It seems like every few months there's another case of police brutality that leads to the death of a young African American man. The case at the moment is that of Freddie Gray, a young man in Baltimore who died from spinal injuries after being arrested. There are many questions about this incident that still have not been answered, including why he was arrested in the first place.
It appears that when he saw the police he began to run. That they then chased after him, caught, restrained and arrested him. But so far there has been no charge brought to light, other than the crime of running from the police.
It is not hard to guess why Freddie ran when he saw the police. He has a history of arrests for petty crime, so this was not his first encounter with the police. Given that he was arrested and restrained so violently that it killed him, it seems that his instinct to run was correct. Apparently his mistake was not that he ran, his mistake was that he did not run fast enough.
It would be easy to look at this case quite literally in black and white. The police officers involved were white men, the young man involved was black.
As a middle class white woman, my own experience with the police recently was quite different from his. I was visiting Santa Monica, California with a friend. We had stopped at a cafe, and soon discovered that my purse had been stolen. Inside my purse was my phone, and we were able to use the Find My iPhone app to see where my purse had gone.
The police responded much more quickly than we expected, helped us track down the thieves, and my purse was returned to me with everything in it. In the end the police were my heroes, and I was very grateful to them that they were there to intervene on my behalf.
This has not always been my experience with the police. When I was a young punk rocker with a shaved head and a bad attitude I was often found on the other side of the law. I was distrustful of the police, as they were of me. I know what it's like to see a cop and run, whether or not you are doing anything illegal.
The difference is that a punk rocker can grow out her hair and her attitude and blend in. A black man will always be a black man.
Would Freddie Gray call the police if someone stole his wallet? If he did, would they respond quickly and treat him respectfully?
Unfortunately, I think that the answer to both of those questions is no.
This situation once again brings up our long history of institutionalized racism, civil rights violations and tensions between poor inner city communities and law enforcement. Continuing to see the situation only in black and white, with fingers pointing at both sides does nothing to change it.
What we need is understanding on both sides.
Years ago I attended a nonviolent communication training workshop conducted by the late Marshall Rosenberg, a great man who spent his life helping resolve conflicts peacefully in situations of extreme tension. That workshop taught me a lot of things about resolving conflicts, most importantly that all anger comes from an unmet need. If we can determine what our need is and communicate it, the anger defuses and we are able to come to an effective resolution.
The people of Baltimore are angry. The people of America are angry. We are angry because this is not just an isolated incident. People living in poor communities of color are treated as criminals before they have ever committed a crime.
The unmet need causing the anger here is the fundamental need for safety on both sides of the issue. Every community in America needs to feel that police are there as protectors. And the police need to feel like they are safe as well, or they will continue to overreact and escalate situations that might otherwise have been harmless.
For some time activists have been calling for more policing of the police. While transparency and accountability are important, I think relationships and communication are equally important. If the police had a better relationship with the communities they patrol, there would be less fear on all sides.
Currently, most people only encounter police when they are either a victim or a perpetrator of a crime. Either way, it's generally a bad situation when people are not at their best.
These encounters leave lasting impressions on everyone involved. After awhile the assumptions become that everyone is a criminal or that all police are a threat. And it's these impressions that lead to a situation where a young black man sees police and automatically starts to run, and the police see him running and automatically start to chase him.
To change the situation, the encounters need to change. Police need to be integrated into the communities they patrol. They need to spend time at the schools and hospitals and nursing homes in that community. They need to be a part of the fabric of the neighborhood. Not so that they can intimidate the people there, but to get to know them.
Imagine if Freddie Gray had grown up with police who were kind and generous. What would it have been like if police had been a part of his regular life all along, helping out on the playground at recess, helping him find his lost dog or assisting an elderly person across the street safely?
Maybe, if he had grown up with positive associations of police, he might have reacted differently when he saw the police coming. What if he caught their eye and waved and smiled. What if he said hello instead of running? Maybe things would have gone differently. Maybe he would still be alive today.
Since becoming a mom to a little boy with Trisomy 21 I have written a lot about Down syndrome and disabilities. I am a storyteller, wife and mom to a teen and a toddler. Life is busy!