A few weeks ago a friend challenged me to speak up on Ferguson, and other incidents of police violence against black people. I admitted to him that doing so is difficult as a white person: injecting myself into issues involving race when I come from a position of undeniable privilege is often awkward and difficult.
Yet here I am. Not just because I made a promise, but because white and LGBT silence helps perpetuates the violence. But, I still wrestled with how to discuss this for weeks, because one of the most horrifying incidents happened literally a mile from me while I sat at work.
On August 6th, 2014, John Crawford III left his home in Fairfield Ohio to go to the Walmart in Beavercreek to buy a pellet rifle (BB gun). The store is in a mostly white middle class suburb of Dayton, and caters to the people working at Wright Patterson Air Force base. He picked one up off a shelf at the store that had already been taken out of the box, stopped in front of a display, and talked with LeeCee Johnson (the mother of their two children together) on his cell phone.
When the police showed up, they yelled at him to drop the weapon, then began firing before John even realized who the police were yelling at. LeeCee and Crawford's father listened helplessly on the cell phone while he gasped out, "Dad! Dad!," desperately fought for breath, and died.
He died struggling for air, died despite having done absolutely nothing wrong, died not knowing why.
Ohio has had two high profile fatal police shootings of black men armed only with toy pellet rifles. The first was John Crawford III at a Wal*Mart in Beavercreek in August. More recently 12 year old Tamir Rice in Cleveland was shot dead the instant police found him. In both cases the police arrived on scene and began shooting before either Crawford or Rice could even comprehend the orders being screamed at them, much less comply.
Security Camera Footage of John Crawford III
Conservative pundits readily blame the victims for simply having the "weapons" in public, but this disgusts me even further. Ohio is an open carry state. White people in open carry states across the country "exercise" their right to with real assault rifles in public all the time.
We aren't gunned down for openly carrying, though. I can't think of a clearer demonstration that racism in America is real than a side by side comparison of the video of John Crawford III above and the picture below.
Screen capture from Open Carry Texas' Facebook Page
Something else I have seen that many LGBT people don't get the anger, or feel like the rioting isn't productive (never mind that the LGBT rights movement started with a riot and we celebrate it every year.) When I look at this position from the perspective of a veteran and analyst, though, the reactions we see now aren't just understandable.
The insurgency in Iraq happened in great part due to the fact that we were above the law. The Status of Forces Agreement (SOA) ensured that only the US could punish US troops for war crimes. Mistreatment of Iraqis, use of excessive force, lack of engagement with the community, troops with hair triggers, and lack of consequences for violating Rules Of Engagement (ROE) fueled the nascent insurgency. During the surge, when we began trying to employ better practices in an effort to regain the trust of the population, the ROEs for Escalation of Force (EOF) were made clear, and still somewhat aggressive by most Counter Insurgency (COIN) standards.
US Military Rules for Escalation of Force
However, viewing the two videos above, the rules of engagement for police officers seems to look a lot more like this:
Police Rules for Escalation of Force
For police officers, there doesn't need to be a hostile act or even clear demonstration of hostile intent to effectively proceed straight to lethal force. In the case of John Crawford the III, there was never a demonstration of anything resembling hostile intent. When the police showed up, he was staring at a display case, talking on his cell phone, holding the pellet rifle in a way where it couldn't be fired. There was no hostile act or intention, merely the suspicion of a potential hostile intent, even if the available evidence contradicted this notion.
In effect, police officers who clearly treat whites and blacks differently have been given military hardware and rules of engagement that allow them to be more aggressive and escalate the use of force faster than troops in a war zone.
Let that sink in for a moment.
As a veteran, I find it appalling that we would treat our own citizens as nothing more than insurgents needing to be put down hard and fast.
Police with Military Surplus Mine Resistant Armored Personnel Carrier
The consequences of dropping heavily armed, culturally biased outsiders with lax rules of engagement into a community they know nothing about are entirely predictable. Volumes have been written about the subject; the over use of force by troops answerable to no one destroys confidence in the government, and ultimately the ability to govern.
What has been far less understandable, however, is the eerie silence of many LGBT people.
While national LGBT organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, The National LGBTQ Task Force, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the National Center for Transgender Equality, and Lambda Legal have issued statements in solidarity with the black community, LGBT individuals at large often seems to have taken a step away. It does not change the fact that leadership at the NAACP and the Bishops and Elders Council have steadfastly supported LGBT human rights.
Perhaps the reason for lack of engagement is similar to my own initial one: getting involved in conversations about race is scary. Maybe it is due to the lingering hostility of some conservative black churches towards LGBT people.
In the final analysis, though, there is no excuse for silence or failing to ask "what can we do?" The starting point for all of us is listening, hearing, and putting ourselves at their disposal as allies. There's been far too little of that so far.
LGBT people know what it is like feeling like no one really hears or cares what we say to the rest of the world about our lived experiences: that hatred and discrimination against LGBT people is real, violence against us is real, police mistreatment and brutality is real, and that sexual orientation and gender identity aren't a choice.
When another community cries out as a whole telling us many of the same things about the bigotry violence in our society, why would we disbelieve them? Why would we ignore them? Especially since it is essentially the same people brutalizing us both?
We cannot demand to be heard without being willing to listen first.
The LGBT community often asks where our allies are. They're right here, but we need to truly hear and heed their voices.