By Ron Johnson
Ostensibly, people go to war because all other avenues of protest or attempts at redress have been tried and exhausted. Black people in America have been crying and singing and marching to protest police brutality in this county since before 1619. The bloody history of treatment of freedmen in the custody of law enforcement is obese with stories and episodes from the annals of Jim Crow induced violence to the Missouri neighborhood of Big Mike Brown. Everyone knows there is nothing new about this and it’s not unique to Fergusson.
I must say in the same breath that we also know that the vast majority of American police officers are honest, hard -working professionals that strive to get it right in a frequently difficult, and almost always dangerous, job.
As a former twenty year veteran-director of the gang diversion program in Milwaukee and coordinator of a restorative justice program at Marquette University law school, I am close this population and this subject is part of my life experience.
I know many officers black and white that are just sickened by what happened on that cold November day in Cleveland to young Tamir Rice or the choking death of Eric Garner in NYC. I’ve been in conversations with cops who will tell you that the incident in Cleveland, for example, was one of the worst examples of police work they’ve ever seen. So much could have been done differently to avoid killing that 12 year-old child, playing with a toy gun all by himself in a deserted park.
Sure, it was the trigger-happy, panicked rookie that jumped out of the car with guns-a-blazing, but it was also the veteran driver who drove up so close to the kid that the deadly result was almost inevitable.
I’m not an expert on forensic science, but the incident in Red Arrow Park in Milwaukee suggests a great deal of emotion, even rage on the part of the officer. When is it ever necessary, or justified to shoot any human being 14 times? Perhaps, that’s what it should be called; the rage in Red Arrow Park. What a horrific and unforgiving way to “serve and protect”.
Even in the case with Mike Brown and officer, Darren Wilson, someone with a clearer thinking process and a cooler head could have avoided the deadly consequences of emptying a clip, center mass, in the body of an allegedly belligerent, albeit un-armed, teen-ager. We were told that Mike Brown was belligerent. We never heard his side of the story.
But even if Big Mike did all they said he did his death was still quite avoidable. Officer Wilson was literally in the driver’s seat and held all the advantages. First, he was in his squad car-a protected and mobile environment-he had a bullet-proof vest on, he had radio communication with back-up officers and he possessed an array of weapons at his disposal. Why didn’t he just role up his window, or pull forward a little bit? So many options. Was it his training, his ego or the culture of fear of big black men that is so engrained in the psyche of so many people in this society. Why is it always a white officer and a Black person? Is that merely a coincidence?
But, that’s where it happens. That’s where the rubber meets the road. At that point of contact, when the officer stops a youth…the attitudes, the words, the actions of both parties…. determine what happens next! The officer invariably is loaded with his/her fears, training, perceptions and expectations and likewise for the would-be detainee. He also has his fears and a latent distrust of law enforcement…very often he doesn’t see a human being he sees a blue uniform with a gun.
I work with a group of men and boys in an outdoor camping adventure called the Father & Son Retreat and one of the things we teach the boys at camp is how to act when stopped by police. It’s a survival skill!
Pull your car over immediately. Turn off the engine and turn on your interior lights. No sudden movements and whatever you do, don’t reach down between your legs or under the seat UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. Put your hands at 10 after ten on the steering wheel and wait for the officer to approach you. Don’t cuss, don’t get loud, tell the truth and answer questions as courteously as possible. If there is a gun in the car or anything illegal or questionable PRE- EMPT! Let the officer know what he/she is dealing with before they stumble up on something.
We can think our way out of this mess. It’s only a matter of time before it happens again. My fear is that the youth are going to start shooting back or shoot first. We need police officers and good policing in our neighborhoods and communities. Some of our neighborhoods are dangerous places, endemic with the culture of violence and an insane proliferation of guns.
Many people say, “why don’t you riot and protest when a black person kills another black person”. Well, when a black person shoots and kills someone, or chokes someone to death, we fully expect that person to be arrested, indicted and held accountable for his/her actions. When a police officer is rogue or makes an egregious mistake we, likewise, expect justice to prevail.
We know that police have a tremendous responsibility. We also know they have a great deal of power and authority. This power and almost absolute authority has got to be accompanied by and tempered with a profound understanding of the extraordinary responsibility…and restraint. ..it represents.
Rioting is the voice of the voiceless, burning and looting are the actions of those who have lost hope and no longer care.
I am a black man, a resident of Fitchburg, recently transitioned from Milwaukee.