Like millions of others, I saw the video of George Floyd’s torture and death at the hands of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. I was and am horrified, outraged and heartbroken. One particularly chilling element of this heinous murder was Chauvin’s demeanor throughout the almost nine minute video. He was seemingly unconcerned that his actions were being witnessed by many and videotaped for all to see. His manner was eerily calm and suggested that he was operating under a fundamental assumption that as a law enforcement officer, he could kill a black man with impunity. This mindset is representative of a violent cop culture that has gone unchecked for decades and the reason that the murders of black men and women have been allowed to perpetuate. This time, however, the public outcry has been massive, unrelenting and felt around the world. I believe we’re standing at a pivotal moment in history. We have the power and opportunity to make long overdue changes and to begin our atonement for hundreds of years of racial injustice in this country. And the time is right now.
It’s taken some time to formulate thoughts for this post. As a white person, it’s incumbent on me to leverage my privilege to impact change. It’s also critical that I know when to shut up and listen. I’m trying to find the right balance between the two. For the past week or so, I’ve been watching, listening and learning. I’ve attended online community forums, meetings and webinars to hear stories of those who have been impacted by police brutality and to better understand policies around police reform; I’ve attended and watched live streams of protests in Seattle so that I can bear witness to how local law enforcement interacts with its citizenry; most importantly, I’ve listened to black leaders, in my community and across the nation, to find out what their priorities are at this point in time and what actions will best support these priorities. As the situation is fluid and ever evolving, there will be much more to learn. And there is plenty of work to do. Here are a some thoughts on what I’m focused on and a few ideas for how to help.
LAW, POLICY AND BUDGETING
Some of the most impactful action will happen at the local and state level. On Wednesday, I attended the Defund the Police, March and Rally for Black Lives, which was put on by a coalition of social justice organizations that have been core to Seattle activism and on the frontlines of the local protests. This coalition has put together a list of demands for the City of Seattle leadership. These are:
- Defund the Seattle Police Department, which presently has an annual budget of almost $400 million, roughly 50% of the General Revenue
- Allocate funds for community health and safety services, such as affordable housing, anti-violence programs, mental health treatment, universal childcare, free public transit and more.
- For the Seattle City Attorney to not prosecute protesters.
These are tangible reforms that are easy to support. For example, the Seattle City Council will soon be reviewing the annual budget. I’m hopeful that process will include a period for public comment, but regardless, anyone can email the representative from their district to voice support in favor of defunding the SPD and to make suggestions as to what community services to fund.
I spent an afternoon on the Use of Force Project website, which has a database of excessive force policies for major cities across the country. If we’re going to ask for changes in this area–such as the elimination of choke holds–it’s good to know what the existing policies are. To learn more, go here: http://useofforceproject.org/
ATTEND PROTESTS/SUPPORT PROTESTERS
In this time of COVID-19, the decision to attend a protest is a big one. Each individual has to weigh the risks relative to their own situation and make their own personal choices around what is best for them. While I’m on top of precautions, such as wearing a mask, it’s almost impossible to maintain proper distancing when in a crowd of thousands. Because I don’t want to risk bringing the virus into my household and potentially exposing the person I live with, I’ve only attended one protest here in Seattle. I’ve watched all the rest via Facebook live streams.
What I’ve observed in Seattle and at protests across the country is the troubling trend of police assaults on peaceful protesters. Concerned citizens showing up to voice their outrage over state-sanctioned murders of black and brown people are routinely met with pepper spray, tear gas, flash bangs and physical violence. My 22 year-old daughter, who has attended almost all of the protests over the past ten days, goes to great lengths to prepare for any number of potentially dangerous scenarios. I made similar preparations for the one protest I attended in person. This is unacceptable. You shouldn’t have to come up with a survival plan just to exercise your First Amendment rights.
Some civic leaders and police officials have tried to justify aggressive actions because of rioting and looting. While rioting and looting have been part of the landscape the past ten days, the majority of protests have been peaceful. Yet still, in city after city, police have instigated violence indiscriminately and without cause. I’ve witnessed it myself. I’ve written my Seattle City Council representative to complain about this issue and will continue to do so until the unprovoked attacks stop.
