As Black Deaths Pile Up, Peace Matters

It’s International Peace Day, but our nation is riven by dissent. A football player kneels during the National Anthem to protest police brutality, and he’s accused of being unpatriotic (and worse). Two more black men die at the hands of police (in Tulsa and Charlotte), and a city erupts into peaceful and then violent protest. Sadly, I open the newspaper or scroll through my newsfeed and the first thing that I think about is, I wonder if anymore blacks have been shot today?250px-peace_sign-svg

As far as the football player kneeling during the National Anthem, I would remind others that this is by its very essence a peaceful and orderly form of protest. If Colin Kaepernick feels like the National Anthem does not adequately represent him as a black man, then perhaps it’s up to us to listen to how this could be so. Did you know, for example, that the third verse of the National Anthem refers to terrorizing hirelings and slaves?

No refuge could save the hireling and slave’

From the terror of flight and the gloom of the grave

Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know that the British freed more than six thousand slaves during the War of 1812, and then allowed these freed slaves to fight against their former captors (and the country that allowed this bondage). I didn’t know it either, and I was an honors history major and a lawyer.

In fact, I always wept during the Anthem when I attended ballgames—because I was proud of the home of the free and the brave. I didn’t know that the verses left unsung referred to defeating slaves in battle . . . and that’s of course the nature of history. It’s told by the victors. I think we all can accept that as great as this country is, the United States is (rightfully) ashamed of its slave-owning and trading heritage.

After knowing this fact, am I still proud to be an American? Of course I am. I know our nation isn’t perfect, but the ideals we embrace in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation and The Two Americas—are beautiful ones. Equality, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, the enfranchisement of individual rights, tolerance, public welfare, freedom of conscience—these ideals are ALL beautiful.

By Daniel Hartwig - Derivative of file:Colin Kaepernick and Kyle Williams warm up.jpg, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29243682
By Daniel Hartwig – Derivative of file:Colin Kaepernick and Kyle Williams warm up.jpg, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29243682

But I’m white. I’m privileged. I am privileged simply by dint of my ivory skin. If you question whether white privilege exists, then ask yourself this: why do we try to find a reason for why all black men are shot, while we search equally hard to justify why a white man had sex with an unwilling female? Why, in other words, is it easier, less frightening, less dangerous to be white than it is to be black in America?

I ask these questions in honor of International Peace Day. Until we understand why blacks are throwing rocks and water bottles at police officers in Charlotte, until we try to comprehend why so many blacks are being shot by white police officers, we will not have peace in our country. Peace exists only when those who are assigned the duty of serving and protecting us can set aside skin color when deciding who is worthy of protecting as opposed to who represents a threat to public order.

When Colin Kaepernick first kneeled, I wasn’t sure how I felt about his gesture. I recognize American greatness, and I love my country. Why can’t we stand in respect during a song that extols our country’s greatness, I mused. Standing quietly never hurt anyone. On the other hand, the act of kneeling was itself peaceful. It posed no threat to public order or the peace. It was an act of not even civil but social disobedience . . . and as such, don’t our very highest values protect a man’s right to speak up or fail to speak when his conscience demands otherwise?

When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in 1519, was he following social norms? I highly doubt it. He was rebelling against an established religious and political order because he thought it was corrupt. Priests, after all, were selling salvation for money. And when Martin Luther King led marches on the South, was he obeying the established political and social order? Of course not. He saw that there were two Americas; one white and privileged; the other, black, impoverished and oppressed. These two great Martins spoke out against the Establishment of their times.

Kaepernick speaks out against the killing of blacks by police officers, and he gets crucified by many for his outspoken assault on America. My question is: how is it not patriotic to speak out in favor of the sanctity of black lives, unless we as a country do not believe those lives really matter? Doesn’t it come down to whether we value the lives of all our citizens, including black lives, enough? If whites were suddenly the minority and whites were being killed at the rate blacks were being killed, wouldn’t white men and women feel attacked, appalled, and even embittered?

I really think that’s the issue at hand. Black lives for some reason don’t seem as precious as white lives. A black dies in the inner city? “Oh well, it’s just black on black crime,” we shrug. Or a black man is shot during a routine traffic stop? He must have done something wrong. He probably talked back to the cop, or maybe he had several outstanding tickets, or maybe he owned a gun, or perhaps he didn’t follow voice commands quickly or suppliantly enough. He MUST have done something to provoke the officer.

As one of my friends said, “Mothers worry for their black sons when he walks out the door to walk four blocks to his friend’s home not because he may get hit by a car or there might be rain but will he come home in a body bag at the hand of an officer of the law? A mother makes her black son call home every hour, on the hour, just to make sure he’s not in trouble. A black boy’s mother must think differently than a white boy’s mother. She must worry about the police, and whether they will hurt her son.”

As a white mother of white sons, I don’t have to worry that my son might be harassed by the police. I also don’t have to worry about getting pulled over. In fact, I’m famously lucky and well-treated by officers of the law. Every time I get pulled over, I receive a smile (sometimes many smiles) and assistance with my trunk and little stickers for my kids and directions to wherever I’m going. I cannot imagine what would happen if I were black. I know I wouldn’t get treated as well. And I know it would weigh on me. How about you? Would you feel angry or frightened if you were pulled over for an expired tag? Or if you were on your way home from work after a twelve hour day? Or if it was the fifth time you’d been pulled over that year—each time for nothing or next to nothing?

And yet as a black citizen, you must be perfect. A white can talk back to a cop, but blacks are taught to be on perfect behavior and hope for the best. This is wrong.

Photo by Tulsa Police
Photo by Tulsa Police

Our system says that we’re all created equal. And our officers of the peace are supposed to serve and protect all lives with the same ardor—and yet blacks are too often treated as more of a potential threat to safety than whites. In fact, the average black views the police as more a threat to his or her safety than he views the police as a source of safety. Again, this is wrong.

There’s been a disconnect in how our police officers are being trained. They’re taught to stay alive and make it home to their families, after all, and they are taught to distinguish between those in need and those who are a threat. The threat matrix police officers use is supposed to be color blind. Police officers are not supposed to treat blacks more suspiciously than they treat whites, but in general I think they do. At some point in the training process, police officers are either being taught to distinguish people based on color, or they’re not being trained to resist the urge to check skin color first, everything else, second.

That’s a bold statement, you might be thinking. But the black deaths keep piling up. The officers in Tulsa are now under investigation by the Department of Justice for the shooting of Terence Crutcher on Friday, September 16, 2016. The shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte involves conflicting reports by police and by family members of the deceased, and there is no available video footage to review. So I feel unable to analyze this shooting effectively. But the black deaths pile up, and as a peace advocate, I must ask why, and all I’m left with is that at least some if not most of these shootings could have and should have been avoided.

What’s the solution? Peaceful protests, like that of Colin Kaepernick, are a good starting place. Writing opinion pieces may help. Trying to understand the plight of blacks in America should most certainly help us better comprehend the problems involving law enforcement in this country. Reform of police training should also be undertaken immediately, and I would hope that federal and state governments would involve black leaders and civil rights leaders in this process.

If cops are killing blacks disproportionately and without justification, then people are dying unnecessarily. No one should be allowed to die unnecessarily. And it’s our duty as American citizens to make sure that all Americans receive equal treatment under the law, and at the hands of those who enforce that law. May peace and freedom reign—for all of us.

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