It was a good conversation, Part 1. Lots of people read and joined in; many shared the piece, and certainly some essential, if controversial, points were made. An excellent start all around.
For those who may have missed Part 1: Two Women -- One Black, One White -- Discuss Racial Politics, 'Good White People,' and #BlackLivesMatter, go ahead and hop on over there now (or later) to get caught up... we'll wait right here for you! ☺
While we're waiting, let me reiterate my introduction to this series: I "met" Regina McRae after she read a piece of mine (No, White People Will Never Understand the Black Experience), connected with me on Facebook, and we began making note of each other's posts and conversations. I found myself appreciative of the balance she struck with hers. She's a self-made and very successful entrepreneur: her NYC bakery, Grandma's Secrets, is known as the only dessert delivery bakery in town; she's even published a book on baking, Taking the Cake, the Ultimate Cake Book. She's also a long-time political activist with an unvarnished and well-informed view of our times. All of which means I could find her posting about cakes and party planning one minute, sharing some snappy jokes the next, then getting into some serious debate about #BlacksLivesMatter in between. I liked her style, I liked the way she put things, and I decided I wanted to get her perspective on some very salient issues related to racism in America. I got in touch, she was up for the dialogue, and we launched the first of our three-part series last Friday.
And now that we're now ready, let's get back to it:
LDW: As you're no doubt aware, Regina, the Bureau of Justice Statistics confirms that blacks not only get stopped and ticketed by police more than whites, but are three times as likely to get searched during a traffic stop. Obviously we've seen a spectrum of incidents that have brought that reality into high relief, but some have also sparked heated debate. There are those who believe cops are programmed to see blacks through a predisposition of guilt, and so approach situations accordingly. Others insist that if a black person were deferential and respectful to a cop, regardless of the reason they were being stopped, fewer incidents of escalating violence would occur. What are your thoughts on this debate?
RM: When people cry out that the system is broken, I remind them that the system works just fine. It does exactly what it was invented to do: it was never meant for us. In the Dred Scott decision of 1857, Chief Justice Roger Taney said, "The (negro) had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." Not much has changed. Oh, the overseer became the officer, the slave patrols became our modern law enforcement system, and the landowners became the 1%, but the mentality has not changed. We are still on a plantation, just a larger, more technological one. So during an exchange with an officer, we are still seen as not much more than chattel, with no rights to be respected, whether we keep quiet, are demure, respectful, or non-confrontational. But the question this begs is: why should we have to be?
This is not a police state; we are not a Third World country. We are under certain constitutional protections that should protect us against things like unreasonable search and seizure. So why is it when we remind law enforcement officers, who know the law and shouldn't have to be reminded, we are then seen as being aggressive and combative, even blamed for our own deaths?
What happened to officers' sense of decorum, professionalism, and courtesy? They are supposed to be the professionals who know how to de-escalate a situation. Yes, some of them are, but too many are not. Some want to hype up a situation, which is why it sometimes takes ten, twelve, fourteen of them to take down one person. It's a mob mentality.
It hurts me on a very basic level, because there are so many good, honest, beautiful people in law enforcement out there, and the really bad cops destroy what those good members work so hard to build. They antagonize the communities that these good cops have to serve. So, in essence, they don't just do us a disservice, but also their very own organization.
And because they've done it for so long with impunity, they've convinced America that it is always our fault. But hopefully with the increase of dashcams, body cams, and cellphone videos, people such as yourself are beginning to see what we have cried out about for 150 years: we don't have to do anything much to get the party started.
Freddy Gray made eye contact! Since when is that probable cause? People say Eric Garner resisted. Resisted what? They weren't arresting him; he'd committed no crime. They charged him with nothing, and never told him he was under arrest. They touched him, and he said, "Not today." Those are words to die for? Clive Bundy said the same thing, but from behind the barrel of a shotgun...he's still alive to talk about it. So when trolls on social media say "stop resisting," or "just don't commit crimes," they have no idea of the real truth behind the brutality mentality.
LDW: Actually, the points you mention have been well-verified in some police departments; look at the findings in Ferguson! Even I've heard cops say they tend to profile blacks, or they've become more prejudiced against the community, because so much of their interaction is with blacks committing crimes. Yet it seems that by disproportionately or randomly stopping blacks for minor infractions, or working from a predisposition of "suspicion of criminal activity," they perpetuate a scenario in which resentment and anger against cops builds. This then metastasizes into further distrust, anger, fear, suspicion, and even less cooperation and compliance, particularly during such traffic stops as Sandra Bland's or Walter Scott's. Still, even black neighborhoods need cops for all the reasons neighborhoods need cops. What's the answer?
RM: When I first moved to Washington Heights twenty-five years ago, we had a program in place known as community policing. The cops knew most everyone on their beat. They came to block parties, cookouts; we had their beeper numbers (you know this goes way back!). You saw the same faces day in and day out. You came to trust the cop you'd come to know personally, and you knew they cared about the people in their patrol area.
People tended to feel safe sharing information about any criminal activity. It was a very effective program that went a long way toward reducing crime in the area. Major drug gangs were broken up, property values increased; where once no homes would sell in the area, they are now upwards of $2 million. It became safe to live here because of these caring cops. When kids played hooky and saw one of these officers, they were more worried about the lecture they'd get from the cops than anything their parents would do! I attended a wedding this weekend of a woman from the neighborhood...one cop was the DJ and the other was an attendee! Twenty-five years after they patrolled our neighborhoods, we are still like family!
The cops who profile say they see so much crime, but what areas are they in? Any inner city neighborhood is going to have its share of crime, despair, and hopelessness. That is representative of a socioeconomic level, not indicative of an entire population of people! We need to go back to community policing, go back to where cops know the people in the neighborhoods they patrol. Then they won't see us as criminals, but as human beings.
