Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Citizen’s Police Academy: Working for An IPD That Belongs to All of Us

The Citizens Police Academy was one of the initiatives proposed by Chief Barber in the wake of the incident last August in which Black teens on bikes were pursued by an officer in his own car and plain clothes. He had been called in to work because it was a busy night and had been dispatched to talk to the boys about an arson near GIAC. Two of the teens wound up face down and cuffed. A gun was drawn. I applied for the CPA with the intent of asking all of the many questions I had about the IPD, especially related to use of force. 

The planned presentations were often interesting but the things I found most valuable about the course were the chance to meet and interact with a number of officers and the openness with which they addressed my questions. Many of them gave us their e-mail addresses and invited contact if we had further questions.

I had a little notebook with me and jotted down questions as they came to me. Some examples:

-        Are there trainings where fear is factored in to preparing officers?
-        Do officers learn about the rights of the public to protest?
-        How do officers decide who to pursue?
-        Do you have traffic stop quotas? (no)
-        Is there a framework of priorities that you follow?
-        Does the IPD see drug use as a law enforcement problem or a health problem? (both)
-        …and many more

I got to ask almost all of them and the officers answered thoughtfully and with good grace. 
One of the classes focused on the laws that govern police interactions with the public. Though the 4th amendment to the constitution protects against unreasonable search and seizure, U.S. and NY State courts have carved out exceptions that allow police to do more than I had realized was allowable. Exemptions from warrent requirements

Also, the police are guided by the Debour Levels (1974) in street encounters. This governs what questions and/or searches can be done when an officer approaches someone on the street.
PDF - Debour Levels

Beyond the actual information presented, it was fascinating to get a glimpse into the police perspective on this topic. Since a police officer’s job is to discover possible law-breaking and arrest a suspect, the presenter talked about how good questioning in level 1 can be used to move to higher levels. There is skill involved in this. It occurred to me that this is an interface with the public that can feel like (or actually become) harassment depending on the officer and the situation. This is where profiling can happen. Or it can be good police work. I mentally star this as a place for more conversation.

Another piece that stands out for me was the discussions around fear and adrenaline in police work. Almost all of the officers mentioned fear at least once. I got to see just a small example of that during my ride along when a large, loud dog came rushing up as the officer approached to serve a warrant. The officer’s heart was pounding when he got back in the car and he mentioned that if he were to receive a call now he would already have adrenaline in his system. This is their reality. Making good choices in stressful situations is a part of police training. They do reality-based scenarios to try to prepare officers to think clearly under stress and fear. At the same time, there are some automatic responses that are taught. This raised a flag for me. Last summer I attended a Webinar on the topic of implicit bias – the kind of bias that is below the level of conscious awareness. This kind of bias exists in all of us. So – fear plus adrenaline plus automatic response plus implicit bias is a terrible equation.

Chief Barber and Officer Williamson had attended the Webinar too. At the final session of the CPA I asked the Chief if he thought that implicit bias training should be part of police training. He agreed that it is important and should be included. Mental star: follow up on this.

The Citizen’s Police Academy served to crack open the divide between myself as a civilian and the IPD. I would like to see Chief Barber bring this kind of transparency and information out into the community in a way that allows more and more diverse groups of civilians to have access. The more we know and understand each other, the more we can be allies in creating needed systemic change. Not all the conversations will be easy but they need to happen.

I’d also like to help develop a sister program to the Citizen’s Police Academy that brings police into the realities of our lives here in Ithaca. The IPD got to share with a few of us who they are, what they do and how they feel about it. What do we want them to understand about us – our families, our neighborhood, our community?

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Zen of Racism: Microaggressions and Beginner’s Mind

I was a white person sitting in a circle of People of Color and other white people I have known for years. We gathered as potential facilitators for a Talking Circle On Race and Racism, Round 2 (a project of the Multicultural Resource Center). Part of the evening was a trial run of one of the questions formulated for round two participants to be discussed in small, race-alike groups and then shared with the whole group. After decades of anti-racism work in many formats, I did not expect this evening to have the huge impact it had. Though the emotional discomfort has been intense, I am grateful for the opportunity to approach race and racism with a beginner’s mind.

My meditation practice and study of the Dharma help me approach pain in a way that I find useful. Humans have aversion to pain and so we scramble to avoid it using every trick in the book! These include self-delusion, justification, projection, blame and evasion. Sadly, these strategies for avoiding our pain often just add layers of pain and obscure reality.

