In every case this month, hateful men behind firearms took the lives of innocent people. That’s the strongest correlation between the murders of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Melissa Ventura, and the Dallas police officers.
These tragic events have left many of us feeling hopeless and bitter, but we mustn’t allow either emotion to drain us. We need to pool our strengths, as it’s going to take every single one of us—as a nation—to courageously address the issues behind these murders. What affected those victims affects us all, and in order to counter the hatred and violence we are bearing witness to, we must listen, empathize and act.
Let me begin by breaking down why racism and militarization are at the root of our national crisis.
Racism Is More Than Hatred
Before the Black Lives Matter movement, came the Civil Rights Movement with thousands of activists united in their effort to dismantle racist ideologies and institutions that exploit black and brown people. No matter how one feels about their name, Black Lives Matter is the foremost organization out there actively seeking to end the excessive use of force by police that terrorizes communities of color. And though their goals center on abolishing racism, they also stand for all Americans in their push to end police brutality. If they succeed in demilitarizing the police, we can all rest easier knowing our rights (and bodies) are safe. Therefore, putting aside our assumptions about racism as non-black people and listening to those actually fighting for justice is a great place to start.
So what exactly is racism?
Racism is more than just a means by which we judge and hate people of color. It’s a social, political, and economic system designed to secure privileges for its founding fathers: powerful white men from Western Europe. So is there such a thing as “reverse racism”? Not unless black and brown people suddenly amass more power than whites and exploit them for social, economic, and political benefits.
In the past, racism was used to ensure a cheap and abundant labor force for wealthy landowners (i.e. slavery). But racism didn’t begin and end with slavery.
It began with the ideology that white people are biologically superior to people with darker skin. Today, racism as a system is being used to maintain the benefits whites of all classes have enjoyed for the past four hundred years. If you don’t believe me, take a U.S. history or sociology course, read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, research sociologists like W. E. B. Du Bois, or for a more modern spin read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. For a great piece about white privilege, read Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” or listen to eight-year-old Royce Mann’s poetry slam here.
In racism and police brutality, there lies a double-edged sword. On the one hand, black and brown people are disproportionately killed by the police, which in and of itself is a grave injustice. On the other hand, people jump to the conclusion that the victims somehow deserved it.
For one thing, this is oppressive in that the murder victim is wholly blamed for their own murder. This absolves the system and allows them to shift the conversation away from "reviewing police uses of force" to how the victims led their lives. But as we all know, the Eighth Amendment protects us from cruel and unusual punishment; therefore, no one deserves to die over a broken taillight.
Most importantly, it is down right unkind to disparage a fellow human being who lost their life to injustice or blame them for having been killed. It matters not what Alton, Philando, or Melissa did prior to being murdered by the police. They were people with families and civil rights and they weren’t given a chance because they were judged by the color of their skin. By respecting those who were killed and those in mourning without judgment or blame, we start listening and stop hating. We must also recognize that Micah Johnson was yet another armed and hateful man—and possibly mentally ill—and that his victims, the Dallas police officers, deserve the same respect.
United We Stand, Divided We Fall
Choosing to believe that the American people are polarized along racial lines is our second greatest problem. There is no race war, only a struggle for equality, and powerful people in the media, like Joe Walsh, should be held accountable for being divisive. Until everyone is treated equally in the eyes of the law, the struggle will continue.
Perhaps it will help to realize one vital interest both white people and people of color share: to live without the fear of being shot and killed. It isn’t okay for anyone to be murdered. Not innocent civilians or police officers. Period. Even George W. Bush at the Dallas police officers memorial said that we need to "practice empathy, imagining ourselves in the lives and circumstances of others."
But this should not derail the original argument that racism needs to be examined and removed in order to bring about lasting justice.
And I will say again that it’s everyone’s responsibility to eliminate racism from our institutions, because, as Trevor Noah put it, “this is an American problem.” Even Don Lemon must “yes, sir” cops for fear of losing his life. If entire groups of people are being disproportionately murdered without repercussions, then no one is safe. Not even white teenage boys by the name of Dylan Noble. There may not be a space to speak of him in terms of racial hatred, but his situation does apply to conversations surrounding gun violence and excessive use of force.
The State of Our Police Threatens to Make the U.S. a Police State
Nineteen-year-old Dylan Noble was shot four times by police before he had a chance to cooperate, which leads me to another problem: the militarization of our police forces. When over five hundred people have been killed by the police so far in 2016, we have to stop and think about what’s going wrong.
For one, police officers are not using de-escalation techniques enough. In addition, when they are caught using excessive force, they are rarely held responsible for their crimes. Most importantly, our local police forces have been militarized.
This begs the question: Why are police forces armed with military weapons and tactics? Here are a few answers.
In 1996, the National Defense Authorization Act was signed into law, giving officers sworn to protect and serve weapons to intimidate and destroy. As summarized by Newsweek in the wake of the protests in Ferguson, section 1033, “provides law enforcement agencies with surplus military equipment free of charge [which] encourages police to employ military weapons and military tactics.” By giving local law enforcement officials and even campus police officers access to mine-resistant, ambush resistant vehicles (like the one Ohio State has) and M16’s, congress has effectively militarized the police.
