Home The Op-Eds Speak Out, But Do More Than That: Understand, Empathize, Act

Speak Out, But Do More Than That: Understand, Empathize, Act

by Erika Nicole Kendall
ironically, the black panther comic i bought my husband arrived today

I have a friend from high school, someone I’ve always known to be incredibly kind.

She admitted to me that she’d finally watched one of these mainstream media snuff films of police officers filling American citizens, human beings, with bullets for minor infractions, and was horrified by what she saw. And, after realizing there were multiple videos to bear witness to, she took to social media to express her concern.

And, almost instantaneously, she was met with criticism— charges of loving “thugs,” challenges to her intelligence, complaints about her not speaking out in support of police, dirtying-up of the victims by bringing up their criminal records…in my opinion, it was unrelenting.

It’s difficult for someone who just has an outcry of “WTF IS GOING ON?!” to rebut these very specific criticisms, because who is expecting the very humane response of being horrified to be met with questions of “how dare you be mortified by this?” Who is expecting people to not understand why the sudden loss of life from otherwise inane police activity like traffic stops would result in shock?

It’s an aggressive way of telling someone that they’ve chosen the wrong side.

Our current political system has left many of us believing that there are always only two pre-defined sides to every situation. You’re either for abortion, or against it. You’re either for the preservation of the second amendment, or against it. You’re either for public welfare programs, or against them. We don’t allow space for nuance. These issues don’t have simple yes or no answers. Such is the case with policing and the pattern of people of color being over-represented in police-involved shootings.

When you don’t know anything beyond the feeling in the pit of your stomach of “this just feels wrong,” what do you do? Where do you go from there? I have a few thoughts.

1) When people try to assure you that it wasn’t in fact wrong, or that the victim was a thug and therefore deserved it, or that cops have the right to defend their lives as well, understand that they’re speaking from that place of “there’s only two sides here: either the thug lives, or the good guy.” Also understand that this is flawed, inaccurate, and dangerous.

There are many cases where the police have to make split decisions to save lives—not just their own—every day, and they should be lauded for it. But those split decisions don’t have to be fatal. There are myriad ways to de-escalate encounters with the public that don’t have to result in death by gunfire. Police departments across the country have successfully achieved this. Police departments across the globe have achieved this. There are countless videos on Facebook as I type right now showing how police have successfully de-escalated events without weapons, or at least without fatal ones. We have to have faith in the ability of the people we put in positions of power, like policing, to be able to achieve this.

(Also worth noting? De-escalation ensures that a mentally ill person isn’t killed for behavior perceived to be threatening.)

2) When people try to assure you that the victim was a thug and, therefore, not a victim but a criminal who got what they deserved, understand that they’re speaking from a place that believes the key to avoiding being a victim of police violence is to “do good.”

These are people who’ve never understood how the way this country defines “bad,” and the way that penalizes people. It’s “bad” to be poor, so we’re skeptical of those who are. People seem to misunderstand that their definitions of things like “goodness” center themselves, and often that means that people that aren’t like them are, by extension, bad. This often results in people being considered “bad” and deserving of skepticism for little more than liking different brands of clothing or shoes, liking different music, or having different hair. It becomes a matter of “you don’t look like you belong here. Why are you here?”

Secondly, because “poor” has been so adeptly defined as “bad,” we have policing that explicitly looks for markers of poverty—like, for instance, “broken windows”—to signal where police should look for criminals, which results in people being penalized harshly by judges who think they’re “teaching them a lesson” for crimes that don’t warrant it, hence the abundance of complaints about how much we spend incarcerating people in this country. We turn people into criminals for the same kinds of offenses for which others are given a pass, then say they deserved it. No, they deserved to have their future spared, too, but were denied that opportunity because they were poor and, therefore, “bad.”

Furthermore, we have a system that defines what capital offenses are, and how they are tried. Allowing police officers to determine guilt or innocence of a person on the spot to the point of deciding whether or not they deserve to live or die. We are all granted the right to innocence until proven otherwise, we are all granted the right to due process, a fair trial. And, in the case of Philando Castile, we are all granted our second amendment rights. Emboldening any government agent or agency to interfere with those rights is unconstitutional and, in the case of many people arguing, hypocritical.

3) When people try to tell you that those people are raised without fathers, and that’s why violence is so prevalent in their culture, understand that this is illogical, ahistorical and non-sensical. Historically, violence was never a component of inner-city black communities until the crack epidemic came into densely-populated communities, many of which most white people left during a time when racism was what defined community boundary lines. Combine that with actual police corruption, where cops were paid to look the other way while drug dealers did their dirt; annnnd the harsh, brutal reality of addiction and how it forces people to do drastic things to feed their habit, and you have the perfect storm of inner city crime.

This is only further proven by the fact that crime has been on a continual slump for decades now. Decades. That crime slump is why you see so many white people flocking back to the inner city, and so much conversation about gentrification: it’s finally safe again. Experts might be baffled by the decline, but black Americans are not: the crack epidemic is in decline, and it took violent crime with it.

Today, the national crime rate is about half of what it was at its height in 1991. Violent crime has fallen by 51 percent since 1991, and property crime by 43 percent. In 2013 the violent crime rate was the lowest since 1970. And this holds true for unreported crimes as well. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, since 1993 the rate of violent crime has declined from 79.8 to 23.2 victimizations per 1,000 people. Americans who lived through the 1960s and 1970s remember the fear associated with a real surge in violent crime. In fact, the violent crime rate increased by 126 percent between 1960 and 1970, and by 64 percent between 1970 and 1980. [source]

What’s more, let’s suppose there was an absence of black fathers in families somehow out of step with the national average. Between the police violence many have been subjected to, the criminals allowed to remain in the community and take their lives, and the number of cities that throw them into prisons for non-violent offenses for inane reasons, I’d say there are a lot of reasons why many children are raised fatherless.

