No one should read about or watch the videos of the apparent crimes committed by the police without taking time to reflect on their own feelings and reactions.
These incidents aren’t only about the men in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City, and their families; or about the policemen who many believe committed murder and their families. Rather the stories are about all of us and about America in the 21st century. They are about how far, or how little, we have traveled in America from the days of slavery to what President Obama envisioned as a post-racial era.
Each of us must look deep into our own hearts to determine that answer as it applies to ourselves. But no matter what we see in ourselves we must all recognize that for many of our fellow Americans the era of racism is not over. There are racists and there are black Americans who feel the consequences of racism every day. That means this is an issue we must all do something about.
There seems to be agreement we have come a long way from where we were in times of slavery. We have passed laws to protect black Americans and we have changed our Constitution to guarantee rights. We have now also moved to pass laws protecting other minorities, women and the LGBT community. But what is clear is that despite these laws we have a long way to go to change the culture, people’s hearts and minds, in a way that all those laws can have their intended results.
I can never know what it means, or how it feels, to be black and stopped in a store by security for doing nothing but being black. I can never know what it does to the soul to be stopped by the police while driving for the same reason. Just as I can never know what it means to be or feel as a woman denied a promotion simply for being who she is; being paid less for the same job as the man working next to her; or to be taken advantage of sexually because one is perceived to be weak. The only thing I can do is know intellectually and in my heart that these things are wrong and then join with others to find a way to stop them from happening.
One problem we face in 21st century America is that feelings between the races, even among friends, have often become so raw that even having the conversation on race we need is difficult. Friends are having a harder and harder time sharing their feelings and discussing how we move forward together.
One thing each of us can and must do is act politically and speak out against the wrongs we see. We can move forward on some of the solutions that seem simple yet are apparently not. We need every member of every police force to wear a body cam. We know from the early research on this in areas where they are being worn that use of force by police is curtailed and complaints against police are down. We need to ensure that the police forces in our communities are representative of the people they are sworn to serve and protect.
We must look at our legal system, including the grand jury system, and investigate if the relationship between prosecutors and the police is such a close one that potential crimes committed by the police need to be investigated in a different way. While these won’t solve all the problems they are a start. Then we need to fight any efforts to prevent people from voting and register all those eligible to vote and make sure they get to the polls so they are fairly represented in our democracy.
Each of us must speak out when anyone’s rights are abridged and ask our families, friends and neighbors to do so as well. It doesn’t mean we all need to take to the streets. But we should remind those who have a problem with street action and non-violent civil disobedience that it is a part of the rights we are granted that make America so great.
Whether it was the fight for civil rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights, fair immigration policy or to get the government to act on HIV/AIDS, it took all of us including those who took to the streets in protest to get change. We need to continue that fight for change because it will make us a better and greater nation.