I’m sure at least some people who came of age during the 1960s like myself have an almost surreal and incredulous feeling when protesting in the streets against police brutality in 2016. I know I do.
Didn’t we, or shouldn’t we, have this figured out by now? Why does the government-sanctioned violence against black people continue?
I participated Saturday afternoon in a Black Lives Matter march and rally in downtown Tulsa in the aftermath of the police killing of 40-year-old Terence Crutcher last week. Police officials released a dash cam video showing Crutcher, a black man, had his arms up in a surrender gesture as he walked around his car. They also confirmed he was not in possession of a weapon.
The police officer who shot him, Betty Shelby, who is white, has been charged with first-degree manslaughter.
I won’t rehash the facts of the case, which I wrote about earlier here and here. What I want to do in this post is deal with the two larger ideas: (1) The history of and lingering racism in the country, and (2) the white silence that continues to allow its existence within our nation’s major institutions, such as police departments.
We must remind ourselves consistently that the legal foundation of this country was founded on racist principles by white slave owners and the removal of American Indians from their ancestral lands. We must teach our children this fact early and consistently. European immigration here was connected in a larger philosophical sense to white supremacy and the British empire. Embedded in the concept of empire is an immoral value system that makes skin color an indicator of human value.
Supposedly we live in a postcolonial, post-empire world now, but the vestiges of colonialism and empire remain with us in such a powerful way in this country that the descendants of slaves and any person of color still live in fear for their lives by the very institutions, such as police departments, they support financially with tax dollars to protect them.
Obviously, what happened to Terence Crutcher is both part of a contemporary pattern of violence against black people and the history of overall police brutality. There have been so many killings of black people recently that their names get blurred, and it’s difficult to remember the individual cases. Crutcher. Scott. Castile. Sterling. Brown. The list goes on.
The new pattern and our history are intertwined, and to ignore it is dangerous for everyone, not just people of color. If people are getting gunned down indiscriminately in the streets by agents acting on behalf of their government, then it means you can or will be next no matter what your skin color.
Dr. Martin Luther King gave us a beginning and a lasting vision out of the hatred and bigotry with the Civil Rights Movement and peaceful protests, but it should go without saying there’s more to be done. If this last summer of racial strife accompanied by police brutality in this country has taught us anything, it’s that.
There were many white people who helped along the righteous cause of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, of course, but the history shows the movement was led and inspired in black churches by black religious leaders.
This time around it’s somewhat different, and the protest voices of white people are vitally needed. Our current president is a person of color, of mixed ethnicities, but that doesn’t mean we live in a so-called post-racial era or that institutionalized bigotry still doesn’t exist. Barack Obama’s presidency doesn’t mean all is well in Ferguson or Tulsa. In fact, the racism Obama and his family have from extremists has been staggering.
One of the best or saddest (take your pick) signs at the march Saturday that went on a twisting route from the Center of the Universe plaza to the Tulsa County Courthouse, proclaimed, “White Silence Is Violence.”
I get that it can be difficult for some white people to talk about race or the impact skin color has on a person’s treatment in a society, but we must talk about it, no matter how awkward it might be. Just using the terms “black people” and “white people” can seem too general or almost crass, but we have to find ways to speak and connect. Find your voice, and use it.
White complacency cannot continue as black people continue to get gunned down by bad cops in our streets, and, of course, the caveat is always that there are good cops, too. The good cops need to speak up as well.
All police officers should wear body cameras. We need engaged citizen review boards of police departments. Officers need better training on how to de-escalate confrontations. We need more people of color in our police departments.These are solid ideas, all endorsed by social justice groups like Black Lives Matter and the American Civil Liberties Union, but nothing is going to happen until people speak up.
One more thing: The charges against Shelby represent only a beginning, not a victory. The charges could get dropped or amended. She could be acquitted.
As we marched Saturday in the blistering heat in Tusa, we chanted, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” and I got that incredulous feeling I mentioned at the beginning of the post. This was my second Black Lives Matter protest this year. Why does hate persist? Why aren’t more people concerned?