Impotent. Yes, that is a good word. Approximately one month ago, on August 9, while I watched events unfold in Ferguson, Missouri, I felt impotent.
I felt this despite being a privileged, college-educated, Northern-born African-American man with a public profile. I’ve accomplished a lot, participating in history-making events more than once. As a life-long Alaskan, I’ve enjoyed friendships across class and race; yet, as I watched national news footage of Mike Brown’s body lying in the street, I felt impotent.
That could be me or one of my baby brothers, I thought. I relived memories of my younger self interacting with Anchorage police, who twice brandished their guns at me. I remembered the lessons my parents taught me: “It is better to lose face, or drop your ego in the moment, than lose your life. Just do what the officer says.”
In this moment, that’s the best advice a parent can give. The New York-based Malcolm X Grassroots Movement promotes a startling fact. Using the same method the NAACP used to document lynching during the early 1900s, it estimates that an African American citizen dies once every 28 hours at the hands of police, security guards, or vigilantes. (The study has been controversial, as it incorrectly identified the statistic as representative of “unarmed” African Americans. But the actual numerical figure holds true.) The Los Angeles Youth Justice Coalition recently released a report stating police killed a Black person once a week for the past 14 years. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution filed a report of a police officer killing a Black man, then leaving the body in the street for three hours, on September 19, 2014.
Thinking about all of this, I re-read the article I wrote about the killing of Shane Tasi here in Anchorage in 2011. In contrast, a white man was able to hold police officers at bay for 10 hours in Fairbanks. He had a gun and a hostage. How was he able to accomplish this feat? He had a hostage, called into a television station and threatened to kill himself. I thought about the theatre shooting in Aurora, Colorado, where, despite being heavily armed, the white man was taken into custody, not killed on the spot.
In short, I made police officers into racist monsters in my head.
When I saw Black neurosurgeon Ben Carson on Fox News making a compelling case for the humanity of the police, I screamed at the screen: “Sell out!”
It felt like he was helping an open enemy get away with killing me; justifiable homicide. All of this broke my heart.
I don’t like to cry when frustrated, so I got mad. Every part of me wanted confirmation that I, as an individual, possessed the power to protect myself and those who I love from police brutality.
I cheered the protests. I cheered the rioting. I wanted white Americans to somehow feel the fear and anxiety that I was experiencing.
However, that complicated things, because monsters cannot feel fear. Otherwise, they aren’t monsters.
Then, and now, I have resisted any implication that the situation in Ferguson was, or is, more complicated than pure racism. If more than outright murder occurred, it makes white police officers human.
Human, like me.
If given the right stimulus, humans can change. I know this because I grow and change under the right stimulus, usually
prompted by an older person.
On January 14, 1980, Anchorage police officers fired into a Mountain View home and killed a mentally-challenged man named Cassell Williams. He was our version of Mike Brown; our Trayvon Martin.
I was six years old, attending Fairview Elementary, when this incident happened. Despite an intense, eight-month review process spurred by renowned community members, I’d never heard of the incident before. Icons, like lawyer M. Ashley Dickerson, former legislator Bettye Davis, and Ed Wesley — then president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) — were present.
There is a reason: the African American community spoke like human beings to the police and provided the right stimulus for the police department to change its policies. Wesley grew up in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement. He did not choose to paint the police in 1980 with the broad stroke of hatred the police in the 1960s displayed towards him.
Police Chief Brian Porter eventually hammered out a 13-point, two-page agreement with Wesley.
Ed Wesley, M. Ashley Dickerson, and Bettye Davis did not act from a space of impotency, or fear, which produced the change they wanted.
I am 40 years old. All my life I have read newspaper accounts of police officers killing those who look like me. Those accounts have sown a tremendous amount of fear in me over those in blue uniforms. I want the fear I feel to stop. For it to stop, I have to make a conscious choice to replace the fear I have of them with guarded trust.
I imagine if I actually muster the courage to have a one-on-one talk with a police officer one day, I might even learn that in the face of politically motivated budget cuts, forced overtime, and poor community relationships, he or she feels impotent too.
That’s why riots and major protests don’t happen here in Anchorage. If I really wanted to, I could reach out to said police officer and discover his or her humanity.
Being human isn’t a black and white — or blue — issue. It is many shades of gray.