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One of our early Houston founding families supported the creation of settlement houses and community centers, because, as he said, “neighbors should live as friends”.
I just recently returned from Germany. A country leading the struggle to welcome newcomers, to make a place for over a million Syrian refugees. German leaders have stepped up to say, this needs to be done and we can do it. This decision to do the work of welcome has provoked the rise of ugly sentiments and threats. And even among the most generous leaders, there is worry.
They remembered (I did not) that the 9/11 murders were carried out by terrorists who came through Germany. German officials are working to marry humanitarian response with safety and security measures. Divisions in Great Britain over immigration drove a successful “Brexit” campaign that threatens the European Union and disrupted financial markets, social systems and business interests across Europe.
Just before I left for Germany, on June 23rd, our Supreme Court failed to address the status of millions of people here — leaving families stranded in a purgatory of uncertainty. I was still feeling sick about the murder of 49 people in Orlando on June 12th. As I moved from meeting to meeting in Berlin, visiting shelters and learning from elected officials, news of the bombing in Istanbul erupted. On July 12, we watched the video of Philando Castile being shot to death, two days after we saw Baton Rouge police throw Alton Sterling to the ground and shoot him to death. If you were watching, as I was, the marches all over the country, following demonstrators on Twitter, you may have seen the pictures of officers in Dallas taking pictures with protestors, holding “Black Lives Matter” posters between them. Everyone smiling and tweeting about the community coming together and peacefully calling for more constraint and less killing. And then the shooting started and one by one, individual videos streaming live, we all heard the screams and anguish as one officer after another went down in pools of blood, doing their duty.
From Great Britain to Germany, Istanbul to Orlando, Minnesota, Baton Rouge and Dallas, it is clear we are struggling to be “neighbors living as friends”. Our trending hashtag is not “#gettingalong” or “#one world”.
What all of these events have in common is fear, rage and violence. Fear that leads to violence. We have rewritten all of our scary stories and now they are all about our neighbors. And every new act of violence suggests we were right to fear. And arm ourselves against one another. And build more walls. And make more wars. Our fears are poisoning our plans, fouling our future, destroying our dreams for our children. What we imagine now is not what we want to create together, but what we are trying to avoid.
It comes down to what we can do for one another. There are just two kinds of help. We can help one another realize our full potential; teach and nurture, train and coach one another, so we might use our gifts and strengths. So that we might have a place in the world.
The second kind of help is to eliminate unnecessary suffering. Hunger, loneliness, illness. We can share and treat, include and welcome. We can be there for one another for support and comfort. When the inevitable happens. When the unthinkable happens.
This is not heaven. There will be people who will choose to hurt others, people who get up in the morning with a plan to inflict pain and damage. Knowing this, we badly want to secure our own safety and that of our loved ones. We want the bad guys to wear one uniform, or one skin color, or one badge, so we can figure it out quickly and keep them away. Or kill them first.
We can’t scream, shout, or shoot our way to understanding, safety or security.
When we’ve tried all of those — when we’ve written off group after group — defined them as a threat, we are right back where we started. We share the world we live in and there’s nothing left for us to do but try to figure out how to make it work for everyone.
I want for us to come together to speak out about how these incidents impact our lives, and consider what we do every day — each interaction, and how we reinforce safety, dignity trust… and hope.
Are we really neighbors learning to live as friends?
Whether or not a conversation can heal, whether or not talking to one another will change the world, we owe it to ourselves to try. To enrich our lives by being careful stewards of this city, our community, our neighborhoods.
No officer I have ever known got up in the morning determined to kill someone, set out to shoot to death a fellow citizen. Most officers never fire their weapons their entire careers. People drawn to policing are often people who want to be of value to community, who want to feel important to others.
How do these people become the officers that use their weapons too freely? How do they become the people we see in the videos? You may think I am wrong to care about them. But I have told my Biracial son everything I can, everything I know. I have given him all the advice I have been given, by those that know better than I do. But I know it is not enough to keep him safe. I can see the videos. It is not enough. So, if I don’t care about police officers, if I don’t wonder what’s happening with them, worry about their training, look into their attitudes, care about their motivations and their fears, then what will I do?
I watched her plea for him to be seen. His job. His compliance. His willingness to accept yet another stop. She’s saying, “See him”. As human. As like, not different. As “same tribe”. One of us. The Human Race. We. Us. But it didn’t work.
I’ve rehearsed with my son. Here’s my mantra:
Is there justice at a stop? No.
Is there fairness at a stop? No.
What’s the goal at a stop? What’s the goal?
SURVIVE THE STOP. That’s it. Survive the stop.
We practiced. It’s a good thing we did. But it’s not enough. Philando did not survive the stop. Sterling did not survive the stop.
