Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Murder on Main Street signals a social emergency

Charles Blow called it a "week from hell," "...another week that tore at the very fiber of our nation." Two brutal deaths of black men at the hands of police, followed by a massacre of police by a black sniper, who set himself up on Main Street in Dallas, ready to pick off officers guarding a peaceful protests of the earlier deaths.  Protests belong on Main Street: murder is a shocking intruder.

NY Times' graphic of the Dallas Protest route and site of the shooting (bursting star)

The Black Lives Matter movement has brought national scrutiny to "deaths at the hands of police," challenging the across-the-board impunity with which police are vested.  Under our watch, we've seen men exonerated after acts that are illegal, irrational, stupid or mean.  It seems impossible to the average citizen (me) that they could get off in ALL the cases, but that is what we've seen.  For one young man, Micah Johnson, a former soldier who had served in Afghanistan, this was too much.  He become judge, jury and executioner, carrying out his form of payback.  It is all so tragic.

The Washington Post published a report on 46 people whose sentences had been commuted by President Obama.  It was heartwarming to learn of the efforts those people had made to restart their lives outside of prison.  But as a footnote to a week from hell, it was impossible not to compare the punishments they had received for much less heinous crimes with our absolute inability to chastise police officers who kill innocent citizens.  Mass criminalization is the harsh face of oppression, and the police, as the hand of oppression, are its enforcers.  Even in extreme circumstances, they are not its victims.  Our problem is not the police, who are the hand of oppression.  Our problem lies with the system of oppression.

We are in a social emergency.  As a public member on the national board of the American Institute of Architects, I spoke about the growing pain over unjustified death at the hands of police and the social emergency it was triggering.  I shared the suggestion from the Design Studio for Social Intervention that we needed procedures for such times.  Architect Randy Collins listened carefully and translated what needs to be done at such a moment into a simple drawing, taking inspiration from the airline instructions about on putting your own mask before you help others.

We can see in the drawing that response to a social emergency has four parts: for the victim, we cry; for the act, we contemplate; for justice, we cry out; for change, we advocate.  It is a perfect evocation of what is needed in these dire times.  People rush to rage, but we need, instead, to step back and consider the way forward.  The larger question is this, "Where are we going?"

Randy Collins, "In a social Emergency"

On a main Street in Cleveland -- East 105th Street -- Martin Kohn told me about the history of the Jewish community that had lived in the area.  His grandparents had been part of the group, and we visited his grandfather's schul.  Nearby, there was a community center with the names of the prophets written in Hebrew.  For Marty, it evoked the Biblical phrase, "Justice, justice you shall pursue," a core tenet of Judaism.

What is justice?  We all feel differently about that, which is the measure of size of the social emergency.  We don't share a common sense of what is just.  Racism has contributed to this confusion by enshrining unequal treatment into the very Constitution of the nation.

The leaders of the nation will try to find the right words to patch over the deep divides that are tearing at us.  But they do not dare condemn the oppression -- it is too useful to them.  Indeed, great dividers like Rudy Guiliani lay the blame on the protesters -- refusing to admit the possibility that  Mr. Johnson -- however wrong-headed his solution -- actually had correctly identified oppression as an intolerable problem.

Thus, the contemplation ahead of us has to search for deep principles in order to move divided people toward clarity.  We need to reckon with the past -- the long history of injustice stretching back to 1619 -- and we need to look forward to kind of challenges that lie ahead, as well as the kind of nation we want to leave to our children.   The work ahead beckons, but better to do the work than to continue to watch murders live on Facebook.

1 comment:

Lally said...

yes "better to do the work"