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Michael Brown, a young man headed for college this fall, is dead. The police officer who shot him is caught up in the controversy that follows black-white violence. Public opinion regarding what happened is divided along predictable lines: police have the right to protect themselves from criminals; young African American men have the right to walk our streets without being targeted as criminals. We grieve for Michael Brown and his family, for Darren Wilson and his family, and for the town of Ferguson as the most recent expression of the systemic violence that is manifesting in our communities. We grieve and we tap as we look deep into our own hearts regarding the assumptions we make about others and our personal safety.
In her article “The Guns of August” (www.commondreams.org, August 28, 2014) Amy Goodman compares this Missouri town’s experience with the wars raging throughout the world. “In Ferguson,” she tells us, “police violence has provoked protests and a national debate after police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed, African-American teenager Michael Brown just days before Brown was to head off to college. The small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson has a fully militarized police force, with body armor, armored personnel carriers, and automatic weapons. If images from Ferguson looked like the streets of Baghdad or Kabul, it was no coincidence: The U.S. military has a program to distribute surplus war-making materiel to municipal police forces. It is less burdensome for a budget-constrained Pentagon to fob off its unwanted heavy armor to local police, rather than maintaining a large inventory. But why do our police need weapons of war?”
Why indeed? One answer is the palpable climate of fear we have created with our long-held prejudices and the often hysterically biased news reports of the steady stream of tragedies we call modern life. Uninformed opinions abound; rash, irreversible actions are taken. This is the terrifying truth of modern life: stereotypes prevail. Mode of dress and colour of skin which in times of peace are signs of vibrant diversity, are in our violent times reasons for murder.
Brent Staples, in his essay “Black Men and Public Space” explores how his appearance – tall, well built, and black – so terrified people when he was merely walking down the Chicago streets that were his route to grad school at the University of Chicago he invented ways to signal to people he meant no harm. Whistling a piece of classical music and crossing the street when a white woman approached assured others that he was just another citizen, like them, and safe to be around. Staples talks about the rage he felt over the assumptions of others, and his powerlessness to change them. The assumptions people made about him took many forms; as a reporter checking in to his paper, for example, he was followed by security guards to his destination despite the fact that he was wearing a suit and carrying a brief case.
On Friday’s “On Point” (NPR), Jelani Cobb similarly spoke of others seeing his body as a weapon. Another tall, well built African American man, while at college he was told by a white professor that he needed to take into account the fear his very presence instilled in others. This is the voice of systemic racism. This is why biased reporting can fan the flames of racial prejudice. This is why stereotypes can cause murderous responses to non-threatening situations.
What can we do about systemic racism and the militarization of our police forces? Before we do anything out in our communities, we need to look into our own hearts to discover our deepest fears and prejudices. Pretending we don’t have any is not an option. We live in a culture that was founded on slavery, one that continues to ghettoize people of colour. White male power continues to run our political system. If we doubt this, we need only study a photo of the current US congress.
Using Gary Craig’s Personal Peace Procedure to neutralize our earliest experiences of racism is a powerful use of this tool. As we move through specific incidents of fear and hatred, we may find ourselves opening to the possibility of community service, perhaps in a local school where racial diversity programs are lacking in after-school or community-centre programs. Or, we may discover we have a flare for community theatre and become part of a story telling troupe to heal the very deep racial wounds in our culture’s psyche. Responses to racism are as creative as our own imaginations.
None of us alone can do much about racism and militarization, but our tapping community is vast – global in fact – and committed to transformation. Each of us can and does make the world a better – or a worse – place. What happened in Ferguson, Missouri, no matter where we live, is our problem. By tapping on our personal prejudices and fears, we contribute to its solution as well.
Until next week
Jane Buchan, MA, AAMET Advanced Practitioner, firstname.lastname@example.org, 802-533-9277