Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Campaign Zero: A Path to Ending Police Violence and A Local Opportunity to Influence the Direction of Law Enforcement

Heartbreak and anger over police violence has given rise to public activism. Marches, rallies and non-violent civil disobedience have been on the streets and in the news. These are powerful and important interventions in a society that wants to go about its business as usual as the death tolls rise. 

Some of the activists involved in Black Lives Matter, including DeRay McKesson and Johnetta Elzie, have been involved in a much less publicized but equally important project. They put together a detailed set of policy recommendations to address the problem of police violence which is presented in a state of the art website.

"Campaign ZERO was developed with contributions from activists, protesters and researchers across the nation. This data-informed platform presents comprehensive solutions to end police violence in America. It integrates community demands and policy recommendations from research organizations and the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Together, we will win."

 The Campaign Zero website, which is updated often, is vast, detailed and comprehensive. It includes local and national solutions. And it offers points of entry for regular folks to help make these changes become reality.

Most recently Campaign Zero rolled out its Legislation Visualization & Take Action Tool. In an interview with online Paper Mag, DeRay Mckesson says of the project:
"It's important that people understand the laws that are in progress," activist DeRay Mckesson explained. "[It's been a goal] since the [Black Lives Matter] movement was started."
 Speaking to Mckesson over the phone, he explained that while the tool had been in the works and scheduled, it "became more urgent in light of recent events" -- namely the shooting deaths of 37-year-old Alton Sterling on Tuesday and 32-year-old Philando Castile a day later.
Here in Tompkins County we have an opportunity to have input on a possible consolidation of law enforcement departments. The Legislature has commissioned a study to explore what that could look like. Though we missed the July 5th window to comment on the proposed study, there will be other opportunities to be involved.

Could this be an opening to put Tompkins County law enforcement on the Campaign Zero path? 

Friday, May 13, 2016

To Be (Or Not to Be) "White"

It seems to me as if the past 45 years have been a process of unlearning as much as learning, or maybe even 60/40! This manifests in all areas, but especially in my seeing and understanding of what is called "race" in the U.S.. And I fully expect that my thoughts today will continue to unfold and shift as more space is made for truer seeing.

Words shape how we see the world. There is a language of sex and gender that helps cement the dominant paradigm into U.S. society. That is why, in the 70s when I was a teen and young adult, there was a push to change the lexicon with gender-neutral labels for people in jobs (letter-carrier instead of postman; flight-attendant rather than stewardess). This is still evolving and has moved into resisting the accepted gender binary language in favor of understanding gender as a continuum with the inclusion of gender-neutral pronouns to represent and also instigate that understanding.

There is an equally unseen yet pervasively influential lexicon of race that cements duality into our society. The very words "black" and "white" are opposites. They describe extremes of color that are not represented in any human skin tone. They are words that represent political and historical social norms and expectations, not what is seen and known. By accepting and using these words to describe ourselves and others, we reinforce the myth of "race" and the duality of humanity.

This is not an academic problem. The consequences in the real world are deadly. They include (but are certainly not limited to) racial-profiling, stereotyping, the wrong person being accused and/or convicted of a crime and murder.

This is black.
I recently read a local news article about a physical attack on someone. The police described the people they were seeking in relation to the incident as "three black males." Now close your eyes and picture three black males. What would each of our pictures look like? What does a "black male"look like?


The solution is not to "not see race" but to see what is in front of us. See the actual details of skin tone and texture; hair texture, color and length; height; body build; perceived age. When people want to know the race of a suspect, how often are they really asking "is the person from our team, or 'their' team?" In the human family, who do we make "them?"

I know it's much more complicated than that. We are not starting from today. The duality was carefully constructed by an oppressor class that has inflicted centuries of harm and created systems and institutions that continue to do so today. Also, the "race" based caste system includes other "others" and a host of intersections that confer more or less access, more or less pain. Having been defined as "white" in a centuries-old caste system, it feels cowardly to refuse that label, as if I'm refusing accountability for a system that I benefit from at the expense of people with other labels.

At the same time, accepting the label "white" makes me feel complicit in an imposed language of racial caste that is not based in the ultimate truth of who we all are as humans. And it divides me from my own rich and complex heritage, and from an accurate description of my physical self. A paradox indeed.

This is white.
 It certainly seems incorrect to try to back away from the labels that act as rallying points for people who have been most hurt by systems of oppression, even if those labels were imposed by those very systems. Yet those labels also act as barriers sometimes. Sometimes differences between people sharing a label can be very stark, while there can be a sense of closeness and kinship across labels. Sometimes it is not even clear which labels a particular person should adopt. Paradox again.

There are no answers coming at the end of this reflection.  Just a profound sense that our shared humanity has been interfered with in fundamental ways that involve everything from the starkness of lives destroyed to the subtlety of minds constrained by the language of oppression.

 Sometimes changing the language we use is an attempt to avoid a truth. Sometimes, changing the language we use, changes how we see the world enough for us to take action to make change. 

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.