Black and blue lives

Cleveland, Ohio

The streets of Cleveland may have been a sea of unity following the Cavs’ historic NBA championship, but signs suggest the harmony will be short-lived. As this majority African-American city prepares to host the Republican Party’s national convention this week, tensions are running high. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement had made clear its intention to fiercely protest the convention and the party’s presumptive nominee in particular (as is its constitutional right). But given the rowdy and sometimes violent nature of anti-Trump demonstrations at less significant events the local cops here are on high alert for the main event.

The situation is not native to northern Ohio. Across America’s cities right now, civil unrest is intensifying and blood is being spilled.

On July 7, five police officers were murdered by a single shooter at a BLM rally in Dallas, held in response to a number of recent police killings of young black males. The very next day, five citizens were shot at a candlelight vigil in downtown Baltimore, as spontaneous demonstrations sprouted – some peaceful, others less so.

And now another three cops have been gunned down in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the same city in which Alton Sterling was killed by police last week.

These horrific events have reopened a national sore that has steadily grown more infected. Unrest in the country’s urban centres is at fever pitch, as is distrust between law enforcement and the communities they are tasked with serving.

Over the past year I’ve hesitated to wade into this thorny issue, recognising that having not grown up in this country I needed time to try to understand the depth of feeling and range of perspectives about the dire situation in America’s poorest precincts. Or, to adopt the popular adage of the ‘regressive left’, perhaps I wanted to “check my privilege”.

It is a topic that touches on some of society’s most difficult considerations – race, criminal justice, violence and mental health, poverty and income disparity, welfare and corruption, the role of the family and state, the legacy of slavery and colonialism – and not a day goes by that you don’t hear a headline, argument, lamentation or jibe trying to make sense of the madness.

On one level, the unrest seems to stem from a tragic and extreme form of miscommunication. Many African-Americans, particularly the youth of the poorest communities, have tried to tell the story of overzealous and sometimes brutal policing for decades. But believing their efforts have fallen on deaf ears, they have now resorted to more militant tactics to demand attention, manifested in the BLM movement, which has grown from a hashtag to an influential cultural and political force in a shockingly small amount of time.

I gained an eyewitness account of the communicative chasm when attending some seminars last year at the Leadership Institute; a DC think-tank Hillary Clinton once famously claimed was at the crux of the alleged “vast right wing conspiracy”. Having remained relatively quiet throughout the morning’s debates and deliberations, Jordan, a young black guy from Kansas City, Missouri – not far from the infamous Ferguson where a BLM protest got very out of hand in 2015 – suddenly found his voice. From the rear of the room, he interjected in a conversation about criminal justice reform to provide some personal insight.

“Excuse me,” Jordan timidly began. “I appreciate all y’all’s points of views but I gotta tell you that I get stopped by the police for no reason almost every day and it can be very frustrating.”

Jordan is not a gang-banger but a Young Republican that works at a bank. His words were not offensive, embellished or politically charged. He politely offered relevant facts of his own personal experience.

And yet, the response he received was as telling as the tale itself.

The room exploded in a frenzy of head-shaking, finger-pointing, cynicism and denial. The message was immediately clear: Jordan was wrong and the other attendees (most of whom were white, upper-middle-class politicos who have likely never been to Kansas City, Missouri) simply knew better. If this was the reaction to a well-spoken, well-groomed, self-identified conservative I could only imagine the brick wall he would have faced, had he been clad in a do-rag and baggy jeans instead. He just wanted to be listened to, and instead left the meeting feeling more dejected and disillusioned than when he arrived.

The point of this anecdote is not in any way to justify or excuse the disgusting and evil slaughter of police officers, but rather to illustrate a real world example of the kinds of everyday exchanges that have fuelled the violent frustration playing out on the streets.

No amount of victimhood justifies murder and much of the anti-cop hysteria is the overblown symptom of social and traditional media hype. But for those for whom uttering the words “black lives matter” is a step too far, perhaps at least acknowledging that the inhabitants of the ghetto might actually be the most qualified people to testify on the subject would be a decent start to fixing this mess.

At the same time, I do understand the concerns of those who will say I’m being too soft on a political movement that has advocated vandalism and violence. For every story of excessive force by a law enforcement officer, there are many more of wanton lawlessness and crime by angry young citizens and of police doing their job appropriately, even heroically. The sad reality is that for many white middle class Americans, their only experience of black youth is the negative memory of a past mugging or burglary (or more likely, the Chinese whispers of a friend of a friend who has had such an ordeal). Focusing on these cases might unfairly taint the other law-abiding members of these communities – those brave kids who turn down the trappings of “thug life” and hit the books or batting cages amid the sound of gunfire – but they do exist and they have helped entrench the battlelines.

Finding solutions to these deep-seated divisions is not easy, but will likely require a combination of criminal justice and economic reform, new approaches to policing and the more important shifts in public sentiment and perception – all of which are easier said than done but now possess some urgency.

What is more obvious is that the status quo in the low income inner cities is not sustainable.

Decades of government funds and programs have failed to improve lives and have arguably made them worse. Rather than its stated purpose to lift people up, the welfare state has created a cycle of hopelessness and dependency that is a far cry from the “hope and change” promised by politicians.

So instead of fortifying their conference this week and sending in the troops, maybe Republicans could instead open their doors to the disenfranchised and downtrodden, and offer them a positive alternative to the failure and corruption they have known, rather than being the “elephant not in the room”.

But this would require them to stop talking and listen, an activity that doesn’t come naturally to the man who will be nominated in Cleveland this week.

blue lives

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Published on July 14 2016

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