By Robert Covington, Jr.
Here we go again. Another story in the news about the death of an unarmed black man (and woman in this case) by law enforcement followed by an acquittal. In Cleveland, Judge O’Donnell found police officer Michael Brele not guilty of all charges in the 2012 deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams.
In his decision, the judge used terms such as fear of “endangering the public” and “sacrificing” a police officer as part of his reactionary impulse to see no wrong in the actions of a police officer who stood on top of a car and pumped fifteen more bullets through a windshield to assure death has come to these two individuals while dismissively ignoring the previous hundred rounds that were fired by other police officers and Brele a few minutes earlier.
Let me continue by noting that I am black, the proud son of a retired police officer and harbor no reflexive hatred for the police. I was blessed to have a father who wore his badge with honor and felt privileged to protect us as citizens. I, along with my mother and brother lived with the daily reality that our father may not make it home to his family. It is part of the job description and it is something that all families of police officers deal with in their own way. But what is happening is beyond personal anecdotes. The deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott and many others who never made the national headlines, is a reminder to society that many families that have black boys and men feel our own daily anxiety about what the day will bring. However, they are not parallel and it shouldn’t be this way.
What can we learn from these tragedies and realities? So many lessons but I’ll only share a few. We can reframe the barber shop, kitchen table, local and national headline conversations about poor policing that result in abuse and death of its Black citizens in a way that demands prosecution by all of us, regardless of race. The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates and Salon's D. Watkins have written eloquently about the historicity of state-sponsored violence and depths of police brutality against African Americans. When will America start to see these are not coincidences. The integrity of the profession is at stake. The integrity of our country is at stake.
I’ve learned from these tragedies that police officers would benefit from self-examination and sociological training that is ongoing while serving communities across the country. The reality of policing certain areas in large urban cities and policing in Malibu, California or Alpine, New Jersey is just different, but not offsetting when it comes to the need of a reality check of one’s thoughts and beliefs when they encounter a Black person. Well to do blacks, not immune. Remember the Henry Gates fiasco? Conversely, when a police officer is dealing with violent crimes and other elements of negative behavior with greater frequency due to the concentration of poverty in some areas, certain attitudes, perspectives and tolerance levels are constantly tested. If you encounter Black people, a police officer is reacting and processing his/her thoughts before their time of arrival. What we’ve seen across the country is illustrative for the need of police officers to be more scrutinizing of his/her propensity to be desensitized to Black humanity.
We continue to see vigilance twisted into vigilantism. Cries for justice have been countered with perverse justification. Racial cataract American surgery that doesn't result in 20/20 vision. Stomach turning violence caught on candid camera. As our own Bob Cesca articulated in The Daily Banter, we continue to see a chasm in presenting these events along partisan, and often racial lines. But the reality is that we've got to invest in deeper analysis of what recycles disunity. We need each other.
These revelations lead me to my final point. Stereotypes and perceptions are often the driver behind our human discourse. And awareness is one of the keys to combating it. So I leave you with this:
When you think of a black man, don’t see fear, otherness or pathology. See human, resilience, complexity, a part of, and difference.
When you think of a black man, think of our contributions to society with unpaid labor (enslavement) to the worldwide impact of inventions and product enhancements by men such as Garrett Morgan and George Washington Carver, just to name a few.
When you think of a black man, flush out inaccurate assumptions that every black man is uber-athletic and phallically gifted. When cross-racial interactions occur, let’s break bread and talk about our life experiences, the influence of family on our worldview, our philosophy, education, hobbies and interests.
When you think of a black man, think about the 80-85 percent who go to a job every day, whether it’s a short-order cook, cashier, lawyer, janitor, educator, security guard or President that handle their business with responsibility and consistency.
When you think of a black man, think about our humanity under constant attack. Be willing to learn about how racial construction of America didn’t start with us creating it. Be willing to learn about the structures of our system that permeate poverty, limits social mobility, access, opportunity and the human conditions and choices that result from it.
When you think of a black man, understand that Black love does not always involve another woman “on the side.” That most relationships strive for richness, monogamy and true intimacy.
Robert Covington Jr. is a writer of political, social, life and cultural issues. Trained social worker, mental health therapist, clinical management.