officer Darren Wilson, context for the discussion seems to have been lost. Some who look at the failure to indict as vindication for a beleaguered police officer are focusing more on the event and not the underlying causes, in other words, the context. I am not going to sit in judgment over the people serving on the grand jury. They saw testimony and information the larger public did not see, so for me to question their decision, would be an uninformed or partially informed opinion. I do lament that a young, imperfect man is dead and that is unfortunate.

The part that should be looked at more is the expectation of the African-American community that an indictment would not be forthcoming. They hoped for an indictment, but knew in their hearts that Wilson would not be so charged. What does that say? It validates that there are two Americas, one where opportunity exists, and one where opportunity is limited or non-existent. It validates that African-American people expect to be maltreated. We should be asking why have these people lost hope.

Yet, it is not just race that is a factor, although a high percentage of those disenfranchised are of color. We have a poverty problem in this country that impacts people off all races, ethnicities, political persuasions and geographies. Poverty exists in rural towns, just as much as it does in urban and suburban settings. And, America is no longer the land of opportunity like it used to be, as we have greatly fallen in the ranks of socio-economic class mobility. So, this context is important. This type of disenfranchisement is debilitating.

Also, we seemed to have lost sight that we live in communities. The law enforcement officers should represent and reach out to the communities. There are great examples where community policing has done marvelous things to reduce crime. The proactivity and accessibility of law enforcement officers provides a calming service to the community. I read a great example as it relates to drunk driving which applies here. Rather than stop and cite drunk drivers once they got behind the wheel, a community police force started positioning officers outside of nightclubs and sports bars. These officers would suggest to obviously inebriated people that they should not drive and would call them a cab.

Right now, with more Americans armed, the police have to be more armed and more adept at using the weapons. Per Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book “Blink,” officers need to be taught to be judicious with the use of force when confronted. The premise of “Blink” is there is a predisposition to act based on gut instincts and it is crucial that officers are trained and re-trained to not act rashly or based on biased expectations. This is a key reason why African-American males are at greater risk than other males. This is key reason African-American mothers have the “talk” with their male children (that white mothers do not need to have) about being extra careful with any movements when approached by the law.

This issue is complicated and deserves good dialogue about the underlying context and potential solutions. It does not deserve politicians, pundits and leaders arguing over misconceptions and innuendo. I do not like that some have resorted to violence, looting and destruction. This does not serve a good purpose and the wrong people are punished. I do not like that Brown’s body was treated so poorly after his death. I do not like that questions may still exist about the circumstances of his death, but smarter people than me will need to look into what the grand jury may not have seen. And, I do not like people short-changing the disenfranchised, by not understanding fully the context of their disenfranchisement. Unless someone has walked in their shoes, they truly do not understand why hope can seem lost.

And, it should not be lost that other African-American youth have died recently, as before, at the hands of the law no matter how justified the act. So, Michael Brown has not died alone. Let’s remember that context, as well.

 

 

 

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I might not survive this encounter – racial injustice lives on

Last week on “Real time with Bill Maher,” one of his panel guests was actor/ director Wendell Pierce, who has appeared in numerous TV shows and movies. I should note that Pierce is an African-American male, as this context is important for his viewpoint. During a discussion on domestic violence, Maher introduced the concept of race playing a role in how people perceive alleged perpetrators. Pierce’s opinion was very informative and well thought out. But, there was one particular commentary he made that needs to be stated again and again, as there are some who believe racial injustice does not still exist and is blown out of proportion by the media.

Pierce was dressed in a suit and tie for the show, which is important for his example. He said people who are not an African-American male do not and can not appreciate when he is stopped by a police officer or patrolman, that the thought goes through his head that “I might not survive this encounter.” He used a recent example where he said he was driving to a funeral in Mississippi, dressed like I am tonight, with two young children in the backseat and another passenger up front. He noted he was pulled over by a patrolman.

Pierce said he did what he always does when stopped and pulled his wallet out of his pocket and set it on the dashboard awaiting the officer’s arrival. African-American men do this to avoid the perception of going for a gun as you get your wallet out. He said it was a very hot day, so he turned the car off and left the AC running. After a few minutes of waiting, he looked in his rearview mirror and saw an officer pointing a rifle at his car mouthing the words to get out of the car, #$%&#$. So, a situation that did not need to be tense, was because the officer presumed malintent.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book “Blink,” he notes that there is a predisposition to act that is based on our experiences. The theme of the book is we make subconscious decisions all the time based on our experiences. These hunches have been formed over the years. He notes this can be good or bad, and cites as an example of the latter in the story of “41 Shots” that Bruce Springsteen made famous in his song “American Skin.”  In essence, an “English as a second language” person was perceived as a perpetrator as he did not understand questions officers were asking and, feeling in jeopardy, ran. Not condoning this flight, Gladwell notes the person was trying to pull out his wallet and was shot 41 times on a stoop. 41 times!

The recent death of Michael Brown in Ferguson is another example of this predisposition to act. As a result, someone is killed with his hands raised as confirmed by several sources. Trayvon Martin died because self-appointed neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, presumed he was up to malintent and pursued him even when told not to by the police dispatcher. Something similar happened at a gas station where a civilian shot into a car and killed an African-American teen because they were playing their music too loudly.

As a white person, let me state the obvious. While I can empathize greatly with Pierce and other African-American males, there is no way I can walk in their shoes. There is no way for me to know what it is like to fear for my life in circumstances which should not warrant fear. There is no way for me to fully understand how racial injustice continues, when it is obvious that it still does. I have read the excellent book by Michelle Alexander “The New Jim Crow” which speaks to the higher preponderance of incarceration for African-Americans for drug crimes, when whites are equally guilty as indicated by the data. The book also speaks to the number of African-American teens who are in adult prison and, as a consequence, are being taught more to be a better criminal rather than a better citizen. So, they leave prison with few opportunities and may resort to a life of future crime.

Per Pierce and others, the solutions lie in education. The solutions lie in better after school programs.The solutions lie in providing opportunities. The solutions lie in better parental guidance. The solutions lie in better training of police officers to handle confrontations. The solutions lie in community based policing where the efforts are to reduce crimes through positive interaction. The solutions lie in better remedial sentencing where kids can be taught an education, skills and how to be good citizens. And so on. Racial injustice may have lessened, but it is alive and well in America. Anyone who thinks otherwise, needs to do some more homework or look to better sources of information.