Back in November, I had the honor and the privilege of speaking as President of the National Black Prosecutors Association on a roundtable at Harvard Law. Fellow participants included head prosecutors from around the country, and forward thinkers in the criminal justice world, led by the Vera Institute. We discussed issues of racial disparity in sentencing, ways to ensure that everyone gets the same treatment for the same types of crimes/criminal history, and other ways to make our system better. See my interview here on diversity and unconscious bias in the criminal justice system.
Think it’s about fashion, and carrying yourself a certain way?
Racism and prejudice take many forms. When I first started my legal career 12 years ago, and I was assigned to my first felony courtroom, I can’t count the number of times that White male attorneys assumed I was the courtroom clerk as opposed to the prosecutor.
Even though I was in a suit and clerks don’t wear suits.
Even though I was at the prosecutors’ table working on the files that were distinctly different in appearance than the court files.
I would swallow the insult quietly and direct them to the clerk…which would usually result in them attacking me harder in the legal proceedings that followed.
Because there’s no way I could be a competent attorney. I’m really the clerk!
Or at least I should be.
My story is not unique. Education, money and privilege does not save you from ignorance.
So in this installment of Knowledge Trumps Racism, meet Lawrence Otis Graham, who was reminded of this the hard way.
Several weeks ago, in my capacity as President of the National Black Prosecutors Association, I went to a high level meeting of attorneys. After I spoke, one attorney was so impressed that I was articulate. Everyone there knew my bio and background — so there was no reason to be surprised that a decade plus long attorney at a major metropolitan office, who has been arguing murder cases, graduated from top nationally ranked schools, and represents a national organization, is articulate.
Like what, did he have a stroke yesterday?He speaks so well.What’s he supposed to say?“Imma drop me some bombs today??”
Over the weekend, two police officers from the New York Police Department, Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, were gunned down in their police cars at close range and lost their lives. The lone gunman had posted pictures on social media before and after the murder, and had made statements that this was in retribution for the recent police involved deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown.
The backlash has been instant and fierce. Social media has been on fire, as well as mainstream media. The “us versus them” mentality has gone into full effect. I have seen statements from both sides that have been completely horrific. I have seen statements from police officers which basically amount to “it’s all out war on African-Americans” (and not put so politically correctly); I have also seen statement from African-Americans basically saying that those police officers deserve to die, or that somehow, their lives are less valuable as a result of the actions of the police officers that were involved in the recent high profile deaths of African-Americans.
Here is the danger in this thinking. We have now gotten to a point where we are in a standoff in our thought process. And from that standpoint, there can be no winners. There is no middle ground. The only way we can have progress is to find a middle ground.
At the end of the day, what do we really want? All of us, as a nation?
We want police working with the community; we want an end to senseless deaths in all forms; we want peace in our streets.
We want life to go back to normal where everyone can go to work and go about our business without looking over our shoulders, whether you are a police officer or a civilian.
By getting so entrenched in our positions and making statements that are so offensive to either side, we can never reach a point of compromise.
Because here’s the reality — unless we are willing to quit our jobs and do the job ourselves, we need the police to keep us safe. And if we cast the police out, the police department ceases to exist. So, we need each other, and MUST find a way to work together.
Let’s address violence as a solution.
Looking back in American history, violence has not been the route to success. During the civil rights movement, there was a debate as to whether or not African-Americans should follow the early, more militant path of Malcolm X , noted for his quote of “by any means necessary”, or follow the nonviolent path of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The path of Malcolm X seemed to be more energetic, and the quickest way to get results. Dr. Martin Luther King’s path was painful. There were more deaths and was a slower path to success.
However history told the final story. And in the end, it was Dr. Martin Luther King’s way that proved most effective. Malcolm X eventually converted to Dr. King’s way of thinking. I recently watched a special on PBS entitled “Many Rivers to Cross“. It was a very poignant series which covered the many decades of African-Americans in the United States. It discussed the history of the civil rights movement.
It also talked about Bloody Sunday.
When Dr. Martin Luther King led the march in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965, he and the other marchers were confronted by police officers who brutally attacked them while they were protesting peacefully. The media documented this atrocity. As a result, the civil rights movement received many more supporters of all races, including leaders from the Jewish faith, from the Catholic faith (there were nuns in full habits marching with the civil rights movement!) and the movement towards voting rights gained more momentum. Alabama was exposed as a hotbed of intolerance. This incident was one of the catalysts of the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Selma is an example of how the nonviolent path is so effective. If the marchers had been violent, they would not have gotten the support from such a wide base, and the resulting laws would not have been enacted.
