It’s in my blood. It’s how I was raised. My parents never explicitly told me to not trust the police, but they didn’t have to. Growing up in the inner city during the height of the Crack Epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, the police were seen as public enemy #1. While other communities may have had “Officer Friendly” on every other corner, in my community, the police were associated with planting evidence to justify murders and arrests, random strip searches on black men after a white woman was killed (by her white husband Charles Stuart), and general harassment for walking or driving while black. Jay-Z said it best in his song “Ballad for a fallen soldier” when he said: “Crack was anthrax back then/back when, and the police were Al Qaeda for black men.” We simply had a hate-hate relationship with the police but it would be easy for me to use that to justify the mistrust I grew up with towards the police. I dealt with it first hand.
One day my mother, PhD from Harvard and all and in her 60s, was using the bathroom in a train station where she worked. A 20-something year old white woman told a police officer that my mother tried to sell her drugs. Without question, the officer arrested my mother. When my father went to find her at the police station, he said that the condition he found her in made him want to kill everyone in the station. We went to court but lost the lawsuit against the city. On another occasion, my brother was badly beaten and arrested by police after trying to break up a fight his white friend was involved in (his friend wasn’t arrested). Police told him that he would never be found and when he did get to call, he told my father they were going to kill him. We had to go on a scramble to find him since the police did not release his whereabouts. My incidents with police compared to these were minor and not worth sharing but I think you get the point and this is the point of many from my community—every black person I know has had or has had a family member have a deadly, potentially deadly, or police-provoked confrontation.
Because of this history, I see the Mike Brown killing through darkened lenses. Through thin rims, whether officer Darren Wilson was justified in killing Brown, I see the police working to cover it up. I see them waiting too long to identify officer Wilson so that they could hide him and delete his entire online history. I see them as willing to release video of Brown in a convenience store robbery instead of video of his high school graduation but refusing to release the official photo of officer Wilson because it may make him look a criminal taking a mug shot. Without a second thought, this is what I see. But the question is, what do YOU see and why?
What do the lenses that you watch this tragedy through reveal to you? Do you automatically think that Brown “must have done something” to provoke this shooting? Do you think that if he did not rob the store he would not have been killed though officer Wilson did not know about the robbery? Do you think that black people are always making a big deal about nothing, yet again? Do you think Reverend Al Sharpton is more of the problem then an officer Wilson or a George Zimmerman? Why? What brings you to this conclusion? Have you looked into your own upbringing to see where your innate biases lie? Have you confronted them or is your life situated in such a way that you do not have to?
It is because of my past that I work as a diversity educator and consultant. I travel the country and the globe helping to facilitate courageous conversations on topics such as these. Whether it’s working in our nation’s public and private schools on challenges facing black and Latino boys, or traveling internationally on behalf of the State Department to help alleviate ethnic tensions in developing countries through leadership training, my work is designed to get us in the position to clean our lenses and open ourselves to different narratives. Doing this has caused me to learn about stereotypes I have placed on different groups based on my upbringing. It has allowed me to help others do the same. From the hundreds of thousands of people with whom I have worked, I have learned one simple truth: none of us has it all figured out but working together, we can build something better out of our ignorance.
Today, despite my frustrations with the Brown killing and others, I do not see all police as bad people. I live around the corner from a police station and often greet the ones I see. I know, as was the case in the 1980s and 1990s (though I did not believe it) that most police officers are not corrupt. This helps me look at the Brown case with a bit more objectivity before I engage in a dialogue. Being able to see differing sides of the same story helps build a better country and a better planet. Now that Brown is buried, we need to use this time going forward for continued productive conversations about racism, police brutality, and other issues that plague our global communities such as homophobia, islamophobia, sexism, and anti-Semitism. I love the work that I do but I hate that I have to do it because so much of my work would be unnecessary if we just developed the courage to not only talk, but, more importantly, listen to each other. Someone once said that we have two ears and one mouth and we should use them in proportion. If we could go beyond the yelling at each other whenever there’s a crisis, we can make real progress as a society but that takes work. Are you willing to do the work for a better country and planet for our children? If so, I’m listening. Let’s talk.