Confronting Racism Wherever And Whenever You Encounter It.

Though I’m generally reluctant to write about personal experiences, I feel that a recent confrontation might help to illuminate the seriousness of racism in America. Having been invited to Christmas dinner at a friend’s house, I was warned in advance that one of the other guests was a conservative. So I vowed to avoid politics. But as we sat down to eat, this white personal injury attorney announced that while working in a parking lot during his college years, he had been robbed by black men. He went on to state that most crimes are committed by black men. He said he has the statistics to prove it concluding that committing crimes is part of the black culture.

Where to begin? Do you confront such overt racism? Or, not wanting to disrupt a pleasant evening, do you simply let it slide? Before I detail my response to the situation, I should explain a bit about my background.

I am a white male who was raised in a nearly all-white region of the country surrounded by family and friends who often shared racist jokes at gatherings. In addition, my father often vehemently expressed his distaste for African-Americans – in particular Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders of the time. I don’t want to make excuses for these people, but I believe their comments simply showed a lack of knowledge and understanding.

As a young boy, I came to believe such behavior to be normal. But after attending a large university and making friends with people of diverse backgrounds, races, and nationalities, I realized that I could never again sit silent as someone made racist comments or told racist jokes.

Over time, I have witnessed rogue cops commit crimes and blame them on black activists. In my mixed race neighborhood, I saw a cop chain his attack-trained dog so that it could cross the sidewalk and bite any unsuspecting passersby. I learned of the practice of redlining in large cities to prevent black families from buying homes in white areas. I read studies showing that children of color routinely received more severe punishment in school than their white counterparts for the same offenses.

I read reports of corporations refusing to interview job applicants who had black sounding names. I heard my African-American friends tell of police harassment. And I personally witnessed six police officers take turns to brutally beat a black man who was handcuffed and lying on his belly in the snow and ice. (When I took my story to the Assistant Chief, I was told there were no arrests reported in the area on that day. I regret not pursuing the matter farther.)

Despite what many other white people believe, racism didn’t end with the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act. Nor did it end when we elected our first black president. One need only read the Department of Justice report following the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. Or watch the many videos of black harassment posted online. Or watch the video of the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia. Or watch “President” Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville. Or watch the videos of kids in cages at our southern border.

So, yes, I confronted my friend’s dinner guest. I politely explained the racism I have witnessed. I detailed the harassment suffered by my black friends. I patiently explained that we are only a few generations removed from the end of the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves. (I personally met veterans of that war.) I explained that, following emancipation, the slaves had nothing. And that it would take many more generations for black people to achieve financial equality with their white peers.

What was the dinner guest’s reaction? He told me – rather he yelled at me – that racism no longer exists then stomped out.

Call me the Grinch who ruined Christmas, but I believe that failing to confront racism at every opportunity only serves to perpetuate it. I may have ruined a Christmas dinner and caused my friends some grief. But that pales in comparison to what many people of color face on a daily basis. And I vow to do more to confront it.

Retraining Police To Protect And Serve.

Following the most recent example of police brutality at a high school in South Carolina, it is abundantly clear that law enforcement agencies across the country must re-evaluate and re-educate their officers. Too often we’ve seen officers use excessive force to bully, bruise, wound and kill citizens without probable cause.

Far too often, we’ve seen police resort to lethal force against unarmed men, women and children.

In Cleveland, we saw a police officer shoot and kill a 12-year-old boy within 2 seconds of his arrival on the scene. The boy’s crime? He was playing with a toy gun. We saw cops shoot a young man in an Ohio Walmart for daring to hold a BB-gun he intended to buy. We saw a Texas highway patrol officer unnecessarily brutalize and arrest a young woman who was standing up for her rights after being stopped for failure to signal a lane change. She was arrested and ultimately killed just because the officer didn’t like her attitude.

We saw an officer stop an unarmed driver for a broken taillight then shoot him multiple times in the back as he tried to run from the scene. We’ve seen a video of an officer “ground and pound” a middle-aged woman on the shoulder of a freeway. And we’ve seen police shoot and kill unarmed citizens who were mentally ill without any attempt to use non-lethal force.

This phenomenon is not limited to any single region of the United States, nor any level of law enforcement. We’ve seen the same kind of brutality from small town cops, sheriffs and sheriff deputies, big city cops and state patrol officers. In addition, we’ve seen racial profiling by city police departments; from Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s gang in Maricopa County, Arizona; and from officers in the Border Patrol. Though they may or may not brutalize or kill the subjects of their harassment, at minimum they make the detainees’ lives unnecessarily difficult.

