Every morning this week, we woke up to death. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, and two more Dallas police officers who are still unnamed. Anthony Nunez. Melissa Ventura.
The uproar over these deaths is important. The hurt, anger, and frustration shine a light on our most broken parts as a nation.
These losses are symptoms, not causes, of a system that is failing us. The issues at stake go deeper than any single death and any momentary news cycle. Most of the time, we never hear about these deaths. Victims are marked in different ways by their race, their mental health, and their work. Meanwhile, there is a sense that while we must act, we don’t know how.
About a year ago, I was at a conference the day that Dylann Roof killed nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The conference attendees were mostly older, and mostly white. No one talked about it. I felt like I was grieving in secret. We each have different perspectives, and we each have different limitations. The day it was announced that Darren Wilson would not be charged for shooting Michael Brown in 2014, I was with my partner. He grew up near Ferguson, MO., and had seen his family targeted by the police as a child. He lay down on the carpeted floor of his apartment, eyes closed, motionless with pain. We couldn’t grieve the same way. I didn’t know what to do.
I think it’s normal, not knowing what to do. Friends are asking me how they can be allies to the Black Lives Matter movement—and I’m asking other friends the same thing. People want to help. And yet, for all the people who woke up to these deaths this week, how many others have woken up for the first time on this issue? I worry that number is zero. There seem to be two sides of this issue: pro-Black Lives Matter versus pro-cop. On Facebook, we’re blocking our friends who don’t care about this much as we do, saying, “your silence is deafening.” I almost unfriended someone who, mid-week, posted about their vacation. The next day, he shared a poem he had written on all that has happened this week, and the feelings he is processing. I nearly cut someone off rather than open up a new line of communication.
This week has shown me that ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ is not a dynamic I’m willing to invest my time or energy in. In the wise words of Jon Stewart, “you can truly grieve for every officer who’s been lost in the line of duty in this country, and still be troubled by the cases of police overreach. Those ideas are not mutually exclusive. You can have great regard for law enforcement and still want them to be held to high standards.” The only thing I would add is that being “troubled” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.
Speaking up vs. action is a another false distinction. We disdain “hashtag activism,” chide people for saying the wrong thing, and fear that the steps we take aren’t enough. But we can speak up, speak with one another, and take action all at the same time. In a broken system, communication can be radical. It’s crazy to me that I have sidestepped difficult conversations on these issues while learning to accept that I may have to one day give my son “the talk” about how to avoid police abuse.
I believe that whether or not you fall on one side of this divide or the other, we mostly want the same things. We want safety. We want to trust one another. We want to be able to look each other in the eye and communicate openly. But now, more than ever, people seem to think that it’s impossible for communities (especially of color) and cops to agree on anything at all.
It’s incredibly hard to break down these barriers. I meet with police officers ever week for work, and I still get nervous when a squad car drives by. But for the first time, I also nod and say hello when an officer walks by me on the street. If we open ourselves up to conversations, we can create space to understand and address what’s broken.
I don’t expect everyone who is hurting to go out and hug a cop. I do think, however, that the simplest of technologies can help us begin to break down these barriers. Our new project, My90, acts as a go-between to help community members and police officers talk for the first time. We wanted to create something that is easy, anonymous, and actionable. The service is being piloted in San Jose this summer, but after this week, we want to do more. As of now, My90 is open and ready to listen to what you think, and what you want to do about it. We’ll share the anonymous results and send them to the right people. If you want, we’ll direct you to resources and keep you in the loop about our next steps, too. Text My90 at (650) 469-8306.
This isn’t impossible, though it is difficult. At My90, we walk a narrow line that treats community members and police officers equally. Not everyone is open to that idea. But for those of us who are, it will be powerful. Please join us, and please stay safe.