It’s kind of hard to take “personal responsibility” when you’re working multiple jobs to feed your family while the state locks your spouse up for years for a joint, huh?

4) When you hear someone say, “black lives don’t even matter to black people,” or that “black people need to worry about black-on-black crime first,” know that they’re likely operating from a position of scarcity. They believe they can only care about so many things, and they don’t want to be burdened with the responsibility of caring about people they don’t even know, and can’t be bothered to research.

Alas, I can tell you one thing, as a person deeply connected in both my city and many cities across the country: there has never been a time when black people didn’t come together after a life was lost, taken at the hands of another person in the black community. There have been community activists and organizers in the black community for as long as there has been a black community. A quick google search for “violence rally” and your city will likely pull up countless results showing the varying sub-communities within communities that work together to try to figure out what is happening.

Why haven’t they been successful? They have. Remember those stats from above? Crime. Steady decline. For decades. And they’ve often done it without the support of their local police departments.

Conversations about black-on-black crime also belie the reality that, as communities are still deeply segregated, most crime is committed against people who share the same race as the perpetrator. Assault, burglary, robbery, all crimes likely to be committed against people in your own community, people likely to be the same race as you. (No one ever said criminals were brilliant… just persistent.)

5) When you are told that you are judging cops without knowing all the facts, understand that you are talking to someone who is repeating what we’ve always been taught. A desire to know more about what happened, a desire to understand what contributes to a cop’s decision to pull the trigger vs whip out a taser, a need to hear that there isn’t racial bias involved in why cops police the way they do (or don’t, for that matter), these aren’t about judgment. They’re literally about getting more information so you can judge fairly.

But, to many people, questioning what happened at all is out of bounds, because the call for information implies that there’s a reason to question the cop’s judgment. Cops’ decision making should be unimpeachable, they tell you. Police officers are human, and they have biases just like anyone else. And, like anyone else who is given power over large swaths of people, we need to ensure that they are not using that power in a way that penalizes communities for behavior they, as outsiders, don’t understand. Racial bias in America tells you anyone speaking Spanish is illegal, any black person is a criminal orphan looking for an opportunity, and any Hijabi is a suicide bomber. How does it impact one’s policing if they walk into a community thinking this way?

More importantly, how does the public respond to your policing if they know this is how you think when you approach them?

This kind of aggressive policing only damages the relationship cops have with the people they are paid to serve, and makes them less safe in doing their jobs. Refusing to engage the public about calls for transparency in why black people (and Native Americans, if we’re being honest) are so over-represented in the percentages of police-related homicide victims only breeds mistrust on both sides. From that mistrust breeds skepticism and, ultimately, violence.

6) When you are told that you must hate police or “love thugs,” remember that this is that “either or” politics game I mentioned. People fall into it like a pothole they just keep running over when they leave their driveways, without even thinking. I, personally, don’t hate cops. In fact, as I’ve said before, one of my earliest memories as a child is being carried out of a park in Cleveland by a police officer who rescued me when I was kidnapped as a child. But that’s the same police department who shot a child clutching a perfectly legal toy rifle.

I value and appreciate the work that our officers do. I also know that there is something very wrong when a child is killed for playing with a toy, or a man exercising his right to openly carry his weapon, or a Muslim man walking through a hotel lobby, or, or, or….

You get the drift.

Valuing the work police do doesn’t mean we believe there doesn’t need to be constant fine tuning to ensure that it equally serves us all. Making sure our policing works, and is consistently effective across cities, is how we protect us all—not just from the flow of guns and drugs, but from the violence that tends to come with them.

What can you do besides speaking up? Push back on your peers or family when bigoted statements fly out of their mouths. Deny them the pleasure of your company, realize they aren’t as forward-thinking as you strive to be, and accept that they might not be with you when you get to the other side of the rainbow. Contact your congressional officers, your senators, your state and local officials, and let them know that the money they receive from the NRA isn’t going to be enough to help them buy the election this year. Find out when your mid-term elections are, and make sure those candidates know that policing reform is a serious matter.

Most importantly, practice empathy whenever you deal with people who think and live differently from you. When you are told “all lives matter,” understand that this is someone defending their right to not give a damn about what’s happening outside of their community. They’re defending their right to apathy, the same apathy that results in the harm that destroys communities and families alike. No one has ever said only black lives matter, nor has anyone ever said black lives should matter more than anyone else’s, especially cops. We need them; we need each other. But we also need understanding and empathy, not apathy and skepticism.

We all have to read more, think more, be more, and do more. The information we truly need to make the important decisions won’t come from talking heads on TV. I’ve been a talking head, so I know—the valuable info can’t be shared in quick two sentence soundbites, interrupted by commercial breaks, and then interrupted by another person inching for their time to talk. We have to read books, and not be afraid to listen to one another. Most importantly, we cannot be afraid to think differently and stand up for the lives of loved ones and strangers alike. It’s one of the best ways to make the world a better place for us all.

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Marnie July 11, 2016 - 2:55 PM

Thank you for this. Sometimes it seems like such a huge unfixable mess that I start to lose hope…I really appreciate your call for nuanced thought around this as well as a strong stance that what is right is right and we need to fight for that.

Yuri July 21, 2016 - 3:32 AM

This was so well written, and I think you’re right on target. Many of us approach these topics from an either-or, or a for-or-against mentality, when the social situations that our country and our world is facing aren’t so “black and white”. I rarely comment on blog posts, but I just want to commend you for everything you just said and the way you said it. Really enjoyed this. Thanks!

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