Column: A word on what’s happeningJune 8, 2020
By JONATHAN SAXON
For the past two weeks, the country has experienced great unrest in many cities stemming from the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department. Before that, reports on the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor were making their rounds in the media. Arbery and Taylor caused nationwide tensions to reach a boiling point, and Floyd’s death set it off. People are fed up with what they’re seeing, and are cementing that with their actions.
You may not agree with what’s happening, but it’s the result of years of inaction and frustration. This country’s history is littered with instances of police departments and self-appointed vigilantes using unjustified force against black citizens with little to no repercussions or accountability. And that violence has gone largely accepted or ignored by the masses. The silence around such incidents was a form of compliance regarding how things are, even if a person doesn’t consider themselves personally racist.
Those factors create a set of living conditions for black citizens that range from uncomfortable to perilous. Every encounter with law enforcement creates questions about walking away safely, even if it seems routine at the start. I’ve been pulled over quite a few times for speeding, but, as a black man, I get nervous and go through a series of internal questions. What state is the officer in? Do I seem threatening? Is my tone aggressive? I consider all of those elements and more to make sure the interaction ends safely. I don’t want my family and friends to see my picture passed around on social media.
But it doesn’t end there. There are instances where you’re minding your own business and suddenly circumstances change into a law enforcement encounter. My father was approached in such a manner in his own neighborhood. While on his way to work, a pair of officers pulled him over and treated him like he was out of place. My family was one of the first black families to move into what was then a brand new neighborhood in the early 1990s, and that wasn’t lost on him during the encounter. My mother was equal parts horrified and incensed, but my father told her he was expecting such a thing to occur. A similar situation also happened to me a few years ago. I was visiting my aunt for Christmas, and someone called the police and reported me as a suspicious person because they didn’t recognize me. I was quite surprised when I answered a knock at the door and saw five cops outside, one with his gun already drawn. I explained I was visiting for the holidays and worked the locks with my house key to show them I belonged there. They left me alone afterward. I had visited that neighborhood for years and had never had that happen to me before.
Both of those situations were resolved peacefully, but that isn’t always the case. Taylor was asleep when the police raided her apartment and shot her. Arbery was jogging when he was hunted and killed in the street. Floyd pleaded for his life before losing consciousness at the end of an officer’s knee. Atatiana Jefferson was playing video games with her nephew. Botham Jean was eating ice cream. John Crawford III was shopping at Walmart. Tamir Rice was playing in a park. Trayvon Martin was walking home from the store. They, and many others like them, were neighbors and community members whose lives were cut short unjustly, and it is unacceptable. Their stories are the reason why people are protesting and speaking out. But it does not have to stay that way.
Law enforcement, and the criminal justice system as a whole, is not the only institution that is guilty of racist and discriminatory practices, but it has enacted some of the greatest negative impacts against black citizens, especially in its capacity to deprive others of life and liberty. Studies published by groups like The Sentencing Project and Prison Policy Initiative show racial disparities across many different kinds of law enforcement interactions, and The Washington Post’s Fatal Force database on police shootings shows that black Americans are killed by the police at nearly twice the rate as white Americans. People don’t harbor negative feelings about police departments because it’s fashionable or they’re criminals-in-waiting. It’s the result of years of systemic abuse and oppression which has continued to erode trust and confidence between black citizens and the police departments which are funded through their taxes. But it does not have to stay that way.
Our country is at a crossroads. We can either continue down the same destructive path where racism and white supremacy govern our institutions, or we can choose a different path, one where we push back against those antiquated and poisonous ideals and foster a country where all of its citizens feel valued, supported and protected by its instruments. It will take a collective effort to bring our institutions in line with the ideals of a “more perfect union.” No one person has all the answers for the problems we are challenged with, but there are things we as citizens can do to move forward. One thing we all can do is hold the systems and their agents accountable when they fail our neighbors.
As it relates to law enforcement and the criminal justice system, I believe this means challenging those institutions to live up to the lofty ideals they claim to represent. I watched a graduation video for the latest class of the Minnesota State Patrol. There was a board with badges for each of the cadets who graduated, and the base of the board listed the values respect, integrity, courage, honor and excellence. The two speakers, Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington and MSP Chief Col. Matt Langer, told members of the class they will be needed to serve all communities everywhere in the state, and they should believe in the principles they were taught at the academy. Each department has its own mission statement and set of values, but I imagine they follow similar patterns, and they must be held accountable when they fail to apply those values equally to the communities they’re charged to serve. Those principles either apply to everyone or no one at all.
I am encouraged by the Stand Up and Say Their Name demonstration put together by ONE-Dubois County on May 30. It was encouraging to see so many choose to gather and acknowledge what is happening, especially considering the demographics of the area. But it doesn’t stop there. That energy can and should be applied to holding our institutions and leaders accountable and challenging them to meet the highest standards of their offices. Change doesn’t happen on its own, and we all have our part to play to make sure our society moves in a better direction.
This will be a challenge, but it is an investment in a better future for all of us. I don’t have children, but I have friends who do, and I consistently worry about the world they will have to face. And if I should be blessed to have a family, I want them to have confidence that the systems which are supposed to support and protect them will follow through on that promise. I hope these words reinforce the belief in change for some, and shed light on its necessity for others. Things are not as they should be, but it does not have to stay that way.
Jonathan Saxon is a staff writer at The Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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