Blog RSS

The Fear at the Heart of the Fear (Commentary from WMC Live with Robin Morgan 7/16/16)

| July 16, 2016

You can smell it and taste it, all across the Republic. Fear. Of violence--from terrorists, from cops, by cops, from other citizens.

You can see the fear of average citizens, who express it, along with their shock and grief, in all the makeshift memorials: the teddy bears, flowers, candles,  and  scribbled notes left as if they were superstitious tokens of respect to the dead by those left alive--and afraid for themselves.

All these memorials, and all the moments of silence, and all the clichés, from chants like "no Justice no peace" to murmurs like "I'm sorry for your loss" and "thank you for your service," and speeches that proclaim we must "open a dialogue," "hold another public hearing," "unify.", we mouth these platitudes and perform these rites by rote now, while nothing seems to change--and while a grotesquely racist, serious presidential contender talks about himself as the law and order candidate.

A new study by the Center for Policing Equity confirms that in interactions between police and civilians, when force is used, the race of the person being stopped by officers is significant, and found that although officers employ force in less than 2 percent of all police-civilian interactions, the use of police force is disproportionately high for African-Americans––more than three times greater for European Americans.  We've known this all along, haven't we? Although, yes, it's useful to have definitive proof. Fatal shootings by police are up in the first six months of 2016 nationwide, according to an ongoing two-year study by The Washington Post. This year has also seen more officers shot and killed in the line of duty, and more officers prosecuted for questionable shootings.

But despair can paralyze us, so it's vital to notice what has changed, however insufficient that is.

One change is the presence of technology, including new live-streaming services and apps, which offer the ability not just to record but to broadcast events as they unfold. So important has citizen documentation of police encounters become that the American Civil Liberties Union and other such groups have created smartphone apps to allow onlookers to observe, record, and report on the spot evidence.

Another change is the growing number of police chiefs who are African American, like Atlanta's George Turner, who openly says he has had moments of fearing police when he's not in uniform. Or Dallas police chief David Brown--whose own son killed and was killed by a cop. Such a crossover of realities is one that everyone needs to not just hear but listen to. They are the translators whose insights could show the way toward authentic change to what used to be called community control in policing.

(As an ironic aside, the Dallas shooter, Micah Johnson, reportedly wanted to be a cop; he also was reportedly discharged from the Army after sexually harassing a female soldier who reported him as severely disturbed and even had to file a protective order against him. There it is again--the canary in the mine--an abused woman offstage in the wings of a killer's onstage life.)

In fact, the third element of change in these tragedies is composed of women. They're coming forth and nothing can stop them, by god.

Lezley McSpadden, the mother of Michael Brown, now dead almost 2 years, wrote an op-ed about how the mothers--Sabrina Fulton, Wanda Johnson, and so many more--help each other survive. Many of them  have been traveling the country, funded by the Clinton campaign, to speak out against the proliferation of guns and  for changes in the criminal justice system. Each mother bleeds fresh blood from old wounds when joined by a new member.

McSpadden writes: "We mothers are expected to say something, to help keep the peace.  But what can I possibly say? We wake up and go to sleep with this pain. Ain't no peace. As for the ones who say justice will prevail, I ask 'whose justice'?  When justice comes to the one who did not pull the trigger, that's when I'll believe you."

For that matter, when we intone the names of Michael Brown and Treyvon Martin and Eric Garner and Walter Scott and Oscar Grant and so many other black men, and now Philando Castille  and Alton Sterling, I for one will not forget the names of Renisha McBride and Natasha McKenna and Tanisha Anderson and Rekia Boyd and Sandra Bland--and all the other black women who died at the hands of police.

These deaths must not be dismissively memorialized. No, not even while the nation mourns the death of five European American police officers in Dallas––Lorne Ahrens, Michael Kroll, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa, and grieves with their widows and mothers--not even now, while we pay tribute to the other white Dallas cops who were severely wounded by the sniper, including one woman officer, Misty McBride, age 32.

But I'll tell you where there is hope. Hope is Diamond Reynolds, the young Minnesota woman who made the world bear witness to the murder of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, by keeping her smart phone's live-streaming app rolling while he bled to death beside her. In a staggering show of courage and calm--with her four-year-old daughter in the backseat!--Reynolds kept streaming, and not just tears but information. Even when addressing the officer who had just killed the man she loved, she called the cop "sir." "You shot four bullets into him sir." "He was just getting his license and registration, sir." So the cop wouldn't shoot her, too. Even when she finally gave into the horror, screaming, sitting handcuffed in the back of a police car, her little girl stepped up to try and bring comfort saying "It's okay, Mommy, I'm right here with you."

We know about the little girl because Mommy kept the app streaming.   I will believe this country is serious about change when the budget for matériel to militarize local police departments is spent instead on more intensive training programs for police officers. I'll believe it when the underlying conditions of crime in any community are addressed by massive programs to create jobs, alleviate poverty and elevate education. I'll believe this country is serious about racism when it so resoundingly defeats the hatred promulgated by Donald Trump that the message is unavoidably clear.

It doesn't have to be this way. I live in New York City's Greenwich Village, where during Gay Pride weekend this June, the police cars were painted in rainbow colors, with slogans reading "We mourn for Orlando." These not just temporary decorations, not decals or paste-ons.  The cars had been repainted, and most of the officers wore rainbow ribbons-- right at the streetcorner where decades ago cops had beaten and brutalized gay rights demonstrators. I'm not comparing homophobia to racism or either one to sexism, because I find any  competition of suffering a failure of ethical nerve.

Yet this did make me cry--because it was evidence of change.

Fear of change is the fear at the heart of all this tragedy.

And at the heart of that heart lies another, even greater fear: not that we are different, but that we are the same.

That cop car reminded me that cops can change, communities can change, we can change this climate of fear--in the streets, in the legislatures, at home and at work and at the ballot box. But the time grows short in which to do that.

Meanwhile, we need to keep streaming, even more strongly: not just tears, but information--and political will.

Copyright  © 2016 by Robin Morgan All Rights Reserved

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.