The events in Baltimore have saddened many, and outraged more, while missing the deeper narrative regarding the devastating effects widespread poverty has on many of our nation's inner city communities.
I do not make excuses for violence. Destruction of property, looting and rioting against the police are wrong. The perpetrators of these acts must be prosecuted.
As sad as the violence itself is the effect it has of silencing the voices of the peaceful protesters. These voices seek to say something real, something meaningful.
The violence in Baltimore and other communities is easily misconstrued as a race war. It is not. It is a war about poverty. And the peaceful protesters seek to say that true equality dictates that equal investments in education, economic development and jobs must be made in the inner cities if they are to escape poverty.
To be clear, there is a powerful narrative that sanctity for black life is lacking in America. That the deeper issue of poverty continues to be ignored, only compounds the problem. Allow me to share a personal experience.
The year was 1992. Rodney King had been savagely beaten a year earlier√ by Los Angeles police officers. I had recently graduated from UC Berkeley. I was a young African American man, raised by a single mother. I had worked very hard in school to gain admission to a highly regarded law school. I was both outraged that such a crime could happen in a day when society was supposed to be color blind, and saddened by the stark reality that race still mattered.
That summer, as my fraternity brother and I were driving along Chicago's Lakeshore Drive, I was pulled over by a police officer. I immediately lost my composure. Those vivid images of Rodney King sprang to mind. When the police officer approached, he asked for my driver's license, auto title and insurance -- all standard protocol for traffic stops. I angrily replied: "Why did you pull me over? Are you going to Rodney King me?"
Apparently, I had violated a traffic law, and the officer wanted to access the situation. The look of horror on his face in response to my comment let me know that the officer (who was white) and I were both joined in this moment in our shared sadness and outrage for the racial tension that had gripped our nation. The officer let me go without writing a ticket or further inquiry.
I was lucky that the officer who stopped me, like many of his brethren, was well trained and, for my sake, compassionate. That traffic stop, however, changed in an instant my perception of what I had previously accomplished. In that moment, I felt more like the character in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man than an aspiring corporate lawyer ready to grab the world by the tail. I was reminded of Baldwin's words "I am an invisible man...I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids -- and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me." If I, who had done all the things society asks from individuals to be successful, was invisible or did not matter, what about all those who did not have the schooling, benefits and opportunities that had been afforded me?
My story is backdrop to the current narrative, when so many in inner city communities feel angry, oppressed, left out. It has been more than 20 years since the Rodney King beating, yet we find ourselves in a similar place, still short of a post-racial society, again having the debate: "Do black lives matter?" The names today are numerous: Grant, Martin, Brown, Garner and now Gray, are in the headlines. The news, almost daily, reminds us there are plenty more faces at the bottom of the well. These victims, young black men, shot down by police amid questionable, to put it mildly, circumstances of whether the use of lethal force was legal, haunt us. The issue has again become acute. The Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice found that young black men in the United States are four-and-a-half times more likely to be killed by police than any other race. I realize how truly lucky I am not to have become one of these statistics on that night in 1992.
Where we go from here as a society will define our humanity.
We know that not all police officers are bad; the great majority are good people who do a very challenging job.
We know there are serious issues in the black community, chief among them poverty, but additionally, the epidemic of crime. To go forward, there must be trust-building activities between these communities and the officers who police them (100 Black Men in Oakland working with the Oakland Police Department is one example), as well as increased training for our officers on cultural sensitivity and the proper use of lethal force.
African American communities will need to rally and turn out to vote, as we did in 2008 and 2012 to elect President Obama. We must affect the laws that effect us and our communities, and hold accountable those charged with representing us.
We must stop the violent reactions that often take place in our communities after the loss of one of our community members. Peaceful demonstration, voting and collective action will take us much further.
Until we can view the Baltimore and Ferguson killings as a human rights issue and not just one of black rights, I question how much progress we can make as a society. We have laws and a Constitution that are supposed to provide due process and equal protection. I suspect the true answer lies in the words of 19th century American abolitionist Frederick Douglass: "There is no negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own Constitution."
It is in this context that we see that our focus on violence is misplaced. These violent incidents are episodic. The inequalities, and longstanding effects of poverty that underlie them, are ongoing. We must address the root cause to find a solution to the violence gripping our country.
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