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Confronting Racism

After the grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, people were talking about solutions. Maybe requiring police officers to wear video cameras would encourage them to use less force when confronting potential criminals; if that didn’t work, at least there would be clear evidence to help indict the officer. Maybe it’s time to revoke the right of police officers to carry guns and use other equipment that can best be described as “military.” That would reduce their ability to harm suspects, protesters, and bystanders alike – potentially helping everyone be safer.

But then another grand jury declined to indict Daniel Pantaleo for killing Eric Garner using an illegal choke hold – despite being able to watch a video of it happening because a passerby recorded it. The officer didn’t need a gun to use lethal force, so while disarming police may have some benefits, it isn’t going to solve this problem. More importantly, though, clear video evidence apparently isn’t enough to charge a police officer with a crime!

At least, not of the officer is white and the victim is black.

The problem – and solution – have nothing to do with technology and everything to do with racism. Before this happened, I hadn’t acknowledged how pervasive – and deadly – racism is. (Obviously I’m white, and that’s part of my privilege.) I’ll admit, I thought people in such a diverse and generally liberal city/area as New York would be more enlightened or something.

But I can’t point “over there” (at Missouri) and look down my nose at “those people” for refusing to send a white man to trial after he killed a black man. At least “those people” have the excuses of ambiguous testimony and listening to a prosecutor who was determined to exonerate the defendant.

I have to look in the mirror. I have to wonder what I would have done if I had been on the grand jury observing the evidence against Pantaleo. I think it’s ridiculous to have a trial to determine whether there should be a trial, so I think I would have held true to that belief if nothing else. But if I were faced with 11 other racist white people (Yes, I acknowledge that I am racist. No, I don’t want a cookie.) If I were looking into the faces of 11 other racist white people, would I hold my ground? Would I use my privilege to stand up for the people whose subjugation provides it?

There are protests everywhere and I haven’t been to one, yet. I’m afraid of experiencing the very police brutality I’d be there to protest. I’m deeply saddened by the efforts of the NYPD to silence protesters on the same day a young-looking white woman, Chief Joanna Jaffe, created the #wehearyou hashtag. I was hopeful that maybe things would be different in the great enlightened city of New York. But even if Joanna hears you, and even if most of the police officers in the country hear you, the force as a whole doesn’t.

But I’ve deflected again. It’s easy to point fingers at the police and decline to participate in protests when it isn’t your existence that’s being threatened. I can read and re-post articles black people have written about the topic. I can talk about how fucked up the whole situation is – and allow myself to be silenced by people either defending police officers or criticizing black protesters. I can use the #blacklivesmatter hashtag – and decline to argue against use of the #alllivesmatter hashtag…

But I’m not ready to throw my lot in with black people and other people of color. (To be honest, recent events have me more grateful than ever that I’m not one of them.) I’m not willing to risk experiencing in an act of civil disobedience what they experience regularly just for existing in their skin.

I’m not trying to be mean and it’s not that I don’t think this is important. It’s a limitation I’m facing, and as much as I want to believe I’ll overcome it, I honestly don’t know whether I will or what it will take. I wonder how many other white people feel the same way and what – if anything – we can do about it. We need to do something.

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