by Daniel A. Rosen |
I’m sitting here in my prison cell, watching the protests on TV and doing some quick math. Every year in this country, according to the Washington Post, roughly a thousand men and women die at the hands of police. About half of them – 500 people – are unarmed. And about two thirds of those – about 350 people – are black. So, virtually every day of the year, an unarmed black man dies from law enforcement excesses.
One of those tragic murders – the brutal death of George Floyd on a Minneapolis street – has brought policing and justice issues to the forefront in 2020. While the wound is now fresh and protesters fill the streets daily, it appears their anger and trauma will resonate through the November election and far beyond.
For people of color, policing issues have always been front and center. They’re a fact of life that African Americans are forced to confront when they go birdwatching or jogging – or even when sleeping in their own home. Others just tuning in may have been sheltered from these realities, a luxury that society can no longer afford.
A lot of people are talking about “the new normal” in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic – by which they mean handshakes as a relic of the past, and disposable restaurant menus. But ‘normal’ was never a very attractive proposition for many minorities.
Normal has meant struggling and working multiple low-paying jobs just to stay afloat economically. It’s meant discriminatory treatment when seeking housing, health care, or employment. And it’s always meant fear, mistrust, and trauma when it comes to interaction with police and the justice system. “People are living under too much trauma in this country,” Senator Tim Kaine said.
Normal is the kind of heavy-handed police tactics we see in response to many recent protests, and the militarization of even the smallest local police forces. Normal is minor property crime – like passing a counterfeit $20 bill – being met with an aggressive response out of all proportion to its seriousness. Any hesitation or non-compliance with police demands is normally treated as ‘resisting’ and met with punishing violence.
Since 2005, only 35 police officers have been convicted of killing citizens. A little more quick math reveals that, at minimum, this means at least 5,000 officers who killed unarmed black men were not convicted. Most of them were likely never even criminally charged. That is normalized, systemic racism. And federal consent decrees meant to address it in police departments around the country have been abandoned by Bill Barr’s Justice Department.
On June 1st, President Trump held a press conference and declared: “you have to dominate” the protesters, “or else you look weak…You have to put them in jail for 10 years.” Is it appropriate to threaten those protesting police brutality with…more brutality? Do we need prisons even more clogged with people convicted of demonstrating?
Trump then threatened to send in the military if governors and mayors didn’t crack heads to regain control. He described the deployment of military force as a show of strength, but it will have the opposite effect. It’s an indicator of fear and a sign of weakness. White privilege has always used the language of force and physical intimidation to stop minorities from gaining power and a voice.
Afterwards – as if to illustrate his point – Park Police and Guard troops used force and tear gas to clear peaceful protestors from Lafayette Park so that Trump and his entourage could have a photo op in front of historic St. John’s church nearby. The president’s claim to be an “ally of all peaceful protesters” was wholly negated by his actions in that moment.
Episcopal Bishop Mariann Budde decried the president for using the church “as a prop” and for dividing the country. “Strength,” she said, “is walking alongside the protesters.” We saw what that looked like in Flint, Michigan, when demonstrators invited the sheriff to “walk with us.” That’s just what he did, and it changed the conversation instantly. As Michael Nutter, the former mayor of Philadelphia, said: “These issues can only be solved by cooperation, police and communities working together.”
My own experience with the prison system has completely transformed my attitude toward justice in America. It’s opened my eyes to the inequities inherent in the system. You may have heard that half the inmates in America are black. But walk into a cellblock in any big city jail in America, and that’s not what you’ll see. I was the only ‘European-American’ in my housing unit at times in the DC jail. The black guy in the next cell told me: “If you’re in here and you’re white, you gotta be guilty.”
The converse, sadly, is also true: many minorities are locked up simply because they couldn’t afford bail or a decent lawyer. I lost count of how often my fellow inmates had cases dismissed by judges for lack of evidence or overzealous charging decisions by prosecutors. The majority, though, were railroaded into plea deals by public defenders, taken in order to avoid serious prison time.
There are no quick solutions to this problem. But enough people of good faith gathering for a common purpose is a powerful force. So, as rapper Killer Mike said: “Join something.” Do something to effect change. And I don’t mean a Facebook group or a TikTok challenge; social media won’t solve racism by itself.
There are endless community organizations out there doing real work every day to make things better. They’re promoting equality, educating people, advocating for change, bailing out expectant mothers, restoring felons’ voting rights, registering voters, investing in underserved neighborhoods. There are grassroots outlets of every hue imaginable to channel all that anger and energy into. Find a local one and ask how to help. Be an ally. Change the math. And as President Obama put it simply: “Vote.”