When I wrote my Power, Privilege, & Pressure post two days ago, I was aware of Alton Sterling’s tragic death in Baton Rouge, but I was unaware that Philando Castile had also been shot to death, not far from my Minnesota home, on a street I drive at least once a week. If fact, on that street, a number of years ago, I too was pulled over for an illegal U-turn by a member of the Saint Anthony Police Department. I was given a warning, and other than the embarrassment of making an illegal turn directly in front of a police car, I had no mental or emotional concern for my own well being. But, then again, I am white (and male and heterosexual), so my unearned privilege and life experiences both served to reduce and eliminate any concerns I might have had.
I share all of that because moments after I published my previous post, I learned of Philando’s death. And, my sadness, anger, grief, and frustration have been weighing on me ever since. The turmoil, chaos, and horrific loss of life in Dallas only served to intensify all I was feeling. Everyone involved in anyway in all of this death and devastation has been, is, and will remain in my thoughts and prayers. But, I also know that seeking comfort from God cannot be where any of this ends — for me, or for our communities or country. The deaths, all of them — including the ever growing number of people of color who have been shot by law enforcement, are all profoundly tragic. And, like everyone (and I mean everyone) who has spoken out in any way in the midst of this, I do value, respect, and cherish the people who have become police officers and do their best to protect and serve. But, I also believe that the circumstances in Dallas are terribly for two reasons. Yes, the loss of the five officers and the wounding of the other seven is one of those reasons. But, of at least equal status, is the fact that the violence against the police has slammed the door on any potential conversations about the clear, national issue that the United States has with law enforcement officers killing people of color, particularly black men. All one needs to do is look at the vitriol exponentially exploding on social media that is attempting to blame the peaceful protest in Dallas for the violence against the police, or to blame President Obama for discussion the tragic realities of Alton Sterling’s and Philando Castile’s deaths, or Governor Mark Dayton of Minnesota who articulated what most (if not all) of us know to be true — Philando Castile would be alive today if he were a white man. The simple fact is that none of those things (or any of the other mean-spirited, outlandish accusations that are being hurled) is true.
Two things “caused” the horrible deaths of those Dallas police officers and the wounding of others. The first is that the Dallas police did their jobs. When gunfire erupted near the end of the peaceful, well run protest, the police officers did what they are trained to do; they ran toward the gunfire, told civilians to run to safety, and did their best to protect the innocent and themselves. Please note that I am not “blaming” the police for this awful situation. Police officers daily place their lives on the line for all of us, and particularly on the streets in Dallas, their action were brave and heroic. And, they lead to the deaths and wounding of officers. They had a choice. They could have run with the civilians and hid. If they had, there might have been fewer dead or wounded officers (we will never know), but I do feel safe in stating that more would likely be dead. Those five slain and seven wounded officers put themselves in harm’s way and made the ultimate sacrifice, doing the job they had sworn to do. The second “cause” was the decision and actions of a clearly disturbed individual who had decided that all police officers were to blame for the deaths of people of color at the hands of law enforcement. Micah Johnson, a member of the Army Reserve and a veteran who served one tour in Afghanistan, claimed, before being killed himself, that he had been planning his attack for some time as a personal protest against police violence. The discovery of bomb-making materials in his home would appear to bear that out. Clearly, Micah Johnson’s decision to attack members of the Dallas police force were calculated, terrifying, and painfully tragic. But, they were the actions of one individual — something that has been seen repeatedly in the history of the United States, particularly in the last fifteen years. The death and destruction that a single person can inflict, particularly one who is well-trained with weapons, is staggering. And, the police attack in Dallas is no different. We cannot allow ourselves to lose sight of that, or vitally necessary conversations about police interactions with people of color will continue to go unspoken and unheard.
In the wake of the Dallas police deaths and woundings, the situation is already becoming another sad example of political spin and rhetoric. We have to stop that for the good of our country, but more importantly for the common good. The anger, sadness, and frustration that so many people are feel is natural, but we need to work to move beyond that. And, those of us with power and privilege need to lead the way by setting aside our grief and pain. We need to reach out to our sisters and brothers of color and walk with them to break open the deep causes behind the slayings of so many people of color by those who should be protecting them. Honest conversations about race and privilege and oppression need to take place everywhere in U.S. society, but not just within police departments — they need to happen in schools, between neighbors, within companies, on buses, amid legislators, among strangers, etc. And, whenever possible, these conversations should be initiated by those who hold power and privilege in this culture. Until those of us who sit at the top of U.S. social pyramids wade into the conversations, little to no deep change will be possible. And, make no mistake, engaging in such conversations will be uncomfortable and difficult for those of us with power and privilege. Personally, I have been actively working to unpack my own power and privilege for the past twenty years. And, while I am proud of the growth I have experienced and the wisdom I have gained, I still have numerous moments when I indulge in my unearned privilege and when I struggle in honest conversations about privilege and power. But, if this country really does believe in equity, diversity, and justice, we have no choice. It is only through getting to know each other and growing in our empathy that we will ever become the country the United States aspires to be.