The answer can’t be to retaliate because that leads nowhere. We can’t kill our way to a safer world.
Recently I saw a twitter post mocking John Lewis, Senator and civil rights icon. He posted that he had been beaten bloody by the police and that he continued to love them. A young person mocked him as some weak fool, seduced into being a subservient beggar for a better world. I thought, you are young. You haven’t lost enough yet, you haven’t lived with escalation, you haven’t bandaged yourself and a loved one and tried to hate and failed. You will figure it out. You will not stop because you want to be a saint, get your picture on a gilt edged holy card. You will stop one day because you will realize you are dying inside. You will stop to save yourself.
I have a dear friend whom I trust a great deal. He is the ultimate law enforcement professional. I have known him for over twenty five years. He has been in law enforcement his whole life. An old fashioned man, believing in honor and dignity, treating each person with respect no matter what they may have done. That’s his code. And his behavior reflects that code and he believes he must be that way no matter what he experiences. According to him, it’s all about the preparation that an officer receives before she/he moves out into the community. But these officers aren’t blank slates. them.
Law enforcement professionals say there are two schools of thought about policing. One school of thought has police officers thinking of themselves as warriors, battling dangerous criminals on mean streets full of life threatening situations. They spend 95% of their time training for 5% of the incidents they will face. They are prepared for violent encounters, for the worst. They are taught to move in aggressively and take control, to dominate interactions and require compliance from everyone at a scene. To treat everyone at a scene as a threat.
The other school of thought has police officer as peace officers, public servants, community members, working the streets as neighbors. Police officers working side by side with community members to keep neighborhoods safe and to address community problems.
I knew nothing about these two schools of thought until I worked with police officers in Australia. They wanted to talk about their biggest fears for themselves and their communities. But, they said, we don’t want to offend you. What could possibly offend me? Well, our biggest fear is the Americanization of policing. We don’t want to be like the U.S.
And it’s happening because our recruits have watched American TV shows for years. Shows like Cops, and Law and Order. And they come into our police with the warrior model of policing in their heads. And they want to dominate. We need them to work within communities. Alongside neighbors.
When I am invited to speak, it is often about the most difficult subjects — subjects that usually create friction and divisions. Subjects like poverty, immigration, Black Lives Matter, inequality… all these issues are fraught with difficulty and pain. And we’ve all had conversations that went badly. Discussions that ended in painful impasses. People not speaking, or people shouting. Or shooting.
Talking across the boundaries of wealth, class, race, religion, sexual orientation — when we fear one another — is so very difficult. But, we have a desperate need to connect. We want badly to understand and be understood, or to feel welcome, or just to feel safer walking down the street.
We can’t scream, shout, or shoot our way to understanding, safety or security. When we’ve tried all of those — when we’ve written off group after group — defined them as a threat, we are right back where we started. We share the world we live in and there’s nothing left for us to do but figure out how to make it work for everyone.
It’s not easy to think this way. I have a momma bear inside me and she has a big ball of rage that wants to come right out and rip people apart for hurting those who cannot fight back. She wants to rage at the officers who pulled the gun on her son, who came to humiliate him for innocent fun, who came to harass him for perfectly legal activity. I want to hurt them because I am hurt. It hurts to see my son treated this way. I want them to hurt the way I hurt.
I am not virtuous. I don’t hurt them — not because of virtue or because I am a peacenik. It’s a practical reality. It won’t help. It won’t work.
And the officer I am speaking to is some mother’s son or daughter. And that mother is feeling sick and scared too.
And I don’t just want it to work for my son. I want it to work for all the sons and daughters. For the daughters and sons who are well behaved and for those who screw up and those that lose their way. I want this country to work for those that are born with advantages and I want it to work for those who start out with less and work their way forward. I want people to survive their mistakes. I want badly that we are all able to distinguish between real threats and our fears that make everyone a threat. I know my number one job is to lower the fear level in any room where we are preparing to discuss painful situations. We have to start by making it safe to talk to one another… we do that with a promise that we won’t leave worse off. That this won’t be one of those conversations we wish we’d never had. Worse than before.So — it begins with not demonizing anyone. With creating some sense of safety — - there is nothing safe about talking about any of this. Most of it is fraught with difficulty … painful memories. And tough and painful experiences. I believe we have no choice.
We must talk our way back to perspective. To the realization that we are not really the worst news story on the worse day of the year. We are not — as a people — the most horrifically violent act ever perpetrated. Generosity overflows when we see one another hurting. Our reflex is to help. To protect.
Again and again in the worst of times, in the hardest of situations, in the desperate, heartrending moments, we are heroically generous, brave and loving. And we do that without training. We are wired to care, to reach out.
We can only be horrified because we know we can be better than this.