Why racial strife in America matters in Snohomish County

I have paused before responding to the Ferguson crises. Although I fully expected that there would be no indictment, I held onto hope that Darren Wilson would stand trial. On the heels of the death of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old child was shot to death by a police officer responding to a 911 call where the dispatcher identified a child in a park with a toy gun as “a black male waiving a gun.” The officers were so sure that child was a threat that they shot him less than three seconds after they claim to have told him to put down the gun.

I offer my heartfelt sympathy to the family and friends of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and now Eric Garner in New York City and others.

Turmoil close to home

All of this turmoil may seem far too distant because it is happening 2,000 miles away, and it does not directly affect you. However, for some of us who live in the Pacific Northwest, it affects us daily. We are not immune to the racial conditioning that continues to plague this nation. Seattle is under a Department of Justice consent decree because of federal findings that its police department has a “pattern and practice” of excessive force. The increased aggressiveness and militarization of our police forces need to be addressed responsibly by our leaders.

Do I think that most police officers intentionally target people of color? No, but I would say that there are those who do. Conversely, do I think that all black men and other men of color are victims at the hands of the majority of police officers? No, but there are those who are. The data supports a disproportionate level of violence against people of color.

It is understandable, although not acceptable, why many in this country still distrust African-Americans. The media perpetuates the bias against people of color by selectively choosing what they share with the masses. Too often people believe what is presented to them without questioning the validity of the information or the source.

Dangerous descriptions

There is disparity in media coverage of deaths of black men at the hands of the police. For example, Wilson described his encounter with Brown as follows: “He looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that is how angry he looked. He comes back towards me again with his hands up.”

He managed to dehumanize Brown and further managed to imply that he was in imminent danger by making that statement, even though he is a trained police officer weighing more than 200 pounds himself. “When I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.” This statement played into stereotypical fears of big, intimidating, black men. It legitimized the fear and underlined the notion that ‘black’ is scary. Wilson referred to the size of the teen as a threat when he, himself, was about the same size with specialized police training.

Tamir Rice was considered dangerous because he was identified as a “black male” not a 12-year-old boy. The police officers took only two seconds to determine if he was a threat before they shot him. Even for young Tamir, the description ‘black male’ put him in mortal jeopardy and because Tamir was too young to have much of a history, the press chose to assassinate the characters of his parents. The Clevescene.com’s headline read “Tamir Rice’s father has a history of violence against women.”As if the parent’s history provided justification for the police to shoot a 12-year-old child.

Trayvon Martin’s story is widely known; he was killed by a vigilante while walking home from a 7-Eleven. He looked suspicious to a neighborhood watchman and against the direct orders of the 911 dispatcher, Zimmerman followed Martin. After a short tussle, Trayvon Martin was dead and Zimmerman justified shooting him, by using the Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws, which only require that he felt intimidated and threatened. The jury felt this met Florida’s law and subsequently was grounds for acquittal. The media felt the need to publicize that Trayvon was suspended from school because of marijuana residue found in his backpack.

John Crawford, killed in an Ohio Wal-Mart by the police after responding to 911 call by a white couple, that there was a dangerous black man in the store pointing a gun at passersby. The gun was an unloaded BB rifle he picked up in the store. Crawford was shot within moments of the police arrival. There is growing evidence that Crawford was “swatted” meaning that the couple intentionally lied to authorities, created a situation that escalated that resulted in Crawford’s untimely death. The press felt obligated to share that the dead man had marijuana in his system.

Disparity for victims

Even if the African-American man is the victim, the media will pepper the coverage with negative information from his personal life. This implies that he was somehow partially responsible for his fate because he was a thug, gang member, drug addict, delinquent, or had prior run ins with the law. This is the same approach was used in the past to discredit female sexual assault victims, (blaming the victim) “she asked for it by dressing provocatively,” or insinuating that she was somehow at fault because of her past.

The Huffington Post recently published a series of comparisons that reveal the bias in language in headlines related to black victims with that of white suspects. Below is an example, cited in the Huffington Post.

Black victim: “Montgomery’s latest homicide victim had a history of narcotics abuse, tangles with the law.”

And that’s the headline AL.com ran about the shooting death of a 25-year-old black man in Alabama earlier this year.

White suspect: Ohio shooting suspect, T.J. Lane, described as “fine person.”

