Saturday, July 10, 2010

Violence, Control, and "Freedom Loving" People

Oscar Grant was a young black man murdered by a white police officer on New Year's Day 2009. A few days ago, that police officer was convicted of a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter. In one way, the fact that he was convicted of anything is a change from the past, where white law enforcement officers would walk away free men following such killings. On the other hand, both the lack of a stronger conviction, as well as the sickening portrayal of protests in Oakland following the verdict as "riots" requiring more excessive police force are reminders that injustice still is commonplace.

There is some interesting discussion and links on the blog Racialicious.

In addition, one of our own Buddhist bloggers, Katie over at Kloncke, was at the protests and wrote an excellent post giving us an insider view of what people experienced and what those of us on the outside might consider when it comes to police, communities of color, and violence.

Take a good look at that photo of Oscar Grant. He was 22 years old, just beginning his adult life. He'd made some mistakes as many young people do, and yet on the night of his murder, he was basically in the wrong place at the wrong time. For many white Americans, a face like his is the lurking bogeyman of their individual and collective psyches. Including some law enforcement officers unfortunately.

Writing about the protests a few days ago, Katie's words echo this sentiment:

Media and many non-profit folks repeatedly called for “non-violence” from the crowd, but besides one small fight that was quickly broken up, the only violence I witnessed was cops in riot gear beating on protesters. (The blurriest of my photos shows cops taking down and arresting a friend of mine. They whacked him over the head, tackled him to the ground, cuffed him, threw him in a car, and are apparently charging him with a felony.)

Again, it’s important to distinguish between property destruction or the looting of a Foot Locker, which did happen among the crowd, and violence, which is what the police were doing, did to Oscar Grant, and do to poor of-color communities in general.

I'm trying not to disrespect law enforcement officers in general with this post. Many do their best under difficult circumstances, and are in life threatening situations that most of us non-police officers can't even imagine. Police officers should not be considered "enemies," "evil," or "other" in my view. They are us. And I think too often, the majority of people in communities actually expect that the police will use a lot force, will take down "the bad guys," and this only serves to increase the appearance of excessive force in my opinion. In fact, any excessive force done by law enforcement is, in my view, the responsibility of the entire community said officers serve. As such, even if the officer who murdered Oscar Grant had been convicted of the greater charge, the damage done to both his police department and the city of Oakland would still have been present. For better or worse, the people of Oakland and the police of Oakland are intimately tied to each other.

My hometown police department, which had been noted as a regional, if not national, leader in community/police relations, had some of their fragile work damaged in my view because of events that occurred two summers ago. The Republican National Convention came into town, and the mass arrests and general clamp down that came with that convention tossed the image of a police department working with it's community out the window. Granted, a lot of the logistics and decisions were in the hands of federal law enforcement, so it would be unfair to lay responsibility on solely on the St. Paul Police Dept. However, they did eagerly take millions of federal dollars to purchase tons of riot gear, military-style vehicles, and cameras for nearly every intersection downtown (as well as other major intersections around town). In addition, even though 95% of the arrests made during the week-long convention ended up having no grounds, our Dept. repeatedly stood behind nearly everything that was done during the convention. Even though 30 journalists, including Democracy Now's Amy Goodman, were among the arrests, there was barely even an apology to be found from either our police department, or our city's leaders.

Between the cement blockades and wire fences that lined half the streets downtown, to the 2-3000 police officers in riot gear, to the 24 hour a day helicopter surveillance, to the 800 + arrests that had no grounds to them, it was nothing short of overkill. And yet, this kind of militarization done under the claim of "public safety" seems to be trend now whenever mass protests occur, especially amongst people who have long been disenfranchised, like those in Oakland. It should be unsettling, but when I hear people calling for more police control, more head bashing, more prisons, and more violence in the name of safety, it doesn't surprise me in the least.

I'm writing this piece in a very direct, blunt, and "slanted" way because anything less would fail to spark some questions we all need to consider.

What is the nature of our fears? Why are so many of us tossed away by our fears about others, to the point that we'd rather see entire groups of people oppressed than face what we are afraid of?

Why is it that people who claim to want a "free society" are also so quick to call for more police, more military, more video cameras, more prisons, and more generalized state control over their communities?

Why is it that when someone tosses a brick through the window of some corporation, people want "the thugs" dealt with, but when an unarmed black man is killed by a police officer, our nation ends up split almost in half as to whether or not the killing was justified?

All the meditation in the world won't bring liberation if we're blind to how these kinds of issues impact our lives.

Katie's post makes an important comparison between state-sanctioned violence and intimate violence or domestic violence. I think there a link is there, and worth exploring more.

No one who lives in a place controlled by violence or threats of violence escapes unscathed. We owe it to ourselves to examine the origin of violence both within our own lives, and in our communities and nations. And furthermore, we owe it to future generations not even born yet to take action now, in whatever ways we can, to liberate our minds and hearts. Some try to do this on the meditation cushion. Others try to do this in our communities. It's time that more of us bring these two together.

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