Two nights ago, our local university hosted an event that brought together law enforcement (black and white), people of color and the community at large. The purpose was to foster communication and understanding on all sides. The panel consisted of local sheriffs, university police and city police, along with students, faculty, and other leaders on the university campus.
It’s difficult to put into words how it felt to be there. The hall where the event was held was nearly full of students and other concerned community members from many different backgrounds. It felt energizing to be there.
After all the panel members were introduced, the process of answering questions and concerns submitted by the attendees began.
Many there that night brought with them their honest fears of law enforcement. Some fears were based on personal experience, others on the negative experiences of loved ones.
One of the officers, a white sheriff, shared a story of a citizen recently asking for advice on how to ensure the safety of an induvial during a traffic stop. He said that he gave the advice to simply follow all the directions the officer gives and they’ll be fine. Later that same day, he came across a video that he first believed was a hoax.
It was the video of Charles Kinsey, a black behavior therapist in Florida. He works at a group home where an autistic man in his care had wandered out of the facility on his own. Charles had followed him, attempting to keep him safe and get him back to the home. In the video, his client Arnaldo Rios can be seen sitting in the middle of the street. Police officers arrived on the scene, based on reports that there was a man threatening to shoot himself. Both Charles and Arnaldo were ordered to lie on the ground. Charles complied, held his hands up, yet was shot by an officer anyway. Thankfully, he survived the encounter.
With that, came the realization that simply following directions is no guarantee of safety. His view basically changed overnight.
Another officer on the panel, also white with over thirty years in law enforcement, answered a similar question that was posed during the event. Only it was more specific to what he thought a black individual should do. What came out of his mouth next caused me to nudge my friend sitting next to me and whisper “who is this person?”.
He humbly expressed that he may not even have the right to attempt to give such advice since he is a white man who has never had to deal with such a concern. I repeat. A WHITE police officer said this. I heard it with my own ears and saw his face with my own eyes. Just thinking about it again brings me to tears.
I was surprised when I heard another officer state strongly that ‘stop and frisk’ does not work and is indeed racist, no matter what some politicians would have us believe. Yes, this officer was white as well.
One student campus leader on the panel shared how they experience racist remarks on a regular basis in their classes. Fellow students that just don’t seem to get why it’s inappropriate to use the N-word, whining back with justifications of how “ blacks get to say it, why can’t we?”
I learned that the results of today’s racial climate(which is not new at all) are having devastating emotional effects on many students of color in our area. There’s a weight that lies heavy on their young shoulders as they go about the business of getting their education. I envy their strength and determination.
Getting to be in the same room, hearing the experiences and feelings from everyone on that panel, has been more impactful to me than anything else I’ve watched or listened to online around these issues.
Now I know there are some white individuals who might say to those who shared their stories the other night, that they must have misunderstood, it’s not that bad, stop playing the victim, or my personal favorite, they’re just looking for something to be offended about.
It must be easy for them to sit safely behind their computers typing away thoughtless comments while posting ignorant, hateful and downright racist memes.
As I sat there with my family (yep, we brought the kid. #socialstudies) I also felt immense frustration and sadness. I thought of dozens of people I wished were there to hear those stories, to look into their eyes and see them as real human beings. Many of those 'missing' friends I’ve known for years. These are people I love and care for a great deal, including those I referenced above whose posts often make me cringe.
Then I thought, if these long-time police officers were willing to open their hearts and minds to the experiences and concerns of people of color in our community, actually caring enough to really listen, what’s preventing others from doing the same? Why not the classmates of the student panelist who talked about the racism they face on a regular basis?
Why not the people in my life who with good intentions, have told me that they don’t see my color, not realizing that is far from being a compliment?
I realize that no one can force others to see things the same way they do. But it's important to remember that because of where we are now, there is more to consider than just differences of opinion, especially when lives at stake.