All of us have had one of those days: a day we know, for sure, will be recounted again and again. The story of the day will live on as the calendar pages turn and the years change and new generations rise up. Now we might call such a day “epic;” who knows what lingo we might choose in the future.
Last fall offered one such day. Jocelyn has always been heavily involved in the boys and girls chasing each other scene at recess. In kindergarten, she chased them. By first grade, they were mostly chasing her, as they recognized her speed had surpassed theirs. They laughed and ran and played. Then they did it all over the next day.
Well, last fall Jocelyn had a new pink coat. It was furry and soft and came with a matching beret-like hat. She loved that jacket. And the boys, seeing that, snatched the pink softness at recess, and they ran. And she chased. And it was fun.
Until it wasn’t.
Now my girl didn’t just inherit my propensity to hang with the boys. She also inherited my moxie. She decided that day to end the game. She wanted to wear the coat again. She wanted it back. NOW. So the chasing became goal-driven instead of game-making.
The boys? As it often goes in third grade, the boys didn’t clue in to what their girl friend wanted. They didn’t know the game was over. They kept playing.
And then, as they ran, they ended up in a part of the schoolyard beyond the reach of teachers’ eyes. Jocelyn, done with the game, was trapped. The group of boys, still playing along, were clueless. One of them taunted, “We’ve got you cornered! What are you going to do now?”
And so, she punched him.
I heard secondhand that his mouth was bloody. A teacher said his tooth was loose, adding that it might have been a permanent one. Rumor has it that she landed a few kicks and blows among the other boys too.
I love my children dearly, but I neglect my answering machine. I’m a holdout who still has a home phone, and the teacher called that number to talk to us about what happened. Of course, I didn’t listen, not at first. No, I found out about the incident after school when another mom texted me to say, “I’m friends with ____, [bloodied-mouth boy’s] mom, and she asked me to tell you that she is mortified about what happened on the playground and so sorry for what her son did to Jocelyn.”
Naturally, I called Jocelyn over to ask if anything noteworthy happened at school that day. She shrugged. “Maybe during recess?” I offered.
“Oh,” she said. “That. Well, I probably should have made a different choice, but some boys cornered me and no teachers were around and so I hit and kicked them some. I talked to Ms Benson about what other choices I can make if it ever happens again.”
Well, as you might imagine, it hasn’t happened again. The boys in her grade know Jocelyn is not one to be messed with. The boys in other grades have heard too. They know she’s a warrior girl.
Before I move on to the next story, I want you to think about Jocelyn. How would you have felt if you were me? Proud, maybe? (I certainly was.) Comforted that your brave daughter is able and willing to stand up for herself? (YES.) Thankful that she knows other choices can be made. (Of course.) And maybe even unwilling to dole out a negative consequence because she clearly knew right from wrong. (That’s how we handled it.)
Now let’s flip some calendar pages to earlier this week.
We saw the aftermath of a Groundhog’s Day scenario. Another video showed the death of an unarmed black man at the hands of those meant to protect and serve, this time in Tulsa. A video from another city – St. Louis – caught other officers conspiring to falsify charges against a protester. And then a man in my own state was killed by officers who came to serve an arrest warrant for someone else, and none of the stories match in his death, though the authorities are refusing to release the footage of the incident to the public or the deceased man’s family.
If this was one isolated week, that might not be a huge deal. But we all know that’s not the case.
And so, protests – even violent protests – broke out. I’m not saying two wrongs make a right, but I’m saying that heaps of wrongs that haven’t been made right create anger. I’m saying we, as a society, have backed our black neighbors and friends into a corner and told them to stay in their place there.
What are you going to do now? we taunt.
Walk home in your neighborhood wearing a hoodie? You die.
Enter a convenience store? You die.
Pick up an air rifle in WalMart while talking on the phone to your wife? You die.
Walk with a toy gun as a child, maybe 12 or 13 years young? You die on video, or maybe you die in an alley with the police cameras mysteriously not operating.
Legally carry a concealed weapon? You die.
Carry a closed knife? You die.
Walk down the street with your hands in your pockets? You die.
Enter a stairwell with your girlfriend? You die.
Sleep on the couch in your living room? You die.
