I am an educator in Spokane, Washington who teaches a diverse student body. In the classroom, one of the things I try to impart to my students is the absolute sanctity and power of their freedom of speech. The first and most important amendment in the bill of rights, for no nation can reasonably claim to be ruled by the people, for the people, if those people do not have a meaningful voice in how they are governed.
Right now, all across this nation, people are using that voice to make a loud and profound statement about police violence in America, specifically violence against black and brown people. I grew up sheltered, in a mostly white community, with the belief that racism was “over” in America, that Martin Luther King Jr. had come through, shared his dream, and solved those kinds of problems. Yet never in my life has a year passed without the brutalization of black people in America at the hands of the police appearing as a major news story.
This, at the same time I heard constant complaints about affirmative action. At the same time I watched black and brown men represented in media as violent, as the default-villain, and so rarely as heroic. I watched black bodies continue to fill our prison system because of racist policing and sentencing laws (see stop and frisk, see the powder cocaine vs. crack sentencing disparities, see John Ehrlichman’s open admission that the war on drugs was a way to persecute “the antiwar left and black people” in his interview with Dan Baum for Harper’s Magazine).
I grew up a Republican. Taught that the Republican party was the party of justice. The party of Lincoln. The party that went to war to free the slaves. Yet, since the advent of Barry Goldwater’s Southern Strategy, roles have reversed. You have a chance to reverse them again. To stand against the racial injustice that so many have endured for so long, should never have been made to endure at all, and can endure no longer.
These are not “outside agitators” protesting in our streets. Whether those who protest peacefully with self-restraint that you or I likely have never had the opportunity, let alone the character required to exhibit. Whether those who protest violently, destroying property (What is the cost of a window? Of a few boxes of tennis shoes? How do these things weigh against so many unjustly taken human lives?) their rage given vent because they have been so long unheard, so long brutalized. Because they have never been truly allowed to be equal stakeholders in the social contract they are now accused of breaking.
We white folks like to hold up Martin Luther King Jr. for his nonviolence, for his peaceful rallies and marches. But he also wrote, in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “…it is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham [in Minneapolis, in New York, in Washington D.C., in Seattle, in Spokane, in every city with a conscience], but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.” A riot is, after all, the language of the unheard.
So what is that alternative? What do we who chant “black lives matter” and “no justice, no peace” want?
Simply for black lives to matter. For a system that values justice and can provide peace.
It is not for me to describe that system. It is for me to listen, to consider, and to advocate that those who experience the brutality of the system under which we live be listened to by those like you, who hold the power to change this system, placed in your hands by we the people.
That said, I have some suggestions, based on what I have heard and seen.
The police must be held accountable for violence. It is not enough to train them in deescalation. There must be oversight to ensure that they are held to the standards laid out in that training. There must be community boards to provide that oversight. There must be outside investigators into any and all incidents wherein a police offer ends a life or brutalizes a human being. This, if the police are allowed to continue to exist as an institution at all.
The police must no longer be granted qualified immunity for violent acts committed on the job. Representative Justin Amash (L-Michigan) is reportedly preparing legislation to this effect. This legislation, or if it should prove toothless then a law which will in fact have the effect it purports to achieve, should be passed.
The police must be removed from schools, where they are used disproportionately to punish and criminalize black and brown students, who are already disciplined at higher rates for similar behavior when compared to their white counterparts.
The police must no longer be allowed to use tear gas, pepper spray, shield-wall tactics, and intimidating shows of force in attempts to escalate peaceful protests against their own misbehavior into violent confrontations.
The police must no longer be militarized, meaning they must be disarmed of military equipment including armored vehicles and assault weapons. These weapons have no place in the hands of citizen law enforcement officers tasked with ensuring peace and serving their communities. They are the weapons of an occupying force.
Thank you for your time and consideration. I hope you will rise to this moment and stand on the right side of history with the liberators and peace makers.
Jeremy A. TeGrotenhuis
Antifascist Citizen of Spokane Washington and the United States of America