After the video of the death of Eric Garner was released, if you look at the protests that resulted, you would’ve noticed that there was a wide range of protesters from all races in the crowd. Many people were very disturbed by the tactics used in the video. No matter what your stand on the grand jury findings, this was an opportunity to discuss policing in the 21st century, and to explore whether or not current methods were working or needed to be changed. The act of this lone crazy gunman threatens the positive dialogue that was being started.
So where from here?
This is the perfect time to show decency. Let the New York Police Department grieve, and support them in this time of sorrow. No family deserves this. This was a horrible act and no one should sanction it. And if your argument is “they wouldn’t do that for us“, I say, hold yourself to a higher standard! If you do, then you inherently challenge others to either do the same, or expose them for who they are. You’d be surprised at the results. I find once you elevate, people elevate with you.
We cannot hold an entire police force accountable for the acts of a few. The majority of police officers that I have met in my career are good decent folks who want to do their job and get home to their families. The same applies to African Americans — the majority are law abiding citizens who want a good life for themselves and their families, and want to see justice in the world. Neither side should be painted with the same negative brush.
Change is a tough thing. We want it, but it comes at a cost. Change does not need to come at the cost of human life. We are a civilized country, and we hold ourselves out as such to the international community. Death can cause us to realize change is needed; but if we start to condone violent acts against each other, then we are no better then the foreign countries that we criticize. We need to distance ourselves from those who promote violence, and we need to stand tall and claim our human dignity. There is a time to grieve, and there’s a time to act. Declining to protest for several days until the funerals are over will not harm the movement. It would actually gain the respect of many people and would bring a conciliatory tone to the issues at hand. It would also highlight our strength and decency as a people.
New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio came under fire for regarding comments he made regarding what he has told his son about how to interact with law enforcement.
Mayor De Blasio, who is married to an African American woman and has a biracial son, stated in a recent interview:
“It’s different for a white child. That’s just the reality in this country,” de Blasio went on. “And with Dante, very early on with my son, we said, look, if a police officer stops you, do everything he tells you to do, don’t move suddenly, don’t reach for your cell phone, because we knew, sadly, there’s a greater chance it might be misinterpreted if it was a young man of color.”
The head of the New York City Police Union was infuriated, and stated that the Mayor “threw cops under the bus” and was not helping race relations.
Here’s the deal.
Mayor De Blasio a white man, and a parent, is speaking his truth.
He’s speaking of the discussion that thousands of African American parents have with their sons across the country on a daily basis.
He’s a responsible parent, making sure his child knows how to act appropriately in a police encounter. Be polite, don’t make any sudden movements, don’t do anything to escalate the situation.
He’s also being practical! As angry as Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch may be, does he really want people making sudden movements in police encounters, creating situations where officers will have to draw their weapons?
I should hope not!
Mayor De Blasio’s statement is actually helping race relations…because when African Americans make similar statements, it can be viewed as an overreaction. “Their kids must be doing something bad.” “They’re just paranoid”
But the Mayor says it…this draws attention to the fact that this is a real issue.
So before dismissing his comments, listen.
Knowledge trumps racism.
Understand what the other side is saying. Mayor De Blasio is speaking his truth. So speak yours and let’s have a productive dialogue on how to move policing forward as opposed to “us” vs “them”.
Not all kids of color are bad; not all police officers are bad. If we start from that premise, we may actually get somewhere!
See my list of my practical tips on interacting with law enforcement here.
Feel free to weigh in!
I’ve stayed pretty quiet in recent weeks, absorbing all that has been going on. One thing is incredibly clear; education is needed on both sides. If we don’t know the rules that govern us, as well as our past, we are doomed for the future. If we don’t understand each other, we are doomed period.
So here is Part 1 of my series entitled “Knowledge Trumps Racism” — because as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said, knowledge is power.
I start from a historical perspective — David Ovalle from the Miami Herald wrote a very thoughtful piece on the last time a police officer was indicted in Miami for a shooting death in the line of duty. It was 25 years ago last Sunday, and left a long legacy.
In a city long torn by racial tension, a uniformed police officer fatally shot a black man. Days of upheaval and rioting riveted the nation.
A series of investigations scrutinized the officer’s use of deadly force. He claimed self-defense. Would the cop face criminal charges?
The case that exploded in Miami in 1989 still resonates today, echoing the murky, racially charged confrontation that has put a 24/7 media spotlight on the small Missouri town of Ferguson.
Twenty five years ago Sunday, after a trial that lives on in local legal lore, jurors convicted Miami Police Officer William Lozano for shooting and killing a motorcyclist. It was the last time any police officer in Florida was convicted for an on-duty shooting.