This dynamic is especially evident when white people are confronted with the depth and breadth of the impact of racism on People of Color and when we begin to understand that we are complicit in the system that perpetuates it. I think somewhere we know that if we let that understanding motivate us, we will have to stand up and fight against it – and risk our own safety.

Meditation practice teaches a way to sit with pain (including fear) without the narrative or “story line” attached. That helps to override the urge to escape the pain and helps me to learn from it instead. Over time this helps me uncover the “truth beneath the pain.”

In response to the group work mentioned above, I am still sitting with the feelings that got stirred up – but some things are starting to emerge:

The People of Color in that room are all people that I have long admired and really care about. Not only did I see how deeply racism hurts them on a daily basis (something that is different as an intellectual understanding than it is when you are looking at the pain in the eyes of a friend), I also realized on a new level that I am an unwilling, unwitting delivery system for some of that pain, even though I have been working hard to be an ally for almost 30 years! I don’t want to hurt my friends, yet I do and I will. This is a heart-breaking realization.

During the Circle one Black man said he would like to ask white people, “When did you learn that if you try to interfere with the racist system, you will be killed?” This question really resonated with me, too.  I think that I grew up knowing that on some level.

I am also seeing some unaware assumptions that I had start to crumble. For one thing, I realize that I had assumed that my advocacy and commitment to learning about and fighting racism could somehow provide a sense of hope for my friends and colleagues of Color. After the recent Circle, this seems self-aggrandizing and not relevant to a struggle for human rights. Yet I still wish that somehow I could lessen the pain I saw in their eyes.

I've heard it said that the language of race is broken. It sure feels like that whenever I try to talk about it. But it needs to be talked about anyway – which means there will be pain. Or rather, it means that the pain that exists will be uncovered and, I hope, used to discover wise action.

I know what I get out of being involved in Talking Circles. It’s not comfortable, but it is extremely useful. I wonder what People of Color get out of them? Why should POC have to hear white people deconstruct their own racism – isn’t this adding to the hurt that POC already carry?

There is so much more work for me to do to unpack and process all that has been uncovered. I am aware of wanting to go into my intellect and design solutions or evaluate and figure things out. Lately, the most authentic discoveries I have made have been out of a very vulnerable, open place where I just sit with and breathe into the pain until I discover the truth that lives there. Then more authentic action can follow.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Presidential Election: Saying the "R" Word

 I'm voting for President Obama because he's Black. There, I said it. Of course, that's not the only reason I support the president, but it is a reason that bears some explanation since race has become such a submerged yet volatile topic in this election. Just to mention the "r" word is to evoke howls of protest from (mostly) white people who don't want to see what's right before their eyes.

 I see the White House (the WHITE House!) as the ultimate lunch counter and the presidency as the highest position that People of Color could not attain no matter their qualifications. Till now. This is, as Joe Biden would say, a BFD!

Anyone who lived through the Civil Rights movement of the '60s remembers the dignified Black protesters dressed in their Sunday suits sitting calmly at lunch counters in restaurants that brazenly refused to serve "coloreds." They sat in silence as enraged white citizens poured hot coffee on them, called them names, and spit on them. They sat in quiet witness as police came and dragged them to jail for daring to assert their right to be treated as human beings.

From the very beginning I've watched the Obamas assume their role as First Family with a combination of pride, admiration, anxiety and stark terror. Just as those dignified protesters did decades ago, Barack Obama, Michelle, Sasha and Malia have put on their best clothes and most dignified demeanor to access the position that is theirs by right as a result of a free and fair election.

They entered the White House knowing that by doing so they were calling down the viciousness and violent intent of a still very active racist minority. From day-one the First Family has been exemplary, and from day-one they have all been targets - both rhetorically and very literally. There have been more death-threats against this president than against any other in history.

Not only is the president and his family the target of overt racist hatred on the part of the ignorant, this hatred is being used by the opposition party to undermine Barack Obama's presidency. "Dog whistles" (words and phrases that are not overtly racist, but call up racist assumptions and beliefs in those who are predisposed to "hear" them) are scattered throughout discussions of President Obama by prominent members of the Republican Party. The skin color of the president of the United States of America is being used to gather opposition to his reelection.

