criminal justice, politics

Black Lives Matter


Last July I went to a local Black Lives Matter vigil.  It had been a hard week.  A really hard and depressing week.  Videos on successive days showed two different black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, dying at the hands of police officers.  Then, when tensions were already high, almost to the breaking point, a peaceful protest in Dallas was interrupted by gunfire as a disgruntled man targeted the police officers who facilitated the protest.  He killed five officers and injured more.  All of these deaths were awful.

The vigil I attended was a way for the community here in Sioux Falls to stand in solidarity with other affected communities.  Sioux Falls is a predominantly white city.  In 2010 our population was nearly 87% white (compared to the U.S. as a whole, which in 2010 was 72% white), but it’s becoming less white, just as the rest of the U.S. is becoming less white.

I had decided that I wanted to participate in the vigil because I wanted to mourn with those who mourn, and because I wanted to affirm the worth and value of black lives in my community and in my country.

The plan was to march to the County Administration building.  We met several blocks away on an empty lot next to what passes for a major artery through town.  I saw a few friends milling around, and I was relieved to see the familiar faces. There was a local TV news crew and a reporter or two, interviewing the organizers of the march. I had forgotten to bring a sign.

The organizer gathered everyone around and then she read the last words of black people killed by police plus their names and age at death.  (You can find these and others using #lastwords).

“I can’t breathe.  Eric Garner, 43”

“I don’t have a gun.  Stop shooting.  Michael Brown, 18.”

“Mom, I’m going to college. Amadou Diallo, 23.”

And on and on.  So many names.  So many last words.

[The original version of this post included Trayvon Martin in the list of last words.  Martin was not shot by police, of course, but by George Zimmerman, a civilian who felt empowered by the Stand Your Ground law in Florida.  I included Martin because his case was so prominent, and because his death was so tragic.  I didn’t mean to imply that he had been killed by police.  I regret the error.]

Then we started to march.

We chanted “Black lives matter!” as we walked to the county building.  Yelling in public is not really my thing.  In fact, public demonstrations of emotion of any kind aren’t really my thing.  I’m more of a homebody.  I like to stay at home and read a book or watch Netflix.

But I was there to march.  And I was there to chant.  So I yelled along with everyone else.  I wanted my voice to join with the chorus.  I wanted everybody there to hear me voicing my solidarity.  I wanted to be a part of the vigil.  And I wanted the other marchers, especially the living, breathing, black lives there to know that I was standing with them.

Near the county building, police officers stopped traffic so that the marchers could cross a busy street to get to the parking lot.  I noticed one officer was smiling and shaking hands with everyone who passed him.  I gladly shook his hand.  The officer next to him wasn’t smiling, but he had been persuaded to shake the hand of someone in front of me.  I stuck out my hand, and though he didn’t notice it immediately, he then shook my hand.  I’m not against police.  They have an extremely difficult job.  If I can help build bridges, that’s what I would like to do.

At the county building, the space was given for anyone to share grief, pain, anger, sadness, or whatever.  Many people came to the front to talk, sharing impromptu thoughts and feelings.  I knew I wouldn’t go up to say anything.  I was there to listen and just be.

There were lots of black and white people there, and at least one Native American guy.  Some pastors from several different churches and denominations got up and prayed.  One memorable guy spoke about Martin Luther King and why we can’t wait for justice.  Someone read, “First they came for the socialists, then they came for…” to illustrate how glad she was that people were there who aren’t black, that they would stand with their black brothers and sisters.  I was glad to think that my presence might be an encouragement to her.

A few white people went up and said unfortunate things about how all lives matter and we shouldn’t focus on race.  I could tell that they meant well, truly, and I felt pretty awkward for them.  They wanted to say something positive, but didn’t know how to put it.