LDW: it seems even the President agrees with your assessment: In a speech he made in Camden, NJ, in May, he talked about a task force that was studying issues of community policing and asserted that he wants communities to "use the data to strengthen their work and hold themselves accountable by sharing it with the public." Let's hope we see more of that as we continue our much-needed cultural evolution.
I want to get back to #BlackLivesMatter for a minute. Various disruptions of presidential campaign events by purported #BLM activists have gotten some negative pushback, even from those who are supportive of the movement. There have been discussions about the validity of the disrupters, for example, conspiracy theories about opposing candidates paying for those disruptions, even suggestions that this behavior tarnishes a good cause. But while some see it as inherently disrespectful, others see it as necessary political aggression.
What about you? Do you think it's the sort of activism that helps or hurts the cause? And as an addendum, is it your perception that there's true cohesiveness and leadership within the #BLM movement, or is it just a disparate group loosely organized around an evocative hashtag?
RM: It is a very real movement, cohesive, strong, and aggressive. I give much respect to the founders of the movement, and those who have joined up and are working towards common goals. Every time one of us hashtags, it helps the movement grow, gain traction, and spread. They have a courage and fearlessness I envy. They are ready to do whatever it takes to be heard, recognized, and respected. "By any means necessary," said Malcolm. And guess what? They got to meet with Hillary. Bernie is listening. Obama is listening. Do you think they would have the attention of these powerhouses if they sat back quietly, politely waiting to be noticed?
And it's a movement that's needed, one that's found its time. I ask you to show me a Black Panther today. Anywhere. You can find one: Angela Davis. The Black Panther Party, formed in 1966, reached its peak membership in 1970, with offices in sixty-eight cities and thousands of members. Now there is one.
Herbert Hoover, the FBI, and COINTELPRO arrested, jailed, cold-bloodedly executed, exiled, and ran the party out of existence. While anti-government militias and the Klan are alive and well, thriving even, the government decided that well-educated, well-armed, and community-conscious blacks were a threat to society. And they were: a threat to the continued success of business-as-usual, institutionalized racism. By 2006, the FBI issued a report, White Supremacist Infiltration of Law Enforcement, after they realized that the KKK had, in fact, infiltrated and are now the biggest threat to domestic security and peace. Read the report....they are your local police, your state troopers, your sheriff's office. They are your judges, your DAs, your PDs. They are in the Senate and Congress.
In this climate, police brutality and racist law enforcement organizations are going to be election issues candidates can't escape. #BlackLivesMatter did that, this group coming from a long history of political activism in the black community. Fannie Lou Hamer, for example. She became the first black woman to be a delegate at a Democratic Convention 1964, the first black since Reconstruction. She upset the entire state of Mississippi with her forcefulness, but would conventions still be all-white if she hadn't put her life on the line, been shot at, arrested, beaten, kicked off the farm she lived for most of her life, all because she registered to vote? She said, "All my life I have been sick and tired. Now, I am sick and tired of being sick and tired." The #BLM organizers are sick and tired of being sick and tired, too. And when you feel that way, you are spurred to action. So they acted. Did they hurt the cause?
After years of appealing to America to level the playing field, we now realize we are asking moral questions of a system that has no moral center. Do you think if we play nice they are going to find their conscience, suddenly reverse 400 years of thinking to say, "OK, we are now going to treat blacks fairly"? We need to interrupt political rallies, interrupt grand jury proceedings, interrupt ball games, interrupt traffic; interrupt those who go about their daily lives without a thought of how life is for us.
What was the playbook when abolitionists set about to destroy slavery? Did they play nice? NO. Why should we? If you have a bullet wound, how dare I tell you to put a bandaid on it when you need surgery? How dare I tell you to take aspirin when you need morphine? White America cannot tell us how our wounds need to be healed, or how to handle our pain.
LDW: Great change generally takes more than a gentle touch; history has taught us that. So, yes, in this presidential cycle, candidates will be obligated to address the topic of race politics and brutality. It's good to hear that Hillary Clinton has agreed to meet with #BLM activist, DeRay McKesson, but is there a danger of making politicians' response to #BLM a superficial litmus test?
Meaning, we know there are several conventionally accepted "tests" for candidates on both sides of the political aisle. There have been hissy fits when candidates were found not wearing an American flag lapel pin (I remember Obama getting grief for that at some point), or demands that candidates publicly declare a belief in God. Personally, I think items of that nature should be off the table of discussion, particularly given how transparent compliance can become.
So do the demands of #BLM activists--for candidates to declare support for the movement--risk becoming another one of those manipulated litmus tests? Candidates make a big show of their support, their "long history of working for racial justice," etc., but if the rhetoric comes only after a #BLM disruption, how authentic is it?
RM: I believe people's records will speak for themselves. We know who has been a staunch supporter and who hasn't. If a candidate professes support for the movement, I'd ask, what side of history were you on during the marriage equality debate? What is your stance on immigration? Do you support free college tuition? Did you support the Violence Against Women Act, even as it contained a provision to protect Native American woman and transgender women from domestic violence?
When you saw laws being passed that peeled back voters' rights or immigrants' rights, laws that made filming cops a felony, or Stand Your Ground laws, did you ask yourself: who writes these, who passes them, and what can I do to correct them? Do you recognize that hate groups are a cancer destroying this nation from the inside out, and when you stand up for black lives, you are actually helping to excise that cancer, saving all lives?
If a candidate pledges phony support, they'll only fool themselves. When they show that all lives matter to them by their actions, not just their words, then we will authentically believe that black lives matter to them too.
LDW: Once again, you've brought us to a profound stopping point, with much to think about until next week. Thank you, Regina.
Photos by permission of Regina McRae.