Military tactics such as SWAT teams and paramilitary police units are used at alarming rates and for questionable reasons. As The Economist suggests, "some cities use them for routine patrols in high-crime areas. Baltimore and Dallas have used them to break up poker games," and in Orlando, Florida, "heavily-armed police raided barber shops" for things like drugs, guns or license violations. Steth Stoughton, a former police officer, believes that, "use-of-force training should also emphasize de-escalation." So what's keeping police academies from scaling back their militant campaign?
Many argue that the police need to be adequately armed and trained against citizens who have access to the same military-grade weapons. Currently, special interest groups like the NRA give millions of dollars every year to congressmen and -women to block legislation that would allow the CDC to research gun violence, require stricter background checks, and ban the sale of assault weapons. They in turn receive funding from gun manufacturers who have stretched their market base to include citizens. The result is an arms race between the people and the police, and both sides are losing.
We Need To #BanAssaultWeapons
This leads me to our final problem: between corporations that produce and distribute assault weapons and the politicians who are lobbied to allow them to proliferate, we have a fully militarized society. The Second Amendment gives citizens the right to bear arms, but that amendment is over two hundred years old. A lot has changed since then. Let’s refer back to history one last time.
When Anti-Federalists like Patrick Henry protested to have our Bill of Rights added to the Constitution, they made sure the Second Amendment allowed citizens to arm and protect themselves. But this was written during a time when our sovereignty was threatened and the weapons available were muskets, rifles, and bayonets. Our weapons have changed, and therefore the U.S. Constitution must change along with them. Saying “We have the right to bear arms” is not the same as saying “We have the right to bear automatic weapons of mass destruction.” The Dallas police officers who were killed might still be alive today had the murder weapon not been a sniper rifle. And had they not used a robotic bomb to eventually kill the assailant, we might know more about Johnson’s mental well-being or the lack thereof.
This is where change needs to begin. Our Constitution should reflect our current social needs and technological advances because assault weapons are designed to destroy, not protect.
Discomfort Can Lead to Empathy
I was asked why I care so much about black people being murdered by the police. I began to justify myself by rattling off statistics like “Thirty-one percent of victims killed by the cops are black but they only represent thirteen percent of the population” and “Even Newt Gingrich and Minnesota’s governor have admitted that being black is more dangerous in America.”
What I wish I said in response was, why wouldn’t I care so much about innocent black and brown people being murdered by armed police? It’s called empathy.
I believe police officers do fear for their lives often, but there’s more to it than that. The fear of black and brown people should not be excused, because it’s both a symptom and a cause of racism. This makes the problem of police brutality especially complex. But no matter how uneasy it makes us, admitting that we are complicit in a racist system is the first step towards allowing empathy into our hearts.
It is especially uncomfortable to talk about racism for those who deny that it exists. This is because denying it is really avoiding the most uncomfortable of truths: that if racism is the act of disempowering people of color (oppression), it must mean that others are benefiting from an increase in power (privilege). Those benefits are called white privileges. Some people have grown so accustomed to having them that it just seems “natural.” The very fact that they don’t feel they have to engage in conversations about racism or even admit that it exists is a privilege.
No wonder people are afraid to face racism. It means that even those of us who aren’t discriminating against people of color are still enjoying the privileges that come from those who do. Racism implicates everyone. It also means that if we truly believe everyone deserves equal treatment, then we as privileged folks must give up some of the benefits we’ve grown accustomed to having, in order for others basic rights to remain intact.
It begins by admitting that we have privileges as lighter-skinned people. Even as a person of color, I share in white privilege. Though I have been on the receiving end of racism, I feel my privileges far outweigh any oppressive actions taken against me. After discovering this, I can either feel guilty about receiving them (and do nothing) or act from a place of empathy by helping others gain equal treatment.
Having empathy for the people who lost their loved ones this past month, regardless of whether they sold CDs or were a police officer, is a great place to start. No one deserves to be murdered, and the painful legacies the victims left behind should be acknowledged and respected. Let us remember our humanity. I leave you with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Empathy when coupled with action can be especially powerful. We can reach out to those we wish to support by doing any one of the following:
Donate to Alton Sterling's GoFundMe college fund for his children
Donate to Philando Cafstile’s GoFundMe for his family:
Donate to Melissa Ventura's family via GoFundMe:
Donate to the families of the Dallas police officers
Voice your support on social media
Send your protest to Louisiana’s governor:
Send your protest to Minnesota’s governor:
If you feel strongly that people should be able to bear arms but not posses assault weapons, let your legislators know. If the militarization of the police bothers you, ask your representatives to review or repeal the Nation Defense Authorization Act. Let’s make our voices heard.
Sign the petition to ban assault weapons:
Join or donate to Moms Demand Action
Join Campaign Zero
Contact your congressmen and -women
Send your protest against robotic bombs to the Dallas Police Department
Boycott companies that are overtly racist