What does black lives matter even mean, and why is it insufficient to say all lives matter?  Many others have explained it better, but for me, when I say black lives matter, it boils down to expressing concern and support for those who don’t feel like society values them as much as everyone else.  When they see that black people are more likely to be killed by police, when they see that black people are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated, when they see discrimination against black people in housing or employment or in the classroom, when they see black people’s voting rights attacked, and when they see large portions of the country question whether the first black president was even born in America or if he is patriotic and loves his country, they can be forgiven for thinking that their lives don’t matter as much as others do.  It’s not that other lives don’t matter because it’s not a zero sum game.  If I affirm that black lives matter, it doesn’t mean that other lives matter less.  No, what it means is that black lives matter, too.  Black lives matter just like other lives matter.  Even if they are oppressed and killed, their lives still matter.

So what’s wrong with saying that all lives matter then?  The reason it’s an unhelpful response to someone who says black lives matter is that it is beside the point.  It’s not addressing the problems that lead one to feel the need to say that black lives matter, too.  In fact it treats those problems as if they don’t really exist.  Think of it like this, if I broke my arm and went to the emergency room, I’d want them to splint my forearm and come up with a plan to fix it.  But if the doctor listened to my tale of woe about my broken arm and responded, “All bones matter,” and then sent me on my way without even looking at my arm, I’d feel like the doctor wasn’t listening to me and my pain.  In fact, I’d think the doctor didn’t actually want to help me get better because he couldn’t even acknowledge the problem by looking at my arm.  That’s what “All lives matters,” sounds like.

A while back I wrote a post about a time a few years ago when I got pulled over.  I wasn’t worried about the situation escalating, and I wasn’t fearful for my life.  A few months after that post I got pulled over again on the way to pick up my son from kindergarten.  Again it was for having an expired registration.  I had mailed in my money for new stickers to put on my license plate, but they hadn’t arrived yet.  The officer told me that I should have used the kiosk to get my stickers instantly (note to Sioux Falls residents, use the kiosks!).  He was very nice about it, but he still gave me a provisional ticket.  When my registration arrived a few days later, I drove downtown to the station and provided proof and my ticket was nullified.  A dozen years ago when I was in graduate school I was pulled over for speeding, but the state trooper let me go with a warning.  Those are the only times I’ve been pulled over by law enforcement that I can remember.  Three times in over twenty years of driving.

Now think about Philando Castile, the black man who was shot during a traffic stop that July week, a man who worked for years for the St. Paul school district in the lunch rooms.  According to NPR, Castile was pulled over at least 46 times in a 14 year period between July 2002 and July 2016.  I can’t imagine facing that kind of scrutiny as a driver.  I would be worried whenever I got in the car to drive anywhere.

Now think about the situations in Ferguson and Baltimore.  There were riots in Ferguson after the death of Michael Brown and in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray.  But the riots weren’t really about those deaths.  Or I should say they weren’t merely about those deaths.  Their deaths were a catalyst.  The killings of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray were the lit fuse, but the powder kegs were already there.  In the case of Ferguson, which is one of the municipalities in St. Louis County, there was a large measure of distrust of the police force.  And for very good reason.

After Michael Brown was shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson, the Justice Department looked into the matter of his death and at the Ferguson Police Department as a whole.  The result of the first investigation was that they “determined that the evidence does not establish that Darren Wilson violated the applicable federal criminal civil rights statute” beyond a reasonable doubt.  The results of the other investigation were much more troubling.  The DOJ found that the Ferguson Police were racially biased against African Americans, made illegal stops and arrests, and focused on generating revenue over public safety.  Read that last part again: the police and courts in Ferguson were focused on giving out tickets and fines so they could raise revenue for the local government at the expense of keeping the public safe, which is their whole reason for being.  As others have put it, they treated the citizens of their municipality like an ATM.  Check out the summary by the Justice Department for yourself:

“The department found that the FPD has a pattern or practice of:

Conducting stops without reasonable suspicion and arrests without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment;

Interfering with the right to free expression in violation of the First Amendment; and

Using unreasonable force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The department found that Ferguson Municipal Court has a pattern or practice of:

Focusing on revenue over public safety, leading to court practices that violate the 14th Amendment’s due process and equal protection requirements.

Court practices exacerbating the harm of Ferguson’s unconstitutional police practices and imposing particular hardship upon Ferguson’s most vulnerable residents, especially upon those living in or near poverty. Minor offenses can generate crippling debts, result in jail time because of an inability to pay and result in the loss of a driver’s license, employment, or housing.

