A message from Jone Johnson Lewis, Interim Clergy Leader of the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture (www.bsec.org), with thoughtful input from many members and friends of the Brooklyn Society.
In the wake of very public and senseless loss of life this past week, we of the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture mourn these precious human lives, and express our condolences to the families, friends and communities of those who were killed. Alton Sterling, a father of five trying to make his living by selling CDs, killed Tuesday at the hands of police officers. Philando Castile, a cafeteria manager killed by police, with his girlfriend and his girlfriend’s child in the car, stopped for a routine traffic offense. Brent Thompson, Garrett Lewis, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, and Michael Smith, Dallas police officers killed by a sniper at a peaceful demonstration protesting the deaths of Sterling and Castile, a demonstration in which the police wore no riot gear and interacted pleasantly with the demonstrators. And six other officers and two civilians also injured in that ambush.
We condemn the use of violence to retaliate against police officers. We also recognize that there are key differences in the killing of police officers and the extrajudicial killings by police officers. A police officer chooses a vocation where there is a high risk of being killed. The citizen of color does not choose to be disproportionately at risk. When someone kills a police officer, they are usually killed or brought to justice. When a police officer kills a black person, there is often no accountability for that action, no prosecution of the officer. Police officers are sworn to protect the people in the communities they serve.
We recognize that questionable, unwarranted, and disproportionate shootings by police of African American males are not new. For some people, living with the risk of being shot, or having a son or family member or loved one shot, is an everyday matter. The wall of separation so many Americans are able to have from this everyday violence has a window in it right now, because of the videos that are hard to ignore. More are, at least at this moment, aware and awake. And in pain, too, and wanting to figure out what to do to promote change.
We have, in today’s United States and through most of our history, an environment of injustice and violence. Everyone is damaged and dishonored by this status quo, even while not everyone has the same level of risk of death, danger or discouragement within this system.
The system is built on a false fears. The falsehood that those of a specific skin color and gender are especially threatening is based on enculturation in the larger society and in police departments. Yet these fears are groundless. Unconscious racism means that black suspects are judged as more dangerous than a white person in exactly the same circumstances other than the suspect’s race. In 2015, statistics show that it was twice as likely that a white person killed by police was armed as that a black person killed by police was armed. And yet this falsehood is what justifies the system in which police officers often treat black males as an enemy. An officer’s violence is often excused as being based in “justifiable” fear even while society expects rational and calm reactions from those who suddenly find guns pointed at them, by people with the authority to kill.
We have, in this nation, a system of policing which is concerned primarily with keeping order, which historically was developed to control working people, immigrants and people who were enslaved. Today, the system continues to disproportionately targeting people of color and communities of color. The result in a city like New York City is violence perpetrated by those sworn to protect all, disproportionately against black bodies and black communities. Policing for minor offenses is targeted more against poor communities and communities of color. This not only puts members of those communities at risk more often of encounters that may be violent or fatal. Such policing becomes a major source of revenue for the cities and towns and police departments, and becoming a major economic stress on those targeted. Policing becomes a way of maintaining the economic, political and social status quo which is already unjust and unfair.
The militarization of police departments contributes to the escalation of police violence. Use of equipment and tactics designed for warfare shapes a police culture that assumes a war and enemies. It has been far easier for police departments to find funding to militarize than to find funding to train in community relations and peaceful resolution of conflict.
All of us, including police officers and those in the communities they are sworn to serve, will be safer from this senseless violence when the culture of enmity and fear is reduced. Police officers now receive in their initial training far more hours of practice in firing a weapon than in de-escalating violence. More training to counteract unconscious racial bias is needed. More investigation is needed to follow up on FBI reports of increased infiltration of police departments by overt white supremacists.
Out of the heightened awareness of many this week, what can we do? Educate ourselves about the realities and myths. Assert, in a time when our social, economic and political system disagree, that Black Lives Matter. Check out the changes suggested by Campaign Zero.
But we also need to move beyond education and awareness, to action. The great 19th century abolitionist who escaped enslavement, Frederick Douglass, said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Demand justice and demand the deep changes needed in the current system. Speak out to your local, state and federal representatives, demanding reform of the justice system including police departments. Send money to organizations working for needed change. Support efforts to train police officers better, for example, to have fewer unconscious race-based fears, to have more skills in de-escalating situations. Support police reforms including more transparency, more community oversight, limits on the use of force, demilitarizing the police, independent investigation and prosecution of allegations against officers. Support programs of restorative justice. Rethink the purpose of policing. Work for at least ending the profit motive in the prison system, and look for reforms that find alternatives to prison. Join demonstrations. When you see something questionable happening involving a police officer, pull out your smartphone and video the confrontation. In the words of Dorothy Day, “No one has a right to sit down and feel helpless. There’s too much work to do.” Pick something you can do, and do it.
At the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture, a group has been meeting for a few months now to focus on “the fiction of race and the fact of racism.” The group calls itself “Lucy’s Children” in recognition that ultimately we’re all part of one human family originally rooted in Africa. If you’d like more information on how to be part of that, you can contact me (email@example.com) or watch our weekly email newsletters for where and when the group meets.