Sleep in a park downtown? You die.
Sell cigarellos on the streets of New York City? You die.
Sell CDs at a gas station? You die.
Run away without threatening anyone? You die.
Seek help after a car accident? You die.
Start your car after a traffic stop? You die.
Fail to signal a lane change? You get arrested unlawfully and then you die.
Get arrested and transported by police? You die.
Run from an officer who can’t tell the difference between his gun and his taser? You die.
Talk too loudly with your friends? You die.
These aren’t mere stories. They each have a name. In order of the list above, they are Trayvon Martin. Levar Jones. John Crawford. Tamir Rice. Tyre King. Philando Castile. Laquan McDonald. Ezell Ford. Akai Gurley. Aiyana Stanley-Jones. Dontre Hamilton. Eric Garner. Alton Sterling. Walter Scott. Jonathan Ferrell. Samuel DuBose. Sandra Bland. Freddie Gray. Eric Harris. Rekia Boyd. (And there are more I didn't list.)
So you’re cornered with examples of systemic racism and police brutality on all sides.
So, what are you going to do now? we taunt.
We see Jocelyn, cornered in the schoolyard, by a group larger than her both in numbers and body size, with no one in authority offering help. And we say “atta girl” when she punches.
But we see our black brothers and sisters, cornered by institutional racism, by a group holding greater privilege (perhaps a group to which you belong, like I do), with those in authority doing the killing and the covering up, while good cops who would never do that sort of thing allow it to continue by never speaking out against those who do. (And those who do speak out, God bless them, are few.) And we shake our heads and insult them when they protest peacefully by taking a knee during the national anthem.
So then why are we surprised when they throw a punch in response, in desperation, in a desire to be seen and heard and validated, a hope that one day the wrongful death of a black man at the hands of a white officer will be met with the same care and justice as the wrongful death of an officer is? No one is saying that black lives matter more than police officers’ do. But our culture and courts are showing that police officers’ lives matter more than black lives.
Why are you making this about race?
I hear this question often. The answer is simple: because. it. is.
In real life, research has shown that for the same crimes, blacks are treated unfairly by our justice system. In NYC, for example, blacks (and Hispanics) are more likely to be detained, convicted, and incarcerated for the same crime of misdemeanor marijuana possession than their white neighbors. In urban areas (Seattle, Chicago, and Baltimore, in this particular study), even after controlling for actual neighborhood crime levels, a higher percentage of young Black men in a community was associated with greater perceptions of crime.
In areas in which we’ve had recent racially charged incidents, the Department of Justice investigations have found disturbing trends in the policing. In Baltimore, they cited a pattern of unlawful use of enforcement against black citizens, including disproportionate rates of stops, searches and arrests, as well as the use of excessive force and frequent retaliation against black individuals for constitutionally-protected public expression, as compared to whites. In Ferguson, the report showed a greater likelihood to issue citations, use person-to-person force, use police dog-to-person force, and issue arrest warrants for blacks than whites – as well as a lesser likelihood to dismiss charges against blacks than whites – without any indication that people of different races actually committed crimes at different rates in that area.
And if your knee-jerk response is “what about police lives?” I understand your perspective. After all, I’m the daughter of a retired law enforcement officer who devoted his career to criminal justice after serving in Vietnam. I care deeply about police officers, and I grieve their deaths and injuries too. That said, this movement isn’t merely about death; it’s about justice. When a police officer dies, we’re all confident justice will be done, as the offender will be sought and arrested and charged and found guilty and sentenced for the crime. When someone is wrongly killed by an officer, however, that officer will be placed on leave for a while and might lose the job but accountability for those actions isn’t likely. So, yes, police lives matter, and that’s shown in our justice system. Meanwhile, according to the same system, black lives don’t matter or matter less. Furthermore, fewer police officers died in shootings in 2015 than the previous year, even as that year and prior years saw racial unrest come to the surface with greater awareness, largely due to social media and the filming of police brutality incidents. (Now, some statistics show that they might be higher in 2016, but seeing a drop in one racially charged year and a rise in another shows that the race-related strife isn’t the only factor here.)
