Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Rickert and Race

Wisconsin State Journal columnist Chris Rickert, in an April 7th column about Madison’s Young, Gifted, and Black Coalition (YGB), should have stopped after the first sentence: Madison’s struggle for racial equity does, indeed, call for radical action. The remainder of his article, however, misses the mark.
Rickert’s basic conclusions are that 1) YGB operates outside the bounds of realism, 2) YGB calls for reduced policing in Madison’s low income black communities is a non-starter, 3) “Among the establishment” there is praise for YGB’s passion, but no enthusiasm for their proposed solutions, 4) That disparities in incarceration rates are not based on a racist system because MPD is racially diverse and because the DA is black.
Where to begin.
In “The Case for Reparations,” published in the Atlantic in June of last year, Ta-Nehisi Coates make the case that liberals, perhaps even those “establishment” liberals Rickert refers to in his article, “view racism not as an active, distinct evil but as a relative of white poverty and inequality.” In other words, because most whites in the US believe we have evolved into a post-racial society, progressives have perhaps concluded that today's civil rights battle is over class and not race.
I agree with Coates. As Lyndon Johnson said in his infamous 1965 civil rights speech at Howard University, “negro poverty is not white poverty.” It has been 50 years since that speech, and the reality is stark: while income and wealth gaps remain very real and significant hurdles in our march toward equality, the gap between black and white continues to loom even larger. And, as Coates notes, it is because the United States has basically been built upon 400 years of systematic, societally sanctioned, preference for white people.
Contrary to the beliefs of those ready to move on, the problem did not end with slavery or even Jim Crow. In the lifetimes of many still alive we, through our US federal government, developed, implemented and maintained policies that not only created a seemingly impenetrable wealth gap, but also actively targeted and literally prevented wealth creation by black people who were trying to succeed. And as if that’s not recent enough history, one needn't look further than banking industry policies as recently as 2008 that were developed, in the words of the Justice Department, to target subprime, predatory loans toward black people and black communities. Policies that not only once again stole the dream of homeownership from millions of black Americans, but simultaneously caused a Great Recession for all but the very wealthiest among us.
So, back to Chris Rickert’s concerns.
First, that YGB operates outside the bounds of realism. Exactly what realism does he mean? The realism of slavery, Jim Crow, separate but equal, or government sanctioned racist housing policies? The realism of our "too big to fail" banks engaging in predatory behavior as recently as 7 years ago? The realism of St. Louis area police departments committing a "pattern of civil rights violations" and "practice of conduct that violates the 1st, 4th, and 14th amendments" as recently as last year? Or just the realism of unarmed black men getting choked or shot in the back by police?
Second, Rickert's contention that YGB calls for reduced policing in black communities is a non-starter. As I wrote in my last blog article, “It’s Time for Peace Officers,” the issue is not whether reduced policing is a good idea or not. The issue is that so many low income black communities feel that a police presence does nothing to increase their safety and security. That lack of trust in our police should, at the very least concern all of us, and, if we’re honest, help us understand a little better why an unarmed black men being encountered by police might think it best to do anything other than freeze and put their hands on their heads.
I don’t even know where to start with the “establishment.” The establishment, as we all know, literally has no clue how to handle the racial issues with which we are confronted. (But I am glad we keep trying.) Between a half-century of social programs, new policies, equal opportunity clauses, and supposedly post-racist harmony, one would think we’d have made more progress than we have. The establishment, which has tried just about everything and come up generally empty in making significant improvements, could do worse than listening to some ideas from outside the wall.
With all we now know about incarceration disparities, it is astonishing that anyone would say that they have nothing to do with racism. A racially diverse police force, a black DA, even a black President of the United States does not somehow magically undo 400 years of racism. Madison is still part of the United States and shares this history. Wishing it away is not the same as taking it away. While Madison may not breed overtly racist leaders, that does not in and of itself remove the very real barriers that black people continue to face in our city.
In his article, Coates is making the case for reparations. He states, “What I'm talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”

Chris Rickert may be right: a national reckoning may be unrealistic (perhaps because of the same “establishment” he claims can’t get behind YGB). But it may, in fact, be our only hope.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

It's Time for Peace Officers

I have had so many conflicting thoughts since I heard that Tony Robinson was shot and killed by a Madison Police Officer. My first thought was, “no, not again. Please not in our city.” My second thought was a much more depressing one. It was resignation. Attendance at Madison's first "Writers for Justice" event last Saturday, March 28th, finally gave me space to write about it.

When I first ran for alder, in 2007, creating awareness about “two Madison’s” and finding solutions to help us converge upon a path toward a more just and unified city was my motivation for running. “Two Madison’s” has now become the rallying cry of many elected representatives. Watching and listening as Madison public officials finally talk about equal opportunity, race issues, incarceration rates, homelessness, living wages, and justice as real issues that exist in our community has given me a sense of hope.