The department found a pattern or practice of racial bias in both the FPD and municipal court:

The harms of Ferguson’s police and court practices are borne disproportionately by African Americans and that this disproportionate impact is avoidable.

Ferguson’s harmful court and police practices are due, at least in part, to intentional discrimination, as demonstrated by direct evidence of racial bias and stereotyping about African Americans by certain Ferguson police and municipal court officials.”

The problem wasn’t limited to Ferguson, but occurred in many of the other municipalities of St. Louis County.  St. Louis County has 90 small municipalities, most of which have their own police force, city government, and municipal court.  Those police, government, and court officers need to be funded.  Many of those towns use tickets and fines as a source of funding.  The police departments and the courts are often staffed with people from other, wealthier towns, so they do not understand the people they are supposed to be protecting and judging.

The situation in Baltimore before the death of Freddie Gray was also bleak.  For years the Baltimore police also had a pattern of violating the Constitution and discriminating against black people.  The report put it this way:

“BPD makes stops, searches and arrests without the required justification; uses enforcement strategies that unlawfully subject African Americans to disproportionate rates of stops, searches and arrests; uses excessive force; and retaliates against individuals for their constitutionally-protected expression.  The pattern or practice results from systemic deficiencies that have persisted within BPD for many years and has exacerbated community distrust of the police, particularly in the African-American community.”

If you have doubts about the situations in these communities, please, please read the links I have provided to the Justice Department report summaries about Ferguson and Baltimore.  Read the whole reports. It’s impossible to understand the situation in these places without that knowledge of how police had mistreated the black people in their community.  That doesn’t condone violence by the protesters.  I’m not asking you to say that violence is okay.  But it does help us understand what they are protesting; it helps us understand why they feel like they have no voice and no power.  Then maybe we can think about how we would feel and what we would do in similar circumstances.

Imagine that you’ve received a parking ticket, or gotten pulled over for an expired registration like I have been, and then because you live paycheck to paycheck (as so many people do) that led to a downward spiral of court dates, late fees, and arrest warrants.  The original ticket was too much to pay, but you couldn’t get off work to fight it in court either.  The outrageously high late fees add to the amount that you can’t afford.  Finally the court issues a warrant for all the money you now owe, all because you forgot to get your new registration on time.  How would you feel towards cops?  How would you feel towards the courts?

Imagine that a friend of yours was arrested, and then on the ride back to the station he mysteriously died from a broken spinal cord like Freddie Gray did.  How much would you trust the police after that?

In the fall during the presidential campaign, after the high profile shooting deaths of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa and Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, then Indiana Governor and Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence (and current Vice President) said, “we ought to set aside this talk about institutional racism and institutional bias.”  There is clear evidence of institutional racism and institutional bias in the police departments of Ferguson and Baltimore, but Pence would prefer we not talk about it.  He thinks we should sweep it under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist.  In effect, he is saying that black lives don’t matter as much as other lives.

Earlier today, recently confirmed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, head of the Justice Department, admitted that he hadn’t read the full Justice Department reports on Ferguson and Chicago (and presumably Baltimore, too).  He found the summaries “too anecdotal” so he dismissed them.  Contrary to Sessions’s blithe description, the Ferguson report was based on interviews with city officials and half the police department; data analysis of stops, citations, and arrests; review of police records and emails; observations of the municipal court; etc.  It is not merely a few anecdotes of bad behavior.  The problems in Ferguson were system wide.  But the new Attorney General would rather not read the whole report.  He’s not going to bother.  He’s also effectively saying that black lives don’t matter as much as other lives.

So here’s what I mean when I say Black Lives Matter.  I mean that it’s a travesty that black people are killed by police at a higher rate than white people.  I mean that it’s unjust that black people are over-represented in arrests for drug crimes when they use drugs at similar rates as whites.  I mean that it’s sick that municipal governments could act like shake down artists to their residents.  I mean that black lives matter as much as my own life or anyone else’s life.

So I will join with others who say it because it needs to be said until it becomes a reality.

Black Lives Matter.