These same kinds of incidents don’t happen in other advanced nations. While officers in the US shoot people armed with clubs and knives, officers in the UK and Canada use night sticks and training to subdue similarly armed individuals. While officers in the US shoot and/or imprison the mentally ill, in other nations officers subdue them and get them help.

What is the answer?

Certainly not all of the law enforcement officers in the US are out-of-control bullies. But there are plenty. And, rather than try to eliminate the bad apples within their ranks, the good officers, their unions, the prosecutors, “law and order” politicians and uncaring citizens go out of their way to blindly protect them.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The chiefs of departments can change their hiring and training procedures. I once was witness to the inner workings of two city police departments separated only by a river. One department was awash in corruption and bullies. The other was virtually free of such problems. The difference? The first department focused on hiring the biggest and baddest candidates – candidates who had previously served in small town departments. Most of them had simply passed an 8-week training program consisting primarily of classroom work, military-style drilling and many hours on the shooting range. The chief of the second department chose, instead, candidates with college degrees and a philosophy of service.

Certainly, dash cams and body cams will help. But they are not the only answer. It’s time that all departments take a long, hard look at themselves – at their military-style weapons, uniforms, vehicles and protocols; at their military-style “I’ve got your back” attitudes; at their militaristic training; and at their hiring programs. They need to remember that they are not another arm of the military. And they need to reinstate the motto: “To serve and protect.”

If law enforcement officers want the public – especially minorities – to respect them, they’re going to have to earn that respect. Not just a few…but all of the officers.

Bullies In Blue.

Or black, or khaki, or camoflauge or whatever police officers are wearing these days.

The events in Ferguson and St. Louis are by no means unique. But they have called attention to a long-festering problem in the US. I recognize that there are many honorable and well-intentioned police officers. Unfortunately, their good work is being overwhelmed by a growing mob of violent bullies behind badges.

I first became aware of police violence in the 1950’s when I saw police brutality against peaceful civil rights marches. In the 1960’s I saw police brutally beat anti-Vietnam War prostestors. In the 1980’s, I saw the results of an off-duty police officer ruthlessly beating an unarmed college student. (The officer’s penalty was to be assigned as public relations officer for the department.) I became involved in an incident when police handcuffed and held an African-American employee for walking while black. I heard dozens of black friends describe repeated abuse by police officers. I witnessed six city cops mace and brutally beat a black man who was already cuffed and lying face down in the snow and slush. I served on a jury for an assault trial in which the police brought charges against a black man without investigating the case. I read reports of six cops fatally shooting a frail, mentally ill woman brandishing a kitchen knife.

I thought all of this was bad, until I witnessed the cell phone video of the police shooting in St. Louis. The victim was most certainly mentally ill. The knife he was carrying was small. He could easily have been stopped and disarmed with a baton or a taser. (I’ve managed to defend myself against a knife-wielding attacker with no weapons and no Kevlar vest.) Yet two officers, both larger than the victim, pumped at least 7 rounds into the victim. The other responding officers arrived on scene with very bad attitudes and unnecessarily bullied the witnesses.

Unfortunately, this event is far from unusual. In just the past few weeks, we’ve learned of the killing of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson; of an unarmed man in Los Angeles; of a mentally ill 50-year old woman in Phoenix who was holding a claw hammer. We’ve seen a California cop brutally beat an unarmed black woman on the side of a freeway. We’ve seen a NYC cop strangle an unarmed black man to death. We’ve seen Missouri police forces surround a community with military vehicles and assault rifles pointed at unarmed protesters. And we’ve seen a police officer randomly pointing an assault weapon at demonstrators and yelling “I’m going to f***ing kill you.”

This is not policing. It’s sanctioned bullying and worse…almost certainly the result of NRA-sponsored laws which have made guns more readily available and police more nervous; of the government program that provides military weapons to police forces that have no need for them; of our national infatuation with big boy toys and weaponry; of police training that encourages the use of lethal force when threatened; of police consultants who promote confrontation; of rampant racism and the oppression of black and brown people; of political fear-mongering that makes citizens afraid of their neighbors and encourages them to excuse police brutality as long as it makes them feel safe; of prosecutors who are afraid of the political consequences for filing charges against cops; and of a disengaged populace who are afraid to speak up against police brutality.

It’s time for this to end.