I was honored to be invited to be one of the speakers at the candlelight vigil in our town square last month. These are my remarks.
Michael Brown was a flawed, teenaged, knucklehead, who had been shortchanged growing up by lousy schools, and limited horizons. He committed a stupid and bullying act. And according to far too many people, who he was and what he did equaled a capital offense. One which justified not only shooting him down in the street, but leaving his body there unattended for 4 ½ hours in the heat of August. In America. While the police officer who shot him went into hiding without even filing a report.
And when we turned our eyes away from those photographs of an 18 year old, dead in the street, we found ourselves seeing over and over again video of Eric Garner, overpowered, brought down, his head and torso forced to the sidewalk, his pleas ignored, and EMT care flagrantly, callously, denied him. And he died there, on the sidewalk. In America.
And as we exclaimed over that video, another appeared. Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy playing alone in a park on a chilly day; a bit bored, a bit lost in his own thoughts of derring-do, playing with his toy gun. We see a police car surprise him and two seconds, two seconds later, he is dying on the ground. And the officers in the car did not go to his aid. And they said they had warned him three times to put down that gun. That was before they knew they had been videotaped.
And Akai Gurley walking down the stairs in the building where he lived in New York City, shot dead by police in a dark hallway. The officers called their union rep. while the man died, and before they called for assistance.
What those who died had in common was being black, and male. In America.
But I don’t have to tell you about those outrages. We are the choir. We’re out here in this cold because we are the choir. So what would I, a fellow member, ask of the choir? Three things.
First, talk about it. We all have to sort out our thoughts on what is happening. On the culture of American law enforcement that closes ranks in support of bad apples and makes it too great a risk for good men and women in departments to speak out against police malfeasance. Gather information, current and historical, and do the work of thinking this through. Not alone, not in isolation; conversations, certainly. The way of change, worldwide, going forward, will involve the widest possible conversations by way of social media.
So talk with people you know. Yes, those vaunted conversions on race – so often honored in the breach. There are many reasons why staged interracial conversations often fizzle out, including the inevitable imbalance between ongoing experience on one side and intermittent curiosity on the other.
So how about you white folks talk to each other? That’s hard, too. But it is crucial to have conversations about these matters that don’t end when each party gets into a car and they drive home in opposite directions, to become strangers again.
Second, act locally. One case in point: do our part to make sure that here as across the country, every police officer’s basic equipment includes a body camera. That every police vehicle is equipped with a dashboard camera. Racist violence happens throughout our society. But what has brought us here tonight is the nature of the interaction between predominantly white American police forces, and unarmed black men, women, and children.
And the third, and final thing I’ll say is that we all must hold at least one thing in clear focus as we think, talk, demonstrate, and that is one word, one demand, one outcome. Accountability. That those who wield the power and the weapons stand genuinely accountable to the communities they police. That’s not the only thing we want, change is difficult and multi-layered, but we must insist upon that fundamental thing, unbiased, transparent, official accountability. Without it, justice cannot breathe.
Photo credit: A Race Together