December 11, 2014 – My mother didn’t save much from my youth. She either told me to take it or she tossed it. Why then was the one thing she saved, and never mentioned, an old sweatshirt from my freshman year in college?
At first I didn’t know what to do with it. In spite of the fact that it still fits, I would never wear it. Yesterday I rediscovered it while cleaning out a closet. Its message hit me like a hammer.
As I unfolded the shirt, a flood of youthful images welled up in my memory. The sweatshirt was meant to send a strong protest message long ago. It’s a message relevant then and sadly still today Perhaps it says a lot – about times then and now. It certainly does not speak of progress.
Where I was a student semesters ended with intense study for final exams punctuated by activities to reduce tension and celebrate. Filling the campus fountains with laundry soap thereby flooding the environs with copious mounds of foamy suds was a typically benign prank.
We lived in separate girls and boys dorms (we weren’t described as men and women then and the girls had curfews). In the spirit of those more innocent times, toward the end of exam week annual spontaneous panty raids miraculously erupted as if they hadn’t been anticipated for days or even weeks.
Mostly nothing we did amounted to much. The guys would mill around outside the girls’ dorms and the gals tossed forbidden fruit out the window. At some point, everyone got tired and returned to their dorms or frat houses and it was over. Other times things got more lively.
That spring the crowd (of probably not less than 1,000) surged down a campus side street that passed through Greek town heading for a nearby neighborhood. The local police decided that was far enough and put up barriers. The thwarted students milled around trying to figure out where to go next.
I hugged the fringe of that throng (mob) knowing that behavior was trending toward rowdiness and might get out of hand. It did, in one terrible way.
For what may have seemed like a good idea at the time, a student grabbed an officer’s soft police hat that had been left in a police car lieu of his riot helmet.
The young man ignored orders to stop as he scampered away with this looted trophy. Then a pistol shot forever fractured that night’s innocence. The student had been shot in the back. In the flash of a gunshot, the darkness of night had been redefined. Middleclass white kids that we were, we collected our shattered virtue and rapidly dispersed without further prompting.
I wore this shirt for the two days remaining in the semester. My mother must have found it in the laundry I dragged home, washed it and archived it for future discovery either to remind me of the foolishness of youth, or that I’d done something right. It was probably the former.
The contemporary relevance of this decades old shooting is simple. Petty theft, the stealing of a cheap uniform hat, is not a capital crime; and neither is tax evasion by selling loose cigarettes on a street corner, walking down the middle of the street, playing with a toy gun as a child, or arguing with a cop for that matter.
No crime should be excused or ignored in the debate, but actions taken in response by police officers resulting in the death of suspects, should neither be as prevalent as they are, nor should police officers be able to act with what seems to be impunity. There are consequential issues in play.
The police on the urban campus where I recently worked had plenty to worry about with armed robberies occurring regularly on and off campus as students walked home at night. Yet, they were experts at deescalating situations involving drunk and/or out of control students. Their first order of business was to take care of the students and avoid arresting them whenever possible.
Yet the cop reality shows and street video too often tell a different story with police behaving in ways that escalate situations. Yelling and macho antics can only serve to stimulate suspects’ adrenaline flow and consequently their fight or flight instincts. Neither behavior is what the cops should want; nor is either of these courses of action in the suspect’s best interest. Resisting arrest can get you killed – then and now.
Add to this that racial minorities, especially African-Americans are overwhelmingly victims and reasonable people have to ask, “Why?”
Could it be post 9-11 paranoia? Could it be the largely unnecessary militarization of police forces? Could it be macho cop culture? Could it be the use of dehumanizing words like “Thug” to describe suspected African-American criminals? Could it be ignorance? Could it be lack of or insufficient training? Could it be personnel practices that allow some of the wrong people to become cops? Could it be the huge numbers and military types of weapons possessed by criminals on our streets? Could it be other forces in society?
It’s probably all of the above and then some.
I’ve been around police more than most. I’ve gone on countless “ride-alongs” and gotten to know cops when their hair was down.
I can’t say I love cops in the role that they play (after all, they have guns, Tasers and clubs with wide discretion to use them on unarmed citizens), but I do hold them in deep and sincere respect. They do a very difficult and often thankless job.
Think of police officers as society’s proctologists. The view of life they see is not necessarily the most attractive. In spite of it all, I’ve found most of them to be upright citizens, excellent parents and a few have become good friends.
Yet enough is enough. Recent events and the continuum of time establish that the criminal justice systems needs overhaul.
From ambitious district attorneys who plan to run for higher office based on their high conviction rates, to courts that execute innocent people, the issues are self-evident.
Judging by those marching in our streets, a pot full of angry protesters believe it is time for a change that every member of our society ought to think about.
I consider myself lucky that certain Black friends, subordinates, superiors and mentors have taken me into their trust to share aspects of their lives that are invisible to those of us who are not Black.
In 1970, while on an Army training exercise, my platoon sergeant and I had, what for me was a defining moment.
Somehow we were discussing the differences in white and African-American culture. I brought up values related to Calvinism – hard work, modesty etc. In such cultures members are judged on substance over superficial. That led to his explanation of why people who lived in shacks drove fancy cars. In a Calvinistic sense, their priorities were wrong I opined. He patiently explained how hard is was for African-Americans to get well-paying jobs. He offered that several families would join up to buy a nicer car, say a Buick or a used Cadillac, so that they could have at least some modicum of respectability as they went about their business.
At another point I served as what was then called a race relations and equal opportunity officer while waiting for a command. I already new that cops in towns next to military bases like to rough up drunk soldiers. It didn’t take long to notice that the Black ones got disproportionally beaten up in comparison to their white peers.
Later, a Black Army general who was my mentor allowed as how he constantly worried about “driving while Black” when he was out of uniform.
I have dozens more examples, so please allow me to assert that these issues are real and unique to comm
There are no easy answers, but the credibility of our courts, law enforcement, and legislative bodies are increasingly being called into question. As Joan Rivers used to say, “Can we talk?”
Here are links to recent articles that offer expanded insights into the subject of this blog post and may help inform the discussion.