"I can't breathe! I can't breathe!" Those were the last words of a black man gang-bullied by four New York city cops, for allegedly selling cigarettes illegally. He was, according to pathology reports, killed by a stranglehold to his neck, another allegedly illegal act. His name was Eric Garner.
And in a somewhat similar manner to the "hands-up, don't shoot" refrain that provided the rhythm section to the protests in Ferguson Missouri, following the decision of the Grand Jury not to indict the officer who shot Michael Brown, the New York (plus most other major cities') protests followed the decision by law enforcement not to indict the officer who put the chokehold on Garner that ended his life.
First there is a dramatic incident between police and black men, resulting in the death of the black man. Then there is a series of spontaneous and sometimes violent responses from the black community, joined invariably by whites and others, crying out for justice. Then there is a predictable period of 'investigation' and contemplation by the authorities, as to whether or not to proceed with charges against law enforcement. And then, when that 'expectation' fails to be met, in the laying of charges that would and could only be resolved through a formal court proceeding, the same people who were outraged by the initial killing are even more outraged by the second decision not to prosecute. Some would call this a second victimization.
It is somewhat analogous to the physics of a car crash in which the initial impact is severe, but the whiplash following the initial impact is the real killer. And the mass protesters can be seen as suffering from the whiplash of the second chapter in this social, political and cultural drama under the theatre lights reading "Race" in the American theatre.
Seen from the perspective that American "life" is organized around the motif of the theatre, all the actors are now 'in the picture' especially with the smart phones in millions of hands shooting all public events, especially those involving conflict. All the actors are also engaged in the writing of the script that is being enacted spontaneously on the streets of many of the major cities across the country. And the drama's roots, its language, and instruments are historically based while somewhat chaotic and unpredictable in their outcomes.
Just last night, while sitting on the floor of the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, at half-time in the Toronto Raptors' game with the Cleveland Cavaliers (and LeBron James) former NBA greats, Charles Barkley and Irving (Magic) Johnson were being interview by Rod Black. It was Barkley who articulated the irony of his invitation to Toronto to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the death of Nelson Mandela as part of the Raptors' tribute to the African leader at the very time when the cities in the U.S. are witnessing these mass protests. He wondered out loud if the United States has or could find a leader who could incarnate the Mandela rejection of violence against his jailors, after twenty-seven years of imprisonment under apartheid.
The media reports now include the words "Law enforcement is broken in this country!" "Black lives matter" is written on placards carried by many in the streets. The White House holds "talks" with law enforcement about how to bridge the divide between the police and the black community. Advocates of the "broken window" theory of law enforcement, ( in which the small criminal acts are addressed forcefully in the belief that larger criminal acts will be thwarted, as espoused by then mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani in the 1990's) have resurfaced, this time with a far different public response. While major crimes declined under the theory in the 90's, this time, the police over-reactions are fueling massive public backlash.
If a black man is not safe walking down the street of a major city, or even a smaller city like Ferguson, because the police who are charged with public safety and protection start from the premise that that black man is "dangerous" and a threat to the very public safety they are there to ensure, and if that premise is engrained into the psyche of police officers, under the guise of "duty," then those police officers have become more of a threat to the public safety than the black man they arrest, gang-bully, and finally shoot and kill. And if the ensuing investigation and reflection of the evidence by those charged with the decision to prosecute the police officers rejects further legal action including charges and a court hearing, then the whole of the law enforcement apparatus becomes suspect in the minds and the hearts and the psyches of those who believe that justice is no longer available to their community.
Having spent several hours in front of the class of aspiring police cadets, in a private career college in Canada, attempting to instill a sense of open-mindedness, restraint from charging into already inflamed circumstances with an already held bias, along with an urgent sense of duty to find an offender, without fully appreciating the complications of the situation, and quite literally failing in my obvious objective, I am painfully cognizant of the divide that is marching through the streets in the U.S. I also spent several months working as an "alien" in a predominantly white community in the U.S. 'outback' where racism ran rampant, especially anti-black and anti-Latino racism, and I can feel the ostracism and the alienation of the black community, without being black myself. (Of course, my experience is not nearly so searing as that of the Brown family and the Garner family, and the hundreds of other black families from which one of their own has been ripped by the abuse of power by white police officers.)
Police cadets aspire to exercise power; from my perspective that is a very powerful motive for their enlisting in their chosen career. There is a uniform, a weapon, a unique head dress, and a hierarchy of authority that has underpinned the culture of law enforcement for centuries. There is also the allure of heroism and the seduction of honour and duty in the many public relations gestures that accompany the role of law enforcement. Along with those 'percs', come the entertainment icons of police drama in both television and movies, in which the "wild west" is re-enacted in the streets and the ghettos of every town and city in the country. Linked to the "sheriff" archetype who keeps the town safe, is the almost cult-like quality of public respect and even awe for the danger in which law enforcement officers operate on a daily basis. Their families never know when they will get that dreaded call, either in person or on their phone, that their loved one is "down" from the wanton act of violence perpetrated by a person whose life has been turned over to the punishment of police officers and the "establishment" in whatever manner they can pursue. And examples of killed police officers by unrepentant killers abound both in Canada and the United States.
Add into this already dangerous cocktail of influences the issue of the relations between the majority race and the minorities whose lives and communities those primarily white police officers are contracted to protect. In Canada, for the most part, the minority has been First Nations, while in the United States that minority has been primarily black. And accompanying that ingredient is the history of the influences that have shaped the officers' perceptions of minorities that has formed the crock-pot of his cultural 'education' and formation, too often a perception and a belief that whatever the minority, it has not lived up to the standards of the majority.