Because our system of government has become so dysfunctional, it is very difficult for anyone who occupies the office of president to move forward with a progressive agenda. President Obama had just finished being sworn in as president when congressional Republicans were meeting to plan how to ensure his failure. They used every trick in the book to undermine him and yet he still ends his term with a list of accomplishments including two Supreme Court appointments, an end to DODT, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Healthcare Reform, Wall Street Reform, end to the War in Iraq, revival of the U.S. auto industry, the Lilly Ledbetter Act and more. He also is the gatekeeper, wielding his veto pen as a saber daring anyone to go too far right. All this and the specter of more Supreme Court appointments is reason for me to support President Obama - enthusiastically! -  despite serious questions about drone strikes and the National Defense Authorization Act.
Rockwell painting that President Obama displayed in the White House - causing much attention and controversy.

At the end of the day, after the consideration of accomplishments and areas of concern, this is what I come home to: I intend to vote for President Obama in support of our nation's first Black president.

He and his family have endured ugly, racist attacks with dignity while working hard to do the business of the government and the world on my behalf. I intend to stand with them.
Sasha Obama looking out the window of a secret service car.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Pete Meyers: Vision, Path, Action!

Over a year ago now I sat with Pete Meyers just outside the Tompkins County Worker's Center upstairs in the Autumn Leaves bookstore. Pete is one of the founders of the Center. This post includes Part One of our conversation that covered a range of topics from his background to racism to his philosophy of activism. First, here's Pete describing the T.C. Worker's Center:

Sitting in the room with Pete is like sitting at the center of a hurricane. He had a calm demeanor and at the same time was swirling with ideas and could hardly finish one thought before launching into the next! It was a fun, inspiring conversation!

LJ - What influenced you - what experiences, people, places led you to the path you are on now?

PM - Well, the family that I was raised in, for one. I grew up in South Bend, Indiana. My parents were actively involved in trying to stop the Vietnam War. They were also involved in anti-racism work. They were housing testers. When there was a suspicion that a Black family was being discriminated against in housing a white family would be sent in to see if they could get the housing.

I grew up in the late 60s when riots were happening. South Bend was a city of 100,000 so riots were happening there as well.

I remember an incident from 5th grade with a Black girl named Tammy. She was writing "Pete and Andrea" on the board and I was writing "Tammy and Donald." Then we started slapping each other a bit - she was bigger than I was. The white male teacher came in and she got in trouble and I didn't. At that point, though I was happy that I wasn't getting in trouble, I also knew that there was something wrong about that. In terms of my own consciousness that stands out. I didn't know about the work that my parents were doing until much later.

LJ - They didn't talk with you about their activism?

Not then. They did in later years. There was a real contradiction - though my family was really engaged with activism, there was some emotional dysfunction.

I got a Masters degree in psychology and then I moved to Brooklyn and worked as a drug counselor in a HS for four years. That was when I started getting the big picture. It was a vocational school that was 95% Black and Latino students. I was really seeing discrimination there on a class basis and a race basis.

I also went to Nicaragua in the middle of the revolution and started to make the connection between racism and classism in this country and how it played out in U.S. foreign policy over hundreds of years. I went to Haiti twice in the mid 90s right after the U.S. invaded Haiti.

I was trying to figure out what to do for a long time and it really wasn't until I moved to Ithaca in 2000 that I started to put it all together. I saw that most people don't really care what's going on elsewhere. They only can be conscious of what's going on in their own lives - they have so much pain and suffering in their own lives that that's all they can pay attention to.

I started to work for Catholic Charities in a welfare-to-work program as a mentor visiting people in their homes. They were being forced to take minimum wage jobs.. I was also working with an activist group called the Ithaca Sharks - the Coalition For Global Justice - and it began to seem important to not just be protesting the IMF and the World Bank because most people don't care about that. It became important for me to bring it home and focus on the living wage.

LJ - You've done a lot on the living wage issue...

Right. So we became a formal organization in 2003 and not long after that started Workers Rights Hotline. Even though a lot of poor, working class people agree with the idea of a living wage, it seems like a pipe dream to them that that's going to change - even though we had some early success with it. Workers Rights Hotline was a way to get people most directly affected in the door. The rest is very dynamic and still going on now.

LJ - Did your organization work with AFCU on the living wage study that identifies the local living wage?

PM - No, they started that in 1993 and The Living Wage Coalition started, Carl would say, in 1997 (before I moved here) when they lobbied the County Legislature to make sure that all Human Service Agencies that they funded paid a living wage. You would have been part of that.