But then I think back to late night council debates where we declared war on homeless people instead of homelessness, where we closed entertainment venues that were frequented by people of color, where we increased bus fares, failed to raise the minimum wage or pass paid sick leave, and, finally, where we added 30 police officers in an emotional, politically expedient but not well thought out response to one neighborhood locked in fear of an “emerging, Chicago-based criminal element.” So despite our improving rhetoric, there remains a canyon between what we say and what we do.

My thoughts draw back to a wider angle as I seek to view the events nationally or even globally. And when I do that, I remember this is how it has always been. From serfs to slavery to Jim Crow, the poor, the marginalized, and people of color have been systematically mistreated, lynched, burned, dehumanized, and left to whither on the vine with relatively little in the way of guilt, shame, or a cultural rebuke by the privileged who have always and continue to benefit from systems of oppression.

My next thought was to look at more recent history. Real change grew from the seeds of the civil rights movement a half century ago, but it should not be a surprise that these issues still haunt us (sadly, in both memory and reality) as they are rooted in the consciousness of a nation still a mere instant removed from slavery or societally sanctioned race based discrimination. And so, as I look back from a historical perspective, I find myself unsurprised.

October 14th, 1982 was a watershed moment: the day that Ronald Reagan called drugs a threat to national security and declared war upon them. That one day, arguably more than any other in the constantly evolving history of our nation, profoundly changed everything that has happened since. If we consider the ripple effects of that day along with our societal unwillingness to address the root causes of racism, crime, and intergenerational poverty, combined with our increasing fascination with violence and guns and the militarization of our police forces, Tony Robinson’s death shouldn’t surprise us. Nor should the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, or the countless others that don’t get national media attention or often do not even get reported.

When we string racism, poverty, drug wars, media coverage, the prevalence of guns, three strikes legislation, a corrections system that prioritizes everything but, and militarized police forces together, it seems predictable that shootings like these are so common.

I am not sure our species has ever known true justice, so defining it is a certainly a challenge. One way to approach a definition is to look at another word with which we have more familiarity: injustice. A single mom working three jobs at minimum wage and not having money to house or feed her children; the countless number of homeless people who apply for job after job and cannot find work; an ex-offender who has served his time and cannot even get a job interview or find an apartment; the redlining policies of the last generation that robbed African Americans of a fair chance at economic equality; or a black man getting discriminated against, profiled, or shot and killed because of the color of his skin – all are situations that most can agree feel at some level like an absence of justice.

But this story is not about injustice in all its manifestations. This story is about police killing unarmed black men. In particular, this is my attempt to make sense of the death of a 19-year old boy on Williamson Street in Madison, Wisconsin. I remember my two hour conversation with Madison Police Chief Noble Wray, during a council budget debate, over whether it made sense to add 30 new police rather than investing those dollars in measures that could attack the root causes of crime. I remember the numerous interactions I had with him and his officers during my six years in office. I always came away with the same conclusion: the Madison Police Department was, in all likelihood, about as good as it gets when it comes to policing in the 21st century United States.

They believe in community policing and neighborhood officers and most of the concepts necessary to build trust in challenged areas. Despite that, a common reaction of struggling, mostly minority neighborhoods in Madison following the Tony Robinson shooting? That they would be better off without police. We have not even approached the starting gate if the people most likely to encounter police, and those most likely to need their assistance, have that belief.

Police Officers have incredibly difficult jobs in a frightening society filled with guns and people with the capacity for violent behavior. And that is why this issue will never be resolved if it is somehow over-simplified into merely white against black, police against general public, or armed against unarmed.

In order to make real progress, we must deal with the root causes of everything behind these realities: from media coverage to race relations to the drug war to gun control to incarceration techniques. But if we want to table all those massive changes for a moment, and zoom into ground zero on the police issue itself, then there is really little choice in what we need to do: demilitarize our police forces, transform police officers into members of the community, prioritize relationships and trust building with the people they represent, and make sure police departments know their primary purpose is to value and honor and dignify every human with whom they have contact.

Officers should be hired, trained, promoted, and rewarded to that end. As challenging as their jobs are, we simply must have police that honor all the people for whom they work. If there is a shooting, it should always be due to a circumstance that left the officer no other choice. None. If there is a killing, it must be because deadly force was the only option. And both the justification and circumstances behind all shootings must be run through the transparent filter of sunlight for the entire community to see. Because not only should police shootings of unarmed citizens be so rare as to be almost unheard of, but in the rare instance where they do occur, there should be one and only one priority: ensuring that the community does not lose faith and trust in its police. We need to expand beyond community policing and neighborhood officers: we need to evolve to a place where the term police officer is synonymous with peace officer.

Imagine a Madison where everyone in our City sees MPD as an active and engaged part of the solution. While the march toward actual justice will sadly require a matrix of complicated choreography, eliminating police killings of unarmed black men would represent a pretty profound first step.