Make no mistake. We are in the middle of the Civil Rights movement of our generation, and although we don't see lynchings as a routine practice, the hatred and dare I say, the malice and violence of racial discrimination still lives and breathes. It just hides behind different uniforms and different masks then it used to.
The word "malice" is a hot topic where I live. In Washington State, the Statute the governs when and how a Law Officer or a Peace Officer can be charged with a deadly force crime says that the officer has to have acted with malice to be held criminally liable. You have to be able to prove definitively that an officer had "ill will" or "evil intent", and/or wanted to cause suffering, to charge an officer with a crime when using deadly force.
It cannot be proven. You cannot prove a state of mind. Washington state, the liberal gem in the corner of the Pacific Northwest, is the only state in our country where a law enforcement officer cannot be charged when killing someone while wearing a badge. They literally are literally shielded by the law.
There was once a time for some of us, those of us who are white and privileged, when the thought that an officer would commit a crime in the line of duty was unthinkable. However, that thought alone is a demonstration of privilege, in a way that mothers who aren't terrified when their sons walk out the door every day can never understand.
"Privilege" is another charged word in our society. White people are very uncomfortable with the word privilege. However, in a nation that was built on land stolen from indigenous people, built on the backs of slaves, privilege is a very real thing. It's a thing I recognize when I look in the mirror, and I especially recognise when I look at my sons.
I am raising white, well educated, boys who are growing up in a society that favors them above all else. The social stratification of being white, upper-middle class, and male, provides a shield of safety and a promise of prosperity that others in our country simply don't expect or enjoy. For my boys, this is their promised land. They breath rare air just because of the way they look.
And for the record, that is why I do it.
I get asked that question a lot.
Do you remember the Faces of Death video series? It was a series of videos that showed the moments of someone's dying. That is what the evening news feels like at this point. I've seen more videos of people of color dying at the hands of police than I can even count. I've lost track of all their names. There have been so many in the last few months I get them confused. And for the record, I'm paying attention more than most, there have just been that many. I'm am deeply and profoundly disturbed by all of them. Unfortunately, my now eight-year-old son knows the names, locations, and details of the shooting better than I do at times. This is the world he's growing up in.
When the officers involved in the Eric Garner death were not charged, the video of Eric Garner, crying for help, repeating "I can't breathe", over and over again before he died was all over the news. It deeply impacted my child. Yes, he saw it. Everyone did.
So, we did something. We went to a rally in Seattle. Honestly, it was a protest. We marched in downtown Seattle stopping traffic during rush hour. We stand out in those protests. We don't look like the average protesters on the street. When a newspaper reporter asked us why we were there, we explained we wanted to show our boys that we are a family who doesn't sit idly by and talk about injustices done to others. Protesting and attending rallies was all we knew to do at that point.
Interesting side note, by the time we got home our seven-year-old was practically trending on Twitter, and the next day his picture was all over the Seattle papers. Cute white kid at a protest was more relevant than posting a picture of Eric Garner for a story about a protest in his honor.
A few days after the Eric Garner protest, it happened. Two unarmed, black young men were shot by a police officer in my hometown. Olympia, Washington is the center of the free-thinking, liberal universe, or so we thought. What we thought happened anywhere but where we lived, happened at one a.m. on May 21st, 2015, in our proverbial backyard, and our community has not been the same. It never will be.
We have learned we are not a community bound by common liberal values the way we once believed. We are a community deeply divided where racism reared its head in ways none of us thought was possible. White supremacists, neo-Nazis, and militias came out to protests. Neighbours of mine used the word "thugs" the way their parents used the "N" word.
And as a family, we did what we've always done. We went to rallies and protests. I marched until my feet blistered. I also sat in meetings and forums until my chronic migraines returned.
Now for the record, we are a family with a long-standing tradition of activist work, or trouble making, depending on how you see it. I started in homeless advocacy work twenty years ago, and that experience led to many other interesting experiences. However, working with the homeless taught me two things.
#1 People who are vulnerable in our society are at risk in ways most of us can't understand. It was my work in the homeless community that showed me how dangerous interactions with law enforcement are on a routine basis.
#2 Because of who I am my life is always going to be easier than the lives of others, simply because of who they are, or more specifically what they look like. I learned from helping others who aren't, that I am privileged.
In Olympia, every time things would settle, another shooting of an unarmed person of color would happen, making the protests more heated and the conversations more complicated.
There have been a lot of discussions about why as a state and a nation this issue is in our face more than it's been before. A lot of people think it's because of cellphone cams and social media. This New York Times article suggests that although police violence is up, increased awareness is changing the narrative. In my opinion is it up in Washington State, however, even as I write that, I know my opinion is shaded by my privilege. It's been happening all along. It's just that some of us have had the luxury not to notice.
A few weeks ago we went to a protest in the rain. We walked until my feet literally bled. I got chilled to my core. I came home, crawled into the tub and cried while I soaked trying to warm up. I knew that for me, protesting against something wasn't working anymore. I had find the energy to do what I knew I needed to be doing, or stop doing anything at all.
I am now the author of an initiative we believe will put use of force by a law enforcement officer, on the ballot in front of Washington State voters. We intend to strike the "without malice" clause from the law. We are calling it the John T. Williams Bill.
When I say we, I mean that quite literally. Although I wrote it, a vast and powerful coalition of people in our state have come together to do the hard work of getting that initiative off the ground. That coalition of people is comprised of the families of victims of police violence and activists who have been behind the scenes from the beginning of this movement.
Washington State cannot even address the kinds of police reforms other states are doing until this law is changed, so it has to be done. For the record, I am not anti-police. I am not in favor of dismantling the police departments. I don't believe all cops are bad. I simply don't believe anyone, especially those who wear a badge, should be above the law.
I am attending meeting after meeting where I'm asked the same question. "Why are you doing this? Why does someone who looks like you care about this issue?". Those inquiries are not always comfortable. I often stumble trying to answer them. I am not always entirely welcome or even trusted in those rooms. It's been said, publicly, in front of the press, that I might never actually fully pass the "test for being an ally".
For the record, I care because these laws that protect police officers from prosecution would protect those officers no matter who they shoot. The law shields the blue, no matter if the victim is black, native, latino, or white. Laws that unfairly affect people of color are still laws, therefore they impact us all. Frankly, without exception, no matter how privileged you are, injustice affects everyone.
I am doing it for my boys. I am doing it because as a parent, I want my uber-privileged white boys to know it's not ok to sit on that privilege.
Sitting silently on the sidelines with your privilege when there is something to do, is a form of racism in and of itself.
We are at yet another crossroads in our great nation. The presidential race is illustrating what we all, already know is true. Racism is alive and well. Equality is still a privilege only afforded to some of us. However, freedom belongs to all of us, and what we do with that freedom counts.
As I walk the road of a white woman in a movement that only exists because white people still oppress, I can't say I have any right answers for anyone else. However, for myself what I know is that doing something is better than doing nothing. At times, it's an awkward place to be. I don't always get it right. Sometimes my very presence is offensive.
However, if we want our children to grow up in a world better than the one we have now, it's less about what we do, and more about what we teach them to do. The only thing I know for sure is saying you aren't racist while at the same time doing nothing about the oppression of racism, isn't leading by example. Our children don't learn by what we say to them. They learn by watching what we do.