The Cycle of Violence, Black Lives Matter, & Criminal Justice Reform
By Dr. Peaches Henry
We are broken-hearted about the attacks on the Dallas Police and DART Officers. We are broken-hearted about the deaths at the hands of police of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. As John Donne wrote, the death of any man diminishes us all.
The Waco NAACP has a good relationship with the Waco Police Department. The relationship between the Waco NAACP and the Waco Police Department did not begin with the latest tragedies in our country. Rather, it started over a year ago with retiring Chief Brent Stroman. Well before the violence of last week, Acting Chief Gentsch reached out to the Waco NAACP to continue that relationship. I want to publicly thank retiring Chief Stroman and Acting Chief Gentsch for their commitment. I am proud that the Waco NAACP and the Waco Police Department have partnered to be proactive rather than reactive.
The Waco NAACP supports law enforcement. And though I do not presume to speak for all African Americans, I am confident in stating that the African-American community supports all law enforcement officers who are working to protect and serve all communities. Neither the Waco NAACP nor the Black Lives Matter Movement is demonizing the police. We know that the majority of law enforcement officers are committed to protecting all members of the community. We do not teach our children to hate the police. Yet, it is possible to simultaneously support law enforcement and criticize them. We cannot continue to pretend that law enforcement officers are blameless when they use unwarranted lethal force against African Americans.
Just as we cannot paint all police officers with a broad brush for the actions of a few, we cannot do that to the Black Lives Matter Movement. Thus, even as I support law enforcement, I want to stand with the Black Lives Matter Movement. We cannot allow these young people to be vilified because of the actions of agitators who are not affiliated with the movement. Nor should the acts of an apparently mentally-ill veteran be used to silence these young activists. When they marched to criticize a flawed criminal justice system and bad actors, these young people were exercising their constitutional rights. By disrupting society and inconveniencing us, they have forced a national conversation on much needed criminal justice reform. That is a good thing. Have their tactics been blameless? No. Have they sometimes used over-the-top rhetoric? Yes. Paraphrasing Martin Luther King, protests are the voice of the unheard. Rather than allow their voices to be shut down by making false links between their righteous cause to end unjust violence against African-American lives and the killing of innocent law enforcement officers in Dallas, we need to hear Black Lives Matter.
You ask why protestors do not flood the streets when so-called Black-on-Black violence occurs. Black-on-Black crime is a blight on society. So is White-on-White crime. I do not condone crime period. However, criminals, whether they are White or Black, are just that—criminals. Unlike criminals, law enforcement officers have been sworn to serve and protect the community and its citizens. They have been licensed to use deadly force to do so. Thus, when police officers break that sacred trust by unjustly directing that deadly force at African Americans, citizens are rightly outraged. Thus, instead of demonizing law enforcement or Black Lives Matter, there needs to be a conversation about criminal justice reform in this country.
In the videos that are confronting us on a devastatingly regular basis now, the larger American society is witnessing what African Americans have experienced for years. All America must acknowledge the truth that we see in many of these videos: African Americans face biased and racist treatment from some law enforcement officers that sometimes leads to their unwarranted deaths. No one is suggesting that law enforcement does not face extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances. We watched as they ran toward the shots last week. We have heard the stories of how they protected the very people who were protesting. However, the protestors were not criticizing those brave, committed public servants. They were condemning those officers who have broken trust with communities they serve and created a bad situation for good, decent officers like those. While the majority of law enforcement officers are committed to protecting all lives, just as those officers who ran to protect the lives of the protestors in Dallas did, African Americans do not know which officer they will face in a “routine” traffic stop—the public servant or the menace to society.
It must be noted that Philando Castile had been stopped 52 times since 2002. Was Castile an especially bad driver? Or was he targeted by officers who single out African-American motorists for such stops? It is these uncertainties that force African-American parents to have “the talk” with our children—a talk to help them survive an encounter with the police. Yesterday I was saddened to learn from Ramona Curtis, director for Community Engagement and Initiatives at Baylor, that she had been forced to have the talk with her young grandson. Her words show the heart-breaking reality that I and other African-American parents have to confront:
“Well, we had the talk! Today at Ross I promised my grandson a toy. He saw a beautiful water gun. Yes, Tamir Rice popped into my head. I know the gun is green, red, and yellow. I want to believe that nobody would mistake it for a real gun. But this is my grandson! I am not about to be a potential contributor to him being a hashtag! Do I take this chance? Hurry, find another toy that would knock his socks off. Grammy does not want to disappoint, nor does she want to have the “you are a Black man” talk that she had over and over with his dad growing up. My heart dropped as I recalled young Tamir Rice. Oh Jesus, he is eight! Not today! I don’t want to have the talk today! So I explained to him that sometimes people mistake toy guns as real ones. I could not stop there. My grandson is wise beyond his years, he asked me what color was Mr. Rice’s gun. He said to me that no one would mistake a green, red, and yellow gun for a real one. Maybe. Just the same, I had the “Black man in America” talk with him.”
It is hard to have “the talk.” However, it is even harder and more frustrating to see so few officers facing consequences for unwarranted violent acts against African-Americans. Tamir Rice was a child with a toy gun who was killed by police within seconds of arriving; officers faced no charges. Freddy Gray did not break his own neck in the back of that police van, yet no officer so far has been held accountable. John Crawford was strolling around Walmart with a BB gun; police shot and killed him instantly. Again, no charges resulted for law enforcement. Michael Brown, an unarmed jay-walking teenager who was not a suspect at the time, was shot and left to lie in the street for four hours—no indictment. Officers using deadly force when it is not warranted must be punished.
The NAACP and Black Lives Matter demand criminal justice reform. First, there must be a willingness of law enforcement to admit that there are bad officers among them and to punish them to the extent of the law. Second, law enforcement must shift from militaristic policing of African-American neighborhoods to community policing where officers development relationship with citizens so that they begin to see African Americans as citizens not as criminals. Acting Chief Gentsch served as an officer in East Waco for years, and consequently, knows many citizens in that neighborhood. Third, local communities need to have civilian review boards with subpoena power to provide needed oversight of police misbehavior. Fourth, local jurisdictions must acquire body cameras to provide additional insight into encounters between officers and citizens. Fifth, Congress needs to pass a federal anti-profiling law that includes data collection so that bias can be determined or dismissed in local jurisdictions.
If we want this cycle of violence to stop, together we must acknowledge the truth and take action on criminal justice reform.
Dr. Peaches Henry is a graduate of the University of Texas. She received both her master’s and doctorate in English from Columbia University in New York. She is an English Professor at McLennan County Community College. She is the current president of the Waco McLennan County branch of the NAACP.