This was the headline given to an Associated Press story at Mlive.com about an Ohio teen who later pleaded guilty to a school shooting in which three students were killed and two were wounded.

This practice of portraying victims in a negative light includes the photos selected for print. These visual images reinforce stereotypes and fears to illustrate this point. Young people recently have posted their photos on Twitter, with the hastag, #iftheygunnedmedown, asking if they were gunned down, which image, negative or postive, would be used.

Biases a factor

These are complex issues involving socio-economic standing, ingrained attitudes and bias, individual and systemic racism whether overt or covert, and many other factors. It makes sense that the answer will not be simple. However, can we as a society continue ignoring the fact that attitudes regarding race factor into our lives?

Our unresolved racial history lingers like a cesspool beneath the surface of this country with a byproduct of explosions like protests, when the noxious gasses build up. At some point, we have to acknowledge that some of the people responsible for public safety in our communities may be unaware of deep-seated prejudices that contribute to their volatile interactions with some they have sworn to protect and serve in ways that they do not even know. They have been taught subliminally that black people are inherently dangerous. Somehow, this fear, the possibility of being in danger thus justifies their response.

We also have to acknowledge that a law enforcement officer is an occupation to be respected. Their role is essential for public safety. A dangerous job requires split-second decisions based on judgment. If this judgment is clouded by assumptions based on race and ethnicity, their decision can be the wrong one.

This does not only apply to law enforcement; this disparity shows up throughout the public and private sectors of our communities. This irrational fear — a national phobia — coupled with sometimes unacknowledged prejudice is often evident throughout our society in the way corporations hire, fire and promote; how educational institutions provide access; how agencies deliver services; the disproportionate number of children of color in the juvenile justice, because these institutions are made up of people living in communities.

Justice, as we say, may be blind but she is not color blind, because those who carry out justice, her eyes and hands, are people with their own biases, prejudices and ingrained fears. Quite often, these attitudes are a result of racial conditioning that is unconsciously driving thinking and behavior.

Talk and action

Usually the response to these types of incidents is another opportunity to discuss race. I think talking is fine, but talk is useless without action. I can say that I have had the pleasure of working with non-profit organizations, educational institutions and individuals in Snohomish County that have continued to take action to create opportunities for inclusion. We also have some elected officials who understand the dilemma and are committed to equity. Their efforts and encouragement are invaluable in moving this community forward.

We can start by being informed and involved, knowing what is happening in our community and actively participating to improve the quality of life for residents. Not looking the other way and taking action when we see something that we know is wrong. Our civil rights must be safeguarded, and if we are silent and do not address systemic abuses, including those committed within the justice system, it resulst in the degradation of civil rights for all of us, not some of us.

We must hold our law enforcement and elected officials accountable by using available resources like the Human Rights Commission, Department of Justice, and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Contact the NAACP, ACLU or other organizations that have a mission of protecting civil rights. Understand proposed legislation and the implications. Volunteer your time and talent to improve relationships in your community.

Racism and discrimination damages us all. There are no winners. The families will continue to suffer from their irreparable loss. The officer who shot Tamir Rice, a child, will live with that the rest of his life. It was never his intent to be a child killer. The officers baited into killing John Crawford have to be affected by killing an unarmed young man. We as a society are continually divided.

I have lived in Snohomish County for five decades and it has been my experience that ageism, sexism, racism, homophobia and xenophobia exist here in various forms. Although I’ve only touched lightly on this highly volatile and complex issue, I am bracing myself for the disparaging comments that I expect to follow sharing my opinion. This is a tough subject but we have an opportunity as a community to have civil discussions, share our different experiences, and accept that our realities may differ, but they matter. More importantly we have the opportunity to take these conversations and transform them into actions that will only benefit our community. Are you up for the challenge?

Janice Greene is an Everett resident and the president of the Snohomish County Branch of the NAACP.

NAACP on Ferguson

The Snohomish County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Color People fully supports the statement issued by NAACP national President Cornell William Brooks, on behalf of the organization.

“The NAACP stands with the citizens and communities who are deeply disappointed that the grand jury did not indict Darren Wilson for the tragic death of Michael Brown, Jr. We stand committed to continue our fight against racial profiling, police brutality and the militarization of local authorities.”

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