LJ - Yes, I remember. The County did approve funding to bring people up to the living wage, but not to maintain the salary structures so it was hard to implement for some of us - but so important.

LJ - You've been sidling up on my next question about your current primary focus and why you chose it. I hear you saying that the rights of workers here where you live is connected to all the activities you were involved in before. Your main area of focus now is workers rights, correct?

PM - Yeah, it is. We're in the middle of strategic planning right now. We have four core strategies, which I feel really good about. The first is Support and Recruitment. The idea is that we need to get people in the door with something that concerns them - maybe they feel like they've been screwed over at work - it could be a whole range of things. If we get one out of a hundred people to want to get more involved, we're doing well. We're such an individualistic society that to get people involved and see themselves as organizers is really tough.

The next core strategy is Advocacy, which means that we advocate for people in the workplace. This can be on an individual basis - if they don't feel safe doing it on their own. Or on a larger scale like with the Sodexo victory. I would consider that advocacy because, though there were a few workers involved, it was not worker-driven. Which is not our ideal. We would prefer that more workers be directly involved, but we are in a milieu where most workers are afraid of that.

LJ - The power dynamic is so skewed that most workers feel frightened for their lives, or at least their livelihoods.

PM - Right. It feels like their lives, even though it's not technically, but it feels like it.

Advocacy can also mean giving support with workplace bullying. The second-most reason that people come to the Workers Rights Hotline is because they feel bullied. Linda Holzbaur (Community Organizer at the Tompkins County Worker's Center) did a series of workshops on the topic and we are considering getting involved in state legislation.

LJ - Bullied by supervisors or by other workers?

By other workers. It's not against the law to bully coworkers unless it's on the basis of race or gender. Many people are bullied without that. So advocating for change in a larger, systemic way would be part of advocacy.

Then the next core strategy is Empowerment. That's building on the idea that we are attempting to empower workers to work together in the workplace to create change. When two or more people do that, that's actually protected by law, whether they want to form a union or not. It's called Concerted Action - acting in concert - and that's protected by the National Labor Relations Board. Workers would still feel a great risk of doing it even though it's protected because, so what? It's going to take a long time - but with the Workers Rights Center behind them that's where we see progress. And I think we've had some good successes with that.

Movement Building is the last core strategy so it all connects to the larger picture. This is the reason I got involved in this work in the first place. This is why I see the work we do as being connected to what's happening in developing countries.

It's so clear to me that we don't have a critical mass right now to really change the way power works in this world. What we have to do is really build it at the grassroots level.

LJ - Do you have hope for that?

PM - Yeah...I mean, I live in the hope, but it's not something that I'm going to see in my own lifetime. You have to see it as part of a larger...I think of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech and the pure vision in that. It's like, how do you see yourself? It's a spiritual question, right? How do you see yourself in the cosmic scheme of things? 20 years ago I was intending to be Martin Luther King, I was intending to be Gandhi The male ego can be a powerful thing!

LJ - Oh I don't know...I was there too...

PM - If you have the right spiritual orientation, I think it can enable your work. I'm really kind of fascinated...not that I've fully figured it out...with what it means to have a vision that deeply informs ones life.

What I'm learning about strategic planning is that you have a vision and then you have to acknowledge what's happening right now in order to be able to get to that vision. I've been very informed by a book called The Path of Least Resistance which is about creating what you want to create in life. As a simple example, my vision is: I need more coffee in my cup. The current reality is: I don't have enough coffee in my cup. There's a structural tension that I need to make happen. It's easy with a cup of coffee. Now what do you do with our vision, which is a four paragraph statement including a living wage for all workers in Tompkins County, rights in the workplace, an end to racism and quality housing, healthcare, etc. On one level it could be seen as pie in the sky.

But I'm a real believer in creating dramatic actions. A great example is the campaign to change the name of State Street to Martin Luther King Street. That action caused so much controversy, it really involved lots of people in discussions of race and class. I think there were over 200 people at the initial meeting at the DSS building. Yet if we had instead had a workshop on race and class and sent out flyers maybe we would have gotten 10 or 15 people. It is very powerful to use an action - a real change - that will provoke a conversation that needs to happen.

Pete's emphasis on action is inspiring. Shortly after our conversation I saw Pete with a microphone at an Occupy Wall Street protest on the Commons at Bank Alley - 
from vision to action!