racial injustice

Eric Garner Protest - Rockefeller Center by Tina Leggio (TinaLeggioPhotography.com) via flickr and used a Creative Commons license

One of my black friends confided in me this week that he was really demoralized by all of the events surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. He was so devastated that it affected his mood, work and outlook for the future.

This is a man who had a successful career, is buoyant by nature, sociable, outgoing and a humorist. He continued: “Specifically, the events in Ferguson, Mo. and Staten Island, NY plus the widespread disrespect shown to my President has made me –a normally optimistic person–very pessimistic about the future of race relationships in the U.S.”

I share his dismay. I look back and recall that at age 19 in 1956, I was so distressed by the ugly events surrounding desegregation in the American school system, I wrote “An open letter to the Mayor of Little Rock.” Even then I knew that it would not be “open” or shared, but before the Mayor threw it in the trash I hoped he might read it and pause for thought. I wrote in my youthful naiveté that “according to the Constitution of the United States of America, All men are created equal.” Forgive me if my own response to that statement today is “Baloney.” The drafted Constitution is dated 1787 but slavery was not abolished until 1865. In 2014 discrimination is still systemic.

President Obama said: “This is an American problem, not just a black or minority problem. Where anyone is treated unequally by the law, it’s a problem.” The President is exemplary in seeing the wider picture.

I have always been fortunate in having friends from many different cultures and races, probably because I grew up in London, where people of all racial backgrounds reside. I responded to my friend that I am not surprised he feels down-cast, that I too feel saddened and maddened by the inequalities and underlying tensions which affect the social climate.

I tried to comfort him with the suggestion that dismay at recent events is much wider than the black community. I sense a change in that more whites are marching in protest than before, and that many commentators in the media are indignant at the issues raised, especially where law enforcement agencies are concerned. When a policeman shoots an unarmed civilian repeatedly his actions must be called into question. When a man on the ground gasps “I can’t breathe,” how strong should a choke hold be to maintain his prone position? A free pass to the agents of death is not justice.

The American Justice system is far from just. It’s depressing that black people are disproportionately imprisoned, often for offences that are more lightly treated if one’s skin is white. It’s not just a question of race. Some people are imprisoned for life under “three strikes and you’re out” for quite minor offences, while white collar crimes, resulting from embezzlement, exploitation and greed, often go unpunished.

Furthermore, where oversight of legal processes is exercised by an interested party, an independent, more objective process is essential. Local legal authorities are not the appropriate body to influence decisions about the police with whom they habitually inter- act, any more than superior officers of victims of sexual abuse in the military are qualified to handle sexual misconduct allegations.

And then there is the underlying disrespect towards the President. When Barak Obama was elected I felt immensely proud of the United States. In two elections the voters overcame racial prejudice and voted on policies. As an outsider I may suffer by ignorance from my own bias but it is difficult to dismiss the notion that the unprecedented lack of cooperation by Congress with President Obama’s administration might be due to underlying racism. I raised this topic with a group of a dozen (white) friends and only two of them said they did not consider the opposition racist.

How far America has come, I used to think, from the time of the Civil Rights struggles. But I was 19 when I felt moved to comment on Little Rock and now I’m 77 and my disappointment at recent events in America knows no bounds.

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Image: Eric Garner Protest - Rockefeller Center by Tina Leggio (TinaLeggioPhotography.com) via flickr and used a Creative Commons license.
Eileen Dight

Eileen Dight

Eileen Dight is a retired British specialist on trading in Spain, now resident in Ireland. Spanish- and French- speaking, graduate (at 46) of International Politics and History; former editor, interpreter and fundraiser. Her five sons and twelve grandchildren live in four different Time zones around the world. She has lived in England, Wales, Spain, France and Virginia, North America for 11 years. In 2012 she self-published her memoir Plate Spinner and Only Joking, 200 pages of collected jokes categorized for easy reference, as well as What’s On My Mind, her first 50 essays published in Like The Dew. All available on Amazon.com.

2 Comments
  1. Will Cantrell

    Eileen:

    “Surreal” is a word we are all too quick to use in daily parlance. Yet, it is the only word that I can think of to describe how I felt as I took in the recent events in Ferguson, Mo (Michael Brown) and most especially in Staten Island (Eric Garner). When I first saw the video of the choke hold arrest of Eric Garner– because he was selling cigarette loosies for Godsakes!– I couldn’t believe my eyes. Literally. I COULDN’T. When the subsequent Staten Island Grand Jury decision was announced, I could not believe my ears. Hell, I still can’t.

    Funny Eileen, for several days after the Staten Island decision, I too felt a sense of despair and a sense of loneliness. Like many other people of color, I’d been politely complaining about the police abuse of power for years. Decades even!

    To be sure, there are many good cops on the beat who do good and great work. Truth compels me to say, I’ve been helped by some cops on a few occasions in my life. But on just as many occasions, I’ve also been profiled and disrespected by cops too. The good works don’t offset the bad.

    Being a cop is a tough, dangerous and mostly thankless job. On too many occasions, it is also a life threatening job. Or worse. I get it. I swear I do. Nevertheless, methinks Americans (regardless of skin color, race or creed) have ceded too much authority to and demanded too little accountability and transparency from the police and the justice system.

    There is hope though. As tragic as the past days have been in Ferguson and Staten Island, on TV, I see thousands of people of all races and stripe and gender protesting all over the U.S. It’s not just “us” anymore. Maybe what has unfolded before us is some kind of a watershed moment. Maybe as a result of this along with hard work on all our parts and the justice system gets better. It HAS to get better.

    I don’t want to sound simplistic, naive, or like our friend ‘Pollyanna’, but maybe we–the police and us ‘just plain folks’— can make a start by being more respectful, more civil and more empathetic towards the other side—and by trying to exercise good judgement. (HINT: It’s not good judgment to arrest a man because he’s selling loosies! Seems to me this is the kind of thing you issue for which you a ticket. Possibly, its the kind of thing that you just look the other way and go and chase some REAL criminals)

    Good piece, Eileen. Thanks for writing it. Your essay, represents another kernel of hope that there are people of good will who ‘get it’. Will

    1. Law makers and law enforcers widely share the misperception that what they do (punishment) to one miscreant will deter others, who might be similarly inclined. That’s the theory behind “crime prevention,” an agenda law enforcement agencies have come to in response to the fact that the rate of aggressive criminal behavior has dropped and they want to avoid any reduction in force. In other words, new crimes and venues have to be found to justify keeping law enforcers employed. Taking down an overweight fellow who can’t run very fast in a very public venue qualified as a “good” example until the fellow up and died from an intervention that a healthy juvenile would have easily survived. (I’ve seen it. It wasn’t pretty, but the disobedient victim was subdued, not damaged, and walked away on his own two feet).
      The culture of obedience likely makes such incidents much more prevalent than they ought to be, but the community’s failure to recognize that “they also serve who only stand and wait” must accept some of the blame. If we’re going to complain about too many utility workers standing and watching the guy in the bucket, then it will be partly our fault if the guy gets shocked and there’s nobody on site to rescue him.
      If cops were on foot patrol in pairs, would aggressive interactions be lessened? I’d argue, yes.
      Which brings us to the real problem–the pervasive lack of funds to take care of what needs to be done. It doesn’t make sense that our population keeps going up, our monetary transactions increase, but everything is supposed to cost less because the symbolic representations of our duties and obligations are being sequestered and rationed. How does it happen that the infinite is made finite?

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