And what about the resounding pushback about black-on-black crime? Well, FBI homicide statistics show that the majority of homicides committed from 1980-2008 were by white murderers against white victims. Those same stats show that white offenders are more likely to kill children or senior citizens and more likely to commit sex-related, gang-related, and workplace-related homicides than blacks. Furthermore, white offenders were more likely to commit mass murders as well. This wasn’t just true during those years; the most recent year of data available from the FBI shows this pattern too. I could offer other examples as well. The reality is that we live in segregated communities in this country, and we’re more likely to victimize or be victimized by someone in close geographic proximity to us. So until we’re willing to admit that white-on-white crime is a problem and acknowledge that the black community has been taking action against black-on-black crime, the words “but black-on-black crime” feel like dirty distractions drenched in racism.
I’ve only skimmed the surface with the citations above, but – as the mother of black, white, and Asian children – I’ve deep dived into it all. This and this are great resources for reading further on this issue, as well as the books The New Jim Crow, Between the World and Me, and Just Mercy.
Simply put, one of my sons is more likely to have positive encounters with the police than the other, unless something changes.
So what can we do?
1. Be a changemaker.
Just like Jocelyn wouldn’t have been cornered by those boys if those in authority had made different choices (like positioning teachers on duty so no blind spots existed), senseless killings and overpolicing in the black community can be changed by different choices too. Use your online presence to speak out against injustice or to amplify the voices of people of color. Listen well – online and in person – to those whose lived experiences are different from yours without saying “but…” or telling them to hold back their emotion until more facts are available. Contact your local police department to ask what anti-bias training officers currently receive. (The good news in the research is that some kinds of anti-bias trainings have been proven effective.) Once you know that, write your local lawmakers to share what you’ve learned and, maybe even using the statistics I shared above, ask for consideration and funding to better equip officers. Do or say something. Now is not the time for silence out of fear or apathy.
2. If you choose not to be a changemaker, don’t judge those who punch when cornered.
If you won’t do anything more than shake your head at violence toward black communities by some in law enforcement, then you don’t get to shake your head when their anger spills over. I don’t like kids fighting at school, but I was proud that Jocelyn punched that boy. I don’t like violence, but I can’t say I don’t understand why some people feel like that’s the only way to get white neighbors to care. After all, people lost their minds because a black football player didn’t kneel, so if we won’t pay attention to peaceful protests, we can’t act surprised when the peaceful part gets left behind.
3. When you’re part of a system that benefits from another group’s cornering, recognize that.
I was moved by the mother of the boy Jocelyn punched, when she – knowing my daughter’s punch made her son bleed – apologized. She didn’t corner Jocelyn, but as his mom, she’s part of the family system that did. All white people and all officers don’t engage in police brutality against black people, but we do live in a system that privileges white skin (which I unpack more in this post) while others aren’t as #blessed. No civil rights movement achieves success unless those who already hold the rights and privileges stand with those who don’t. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail in 1963,
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
While we’re at it, when you cherry pick which of Dr. King’s words you share, remember he was killed for being too revolutionary. He wasn’t welcomed. And about violence, he said in 1968,
But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?... It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.
In other words, don’t invoke his name against riots unless you’re willing to wrestle with all of his words. As far as other names, the ones I listed above, I could have researched facts about each. I considered offering the sorts of vignettes we do to humanize people, to make them multidimensional, to show that their lives had value before a bullet cut it short. But here’s the thing: THEY ARE ALREADY HUMAN. We shouldn’t have to say Aiyana loved Disney princesses or Terence was about to start community college or Tyre was only 4’11” and not even 100 pounds to say that their lives matter. Furthermore, no criminal records or past drug use or divorce could make their lives matter less.
(Why is it that we share swimming stats for convicted rapists while we malign the memory of unarmed black men killed by police? This is not okay. No one should have to earn their right to be treated as human, but I worry that one of my sons will more than the other.)
Our country has been having a lot of those days: days we know, for sure, will be recounted again and again. The story of the day will live on as the calendar pages turn and the years change and new generations rise up. Now we mark these days with hashtags, daring to say their names and recognize their humanity so that we might know better and do better in the future.
At the end of these days, I pray that my children can be proud of where I stood and with whom I stood at this moment in history.