And when the divide between the majority and the minority is sanctioned and legitimized through the training and the official "enlistment" into the shrine of the police academy and culture, the forces that meet in the streets are obviously and inevitably explosive. And we have not even noted the growing divide between the levels of education and the employment and wage levels of majority and minority communities, all of which directly and indirectly contribute to the canyon of mistrust and the imbalance of power in the majority and minority communities. And then there are the social and domestic differences, including the proportion of single-parent families, between the black and white communities.
Alienation, and the feeling that one needs some kind of protection in an unfriendly world, often lead to the formation of small groups of young men whose lives can become so entwined that they literally enter into "gang" relationships linked too often to illicit activities. And of course, underpinning all of these cultural and economic influences are the stereotypes that abound in the entertainment models of the clash between the "good guys" and the "bad guys" that are played incessantly on a flood of television channels.
Integrating minority police officers into police recruiting efforts, and then deploying those minority officers in their own communities is a useful step toward accommodation. However, it is merely a bandaid in the needed transformation in race relations. Ultimately, authority is and can only be exercised in a climate of deep, profound and sustained trust between those in power and those over whom that power is to be exercised. And that trust is not garnered from the uniforms of power, nor from the laws enacted to be enforced on the streets. It is not garnered from the high-tech equipment necessary to compete with the criminal element. Nor is it garnered from the capacity to keep precise notes on every case, available whenever the police officer is called to testify. Trust is only garnered and sustained through the reduction of fear, both on the part of the public and also on the part of the public law enforcement agents and their collective agencies. And fear is only reduced, if not ever eliminated, through a conscious campaign that includes formal and informal education, exposure and integration of all ethnicities within the law enforcement agencies and outside those agencies to the towns and the cities in which they operate. Integration of classrooms, clubs, volunteer groups, and even families themselves, will go a long way to alleviate some of the basic distrust that continues to undermine efforts to resolve differences between the authorities and their respective publics.
Those in authority also have to learn the principle that their legitimacy depends almost exclusively on their own fair-minded exercise of their responsibilities, and less on the protests or adorations of their opponents and worshippers respectively. Respect, in the end, is less extrinsically dependent on the words and actions of "others" than on the intrinsically and authentically ingrained practice of those innate standards of ethical principles that transcend culture, race, religion and ethnicity.
We all know the right thing to do, in almost all circumstances. And if we are even slightly confused, we can always inquire from a colleague or even a professional resource, about the unique and often grey areas of concern in the situation. And yet, and this is especially true among men, we need not fear the false dishonour that too often accompanies the search for clarity sought by those attempting to resolve an ethical conflict in their mind. Asking for direction, prior to taking impulsive and often dangerous actions, just to protect our "machismo" (or our masculinity, or our power over others) may seem ridiculous to one who is facing a perceived "threat" with nanoseconds to respond. However, a habit of asking for another opinion, asking for directions, asking for help is not yet an established model of doing life or business in a world in which competition is the driving force. And it is clearly not ingrained in the practice and procedure manual for police officers. Nor is the painful process of becoming intimate with one's own cultural and racial biases, and thereby attempting to reduce their unconscious impact, especially when the adrenalin is flowing through the veins.
Human activity, and the "good life" that such activity attempts to attain, is not based on the exclusive operation of "public" and external influences and resources in a manner akin to the application of medical procedures for the elimination or reduction of specific tumors. It has at least as much, if not more, to do with the internal reinforcement within each individual, of a level of awareness that appreciates who s/he is, where s/he comes from, how s/he has been wounded and injured in the course of the decades already passed, and how s/he has or has not begun the painful process of integrating those dark memories and experiences into a consciousness that is prepared to accept both weakness (not as failure or a sign of incompetence) and strength (not as superiority or a sign of power over).
It is our individual weakness and woundedness that makes the social and collaborative engine operate in its most healthy manner. And it is our cultural denial of this principle that ensnares too many of our public actions and perceptions and attitudes, in the false belief that acquiring symbols of power (wealth, status, authority) makes us successful while asking for help, taking a moment to reflect on our capacity to put ourselves in the shoes of the "hooded black man" even for a nanosecond, before we take the revolver out of the holster, that makes us human.
And, when we reach for the automatic weapon, in our own automatic response, we not only endanger the other human being, we also endanger the highest principles of our social contract and the most revered and intimate values of our person (when separated from those extrinsic uniforms of power)....and those values include a grasp of the many instruments that support the healthy reduction of conflict, and the healthy levelling of the playing field for all that ironically reduce the need for excessive public responses to petty and predictable actions by those who would be included and not dispossessed, in a world in which all are not only permitted but actively encouraged to participate, at their best level.
And when we stop and reflect on the world of "winners" and "losers" that undergirds many of our public discussions, including those discussions in the most ornate parlours and faculty lounges in the nations, and reflect on our unconscious collaboration in that Manichean world view, (in which we always place ourselves in the 'winners' or wannabee-winners circle) and those whose lives do not either emulate ours or measure up to our expectations, without stopping to reflect on how hollow and meaningless those expectations are, especially when they are imposed without acceptance and compliance on whomever we can impose them on, we actively participate in constructing an unsustainable social, political and economic culture. And we sow the seeds of our own demise, just as we are doing so impetuously and impulsively and narcissistically with our wanton and very conscious carbon pollution of our shared water, land and air.