More than anything, those of us with privilege and power need to open the door to dialogue and then spend a lot of time listening and believing what our sisters and brothers have to tell us. The believing, in particular, is often difficult because one of “super whitey’s” myths is that our culture is “just” and “fair” (and that is underscored for those in privilege and power by life experiences that on the whole have been just that). A perfect example jumped out at me yesterday. While skimming comments for an article about Mark Hughes, the man falsely identified as a “suspect” by the Dallas police, I read a comment doubting that Mark Hughes and his brother had received thousands of death threats because Mark’s picture was tweeted by the Dallas police (even though Mark surrendered the rifle he was carrying the moment he learned police wanted to speak to him and turned himself into them). When I read Mark Hughes’ comment about the number of death threats, my immediate thought was that he probably had many more than “thousands.” He had been falsely labelled a suspect after 12 Dallas police officers were killed or shot and was carrying an AR-15 while dressed in a camo t-shirt. I can easily see tens of thousands of Dallas residents and stunned individuals around the U.S. and the world using Twitter to express to Mark Hughes, the man they thought had done the shooting, their desire to see him dead. But, for the commenter, the idea of even a few thousand people calling for someone’s death purely based on a Tweet seemed impossible, likely because if something like that were to happen, it would mean that the world is not the just and fair place the commenter had been led to believe it was. But, that is exactly the point. Perhaps the person making that comment was not “white,” but I doubt it. Those of us with privilege are programmed to strongly disbelief stories of gross injustices which is a great way for “super whitey” to maintain the status quo. If those in power do not believe the stories of the people who are oppressed, there is little reason to foment change, and those who are oppressed start to realize that there is little reason to keep sharing painful stories that are constantly dismissed. Because of that, those of us with privilege must listen and believe what is shared with us, regardless of our discomfort or our intrinsic desire to challenge situations that seem impossible to us. If we do not, dialogues will be undermined from the outset, and our sisters and brothers of color will have no reason to trust our desire for genuine change.
Finally, I must comment on the impact of social media in all of this (and not just because I am a technology coordinator whose blog focuses on teaching). Social media’s incredible power and impact has been highlighted throughout the terrible events of the past week. Whether it is the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile or the chaos of the sniper attack in Dallas, incredible and painful video and audio has been available to the entire world via the Internet. And, while that is not necessarily “new,” livestreaming the ongoing confrontation with a police officer after one’s boyfriend has been shot (revealing the eerie calm of a woman at gunpoint and the stressed, frightened tone of the officer holding the gun) most certainly is. The pace at which technology changes overwhelms even most ardent advocates of technology, and while I doubt anyone ever conceived of livestreaming as a way to document the injustice of a police officer’s actions, I am confident that it is not the last time such a video capture will arise. Given all of that, and the on-going backlash and blame-slinging that is dominating social media, it is more important than ever that we discuss openly both the impact that social media can have and how good communication and discourse (with or without technology) takes place. Schools, in particular, need to reexamine and explore how we are addressing micro-writing and what methods (if any) we are using to teach effective communication through charactered-limited messages. My guess is that most schools have nothing in place to address micro-writing, yet the reality is that it is not only the most common way in which students communicate, but also it is already one of the most dominant methods of communication for adults — personally and professionally. If we want our students to succeed, and our country and world to become a more honest and open place, we need to teach how to get our ideas and thoughts across clearly and concisely when we only have 140, or so, characters available (especially if a hashtag is warranted). Ironically, micro-writing is one component of the final ISTE 2016 post I intend to write soon (but more important material has obviously pushed it to the side for now).
I do know that I have written some “radical” things in this post, at least from the perspective of most people who do hold power and privilege, and I am certain that plenty of people will disagree with me or dismiss me outright. I certainly do not claim that I have all the “answers” (or, quite honestly, any answers at all), but I do know that our efforts as a society and country have not really “worked” up to this point, especially when it comes to healing the relationship and trust between law enforcement and communities of color. Something has to change, and that change has to happen at deep, fundamental levels. If not, we will all continue to witness and to grieve tragic, senseless deaths like the ones suffered by Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, as well as nightmarish violence like the attack on police in Dallas. While it is possible (and even likely) that those of us with privilege will continue to grieve an Alton Sterling or a Philando Castile, but then get back to our normal routine, the reality is much different for our sisters and brothers of color. Even something like a decision to order flags to half-mast for the deaths in Dallas carries a sting because even if the intent of that decision was nothing more than recognizing the national tragedy of all of the deaths this week, part of the impact remains focused on the reality that flags are only being lowered after white officers were killed, once again minimizing the deaths of two men of color. Again, to be clear, the intent of the decision was honorable, but any unintended impact also must be recognized. And, if one is a person with power and privilege, it is likely that she or he is already trying to mentally defend the intent of lowering the flags to half-staff. But, my reason for pointing something so emotionally charged is precisely to illustrate how quickly those of us with privilege can lose sight of our sisters and brothers who experience oppression on a daily, hourly, moment by moment basis. If we can step back and let go of our internal assumptions, try looking at the situation from the other side. In a 48 hour period, two men of color were killed by law enforcement officers under, at best, dubious circumstances. The President of the United States, himself, even ended his comments with these words:
“In the meantime, all Americans should recognize the anger, frustration, and grief that so many Americans are feeling — feelings that are being expressed in peaceful protests and vigils. Michelle and I share those feelings. Rather than fall into a predictable pattern of division and political posturing, let’s reflect on what we can do better. Let’s come together as a nation, and keep faith with one another, in order to ensure a future where all of our children know that their lives matter.”
How hard would it have been to asked that flags be lowered at that point? President Obama acknowledged that the two shootings were not isolated incidents. Instead, the decision to lower flags only came after police officers were slain when a lone gunman attacked police in Dallas with the intent to kill white officers. Recognizing that people of color feel a negative impact from that does not diminish the tribute to the officers. Instead, it is a moment of empathy and a recognition that the decision did cause pain, even though that pain was never intended. If those of us who hold power and privilege are not capable of extending ourselves empathetically over something as small as a flag at half-mast, then our road to healing and reconciliation is far longer than any of us can conceive.