My Fellow White Brothers And Sisters, Can We At Last Do The Work To End This Nightmare?
My experience of the two-tiered justice system in the 1990s convinces me it’s time we white, privileged folks abolish this “justice” system
I finally had a good, remorseful cry.
Often, in a large news story, we can understandably numb ourselves to their implications, even for several days, until something which hits home in that place of “That’s me” at last triggers a cascade of tears.
In this case, I was suffering insomnia in the wee hours on a hot, sticky night in central Japan, so I was reading my hometown newspaper about another man who said “can’t breathe” as his final words, dying in police custody on March 3rd due to hypoxia due to physical restraint.
Tacoma officers who restrained Manuel Ellis on night of death put on leave Wednesday
Four Tacoma officers involved in restraining Manuel Ellis the night he died were put on administrative leave Wednesday…
No, it wasn’t the hometown angle. It was that, like me, Manuel Ellis was a father who had struggled with drug addiction. Like me, he was by no means perfect and was still working on this issue which impacts so many. And like me, he had a son (aged 11) and a daughter (18 months).
Unlike me, those beloved children will never spend time with their dad in the flesh again. Unlike me, he has taken his last breath.
I am so, so very sorry.
So sorry to every person of color out there, all of them our brothers and sisters, who have had to put up with a criminal “justice” system which has, since the beginning of the American project over 400 years ago when the first slaves were stolen from Africa to build America, subjected them to the 24/7 sense that “today I might die at the hands of law enforcement.”
Those people we all pay to protect and serve us.
White brothers and sisters, if you’ve lived all your life in America, we do not understand this.
Remembering Tonya Cameron And The Racist Harassment She Endured Because She Was Black
The closest I ever came was the four years when I had a black girlfriend in Los Angeles in the mid-1990s. I loved her dearly; she was a courageous, sweet artist with a heart of fire, a gal who sometimes would take in homeless people to our small, Hollywood apartment to feed or shelter them, if only for a few hours.
Sometimes I argued with her about this, how it wasn’t safe, how we weren’t exactly rich, but she did it anyway and I knew, deep down, she was right and I was wrong.
But when she walked home from the supermarket down the street from us, the Los Angeles Police Department officers who stopped her didn’t see this side of her. All they saw was a “black person.”
So she was stopped countless times by these “officers of the law,” telling her they were stopping her to “check on her” and/or “protect her” because “these streets are dangerous, you know.”
She was the last person who ever needed protection. She wasn’t big or strong, not in her physicality, but she was a fighter and she knew how to protect herself from the world. She also knew that, most likely, the biggest threat to her were these very police officers who were “protecting” her.
But she loved being out in the fresh air, loved Nature, and thus refused to get a driver’s license, even knowing that increased the odds she’d be stopped and harassed in the name of her protection. “I can handle them if they do,” she’d tell me.
Only once did she ever get taken into jail. They told her it was because she was “resisting arrest,” but they never did charge her for that. Most likely, she was in a sassy mood that night and told them to take a hike. She actually did use terms like that; one of her qualities that I loved was she had a sort of naive country bumpkin in her character (Her favorite song the Grateful Dead ever played was Johnny Cash’s “Big River” and she’d dance up a storm when the Grateful Dead cover band we’d go see live would play it.)
In the end, we both knew why she was thrown into jail that night and stopped on those other occasions: She was guilty of being black. That’s it.
Ponder that again: She was guilty of being black. That’s it.
They let her go, but they didn’t apologize. They gave me something approaching an apology, but only because I am white.
Two Tiers of Justice Experienced First-Hand
My last days of living in Los Angeles were punctuated by spending three harrowing nights in a downtown Los Angeles jail going cold turkey from heroin and cocaine addiction. Those were extremely important nights in my biography. Many things happened.
But perhaps the saddest thing was something a young man, who was Latino and who became, in that short time, a friend, told me. Like me, it was his first time “inside.”
Unlike me he said,
“Once you go in, you will go out again, but you’ll be back. That’s just the way the System works.”
I remember him telling me that like it was yesterday. He had these beautiful, soulful eyes and he looked me right in the eyes when he said it. You know that experience when someone looks you directly in the eyes and you know if they are being truthful or not. So I knew he wasn’t lying to me. This was his reality.
Whether or not that did happen to him, I’ll never know. I never even knew his name. But all I knew and still know is that he was speaking the Truth about a system that unfairly prosecutes and persecutes our people of color in America. And that I, who was born with the “correct” skin pigment, didn’t live in that world.
I vowed to “prove him wrong,” to never go back to jail. (I failed that vow, spending one more evening in jail about half a year later). And when I made that vow, I also knew that I had a heck of a lot more choice and chance in fulfilling that vow than he did.
Perhaps one could argue that his fatalistic outlook created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe so. But I think if you made that argument, it’s probably because you are still in denial about the Truth of what he, and just about every other person of color, has been trying to tell us for all of our lives: This System is fucked. It’s not fair. We get a raw deal.
What We White People Can Do
I am praying every night that this is it, that 2020 is the year this System is abolished once and for all. To do that, I think we white people are going to have to do three things:
1) Listen deeply to our brothers and sisters for who this is reality.
2) Feel deeply what they are saying in our hearts. (And hopefully, at some point, cry.)
3) Vow NO MORE and do whatever we can to make this vow come true.
Our brothers and sisters, who, if you peel below the skin, are the same as you and me, and they are counting on us. This really isn’t up to them.
I pray for our success. But more than answering my prayers, I want us to answer their prayers.
Together we can do this. I believe deeply in my heart that most people, including most of us white people, are good, decent folks who don’t want to live in a System that treats our fellow humans inhumanely. So let’s make 2020 the last year that we collectively live this story, let’s do the deep and yes, uncomfortable, work of healing our society.
Because when we do that, we’ll look back on this era not as another tragic one in a long line of tragic ones that never ends, but as the era when the tide finally turned and we all rose up to create the more beautiful world we all know in our hearts is possible.