The unfortunate by-product of police assaults on protesters is that the focus of the events shifts slightly. It becomes a showdown between people exercising their rights to assembly and free speech verses a militarized police force that treats protesters like criminals. As such, another layer is added to an already highly charged situation.
On the subject of rioting and looting, there haven’t been clear indicators as to what individuals or groups are responsible. There have been suggestions that bad actors from both sides of the political divide have been involved. There have also been suspicions that some are simply opportunists, or recreational rioters looking for something to do. In the midst of the chaos, it seems impossible to make a clear determination. Still, protesters, by and large, eschew these destructive activities. But even if some protesters were involved, I could understand why. If members of your community have been routinely killed by police, year after year after year, with no justice, accountability or cessation, then what other recourse would you have? In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “a riot is the language of the unheard.”
In lieu of attending in person, one way I’ve been supporting protesters is to contribute to legal and bailout funds. Here are a couple:
Know Your Rights Camp Legal Defense Initiative: https://www.knowyourrightscamp.com/legal
Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County Freedom Fund: https://blacklivesseattle.org/bail-fund/
This probably seems astonishingly simple. However, while we want change as soon as possible, we’re in it for the long haul. And as previously noted, a lot of really important policies happen at the local and state level. President Obama talks about this frequently. In a recent article on Medium, he wrote, “the elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system work at the state and local levels.” It’s vitally important to elect people who share our core values and who will support the changes we’re asking for.” If you’re not already, you can register to vote here: https://www.usa.gov/register-to-vote.
A QUICK NOTE FOR WHITE FOLKS
In order for us to be effective and authentic allies, we have to recognize that we’ve benefited from a white supremacist system that has harmed black and brown people and we have to be willing to take an unflinching look at the implicit biases, conscious or unconscious, we carry around as a result. The urgent work of dismantling racism starts individually. It’s uncomfortable, challenging and messy. Sometimes, we’ll make mistakes. But the good news is that there are a lot of online resources to help. Go here to get started or poke around some on Google. I would also highly recommend reading “Waking Up White” by Debby Irving. IMPORTANT: White folks need to refrain from asking black people to educate or enlighten us on the subject of racism. It’s an unfair and exhausting burden to lay on them. And the work is our responsibility anyway.
I know some white people bristle at the notion that we’ve been beneficiaries of white supremacy for hundreds of years and that this is still the case today. A great way to better understand this is to look at history. I was fortunate to go through a yearlong anti-racism training with the Center for Equity and Inclusion. Early in the training, our facilitators presented a timeline that showed how racism–the belief that one race is superior to another–has been foundational in all U.S. institutions, be they economic, legal, educational, military, medical or social. Viewing this pattern within a linear framework is powerful and sobering. You can look at the timeline here: https://www.dismantlingracism.org/history
I’m encouraged by some of the changes we’ve already seen as a result of the strong public response to George Floyd’s murder. Just in the past week:
- Derek Chauvin’s charges have been upgraded from third degree murder to second degree. The other three officers involved– J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao–have been arrested and charged with aiding and abetting a murder.
- The City of Los Angeles will be defunding its police force by $150 million.
- The City of Seattle has withdrawn its request to lift the federal consent decree which was imposed on the Seattle Police Department in 2012.
- San Francisco has now banned the hiring of any police officer with a record of misconduct.
All of this has been accomplished amidst the backdrop of the COVID-19 crisis and under an increasingly authoritarian administration that seeks to use the U.S. military to punish and control its own citizens. I recognize that these are only small steps towards racial justice and police reform. But the fact that they happened relatively quickly is worth noting. So why has it taken us this long?
Ultimately, the greatest driving force for change is our humanity, because the depth of our humanity reflects the depth of our resolve. The ongoing suffering of our black and brown brothers and sisters is intolerable. With justice as our beacon and empathy as our guide, we have the power to change the course of history. And the time is right now.
“This hand is not the same color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you will also feel the pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as yours. I am a man. The same God made us both.“
– Chief Standing Bear