With all the recent attacks on police, I have begun to wonder if this generation truly understands how to invoke social change. Albert Gonzalez
Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, during a time in America where racism was more openly accepted by the dominant culture, I had the opportunity to see justified social activism in its finest hour.
Groups like LULAC and the Brown Berets hit the streets of the Latino neighborhoods organizing despondent, young Americans of Hispanic decent while leaders like Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, and Malcolm X led a higher profile movement for African Americans.
Each of these groups had very specific agendas with clearly defined goals; though some more radical than others. Moreover, their objectives were tied to very clear institutional issues like segregation, lack of representation in government and corporate America and Redlining. While the voices of the minorities got louder, white Americans fought back openly in an attempt to keep control over the rest of us. Sides of the issues were drawn for us along racial lines. These movements did impact American culture and in fact successfully forced the change necessary to allow the succeeding generations to have a fair chance at success
America today, compared to the Mid-Twentieth Century, is radically different for minorities. It took a 1967 Supreme Court decision to make interracial marriage fully legal in all U.S. states. The civil rights act of 1964 ended the unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools. The painful process of accepting and implementing these changes are what fueled the movements of my time. Although we have a lot yet to accomplish, minorities have broken through many glass ceilings and are prominent in government, the entertainment industry, sports, and corporations. Today we can buy houses in neighborhoods of our choice, we can marry whom we choose, and freely attend integrated schools without the threat of violence from local authorities.
Unfortunately, instead of building on the accomplishments of our predecessors, contemporary leaders of “grass roots” movements are reinventing the wheel when it comes to social change. Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, points out in her manifesto that their movement began as a response to the “anti-black racism that permeates our society, and also, unfortunately, our movements”. She goes on to say that “Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise”; the inference is that there is a conspiracy afoot built into the institutions of power in the U.S. Her call to action, choice of words and anger are reminiscent of a time when institutionalized racism really was alive and active. Sadly, if she is right, then every black activist before her should be considered incompetent failures.
The tactics of early civil rights leaders made sense for their time but don’t fit the same in contemporary culture. Marches led by Martin Luther King in 1965 brought light to the brutality and institutionalized racism forced upon African Americans. The images on television of Alabama State Troopers bludgeoning peaceful marchers woke America up. There was no internet, email, bloggers or any other modern way of showing everyone what was truly happening. Today marching in the streets, blocking traffic on freeways and setting up police by provoking conflict while filming them, does nothing for positive change and only hurts hard working people who are not part of the problem.
Today we have to take responsibility for our communities, for our families, for ourselves, in the actions we take in order to prevent needless deaths; it starts with education. In the early 90’s I took a college course called Police Officer Standards Training, (P.O.S.T II & III), to learn how cops are trained. At the time I was doing some gang outreach and developing dropout prevention programs for a local school district. Having myself suffered from the misuse of authority at the hands of many officers in my neighborhood from childhood all the way into my adult life, I knew seeing things from the other side might help me provide a road to change for the community I was serving. I very quickly found a flaw in their training that was the likely culprit in the conflict between police and people like me, called “Command Presence”. Command Presence is a tool used to gain control over a critical situation. Essentially your body language, use of words and volume of your voice and facial inflections position you as the authority in any situation and theoretically invokes cooperation. Very useful in car accidents, felony stops, domestic disputes etc.…. Unfortunately, police are not taught that it can agitate a situation when misused.
Police patrolled my neighborhood as a training ground for dealing with the society’s problems. I’ve had more guns in my face and threats of violence from police than my rivals in other gangs. Police were taught to treat every stop in my town as though a felony was committed. The end result was a deep-seated hatred for cops. We distrusted their presence and often played cat and mouse games with them. When I lived in Stanton, CA we use to use the alleys as cover to throw bottles at cops making routine stops. If we were caught after curfew it was not uncommon to be cuffed, beat up and set free with a warning to get off the streets and although racial slurs were often used not all cops were white. I was tossed around, threatened and incarcerated by Hispanics, Asians, African Americans and White cops.
There is a natural propensity in me to distrust, dislike, and even hate authority, especially the police, but I recognize the flaw in me that can aggravate a situation and thwart social change. My personal experience caused me to respond to the environment of the time and times have changed. More and more cities have recognized the disconnect between the police and the communities they serve. Almost all have enacted policies and programs focused on closing that gap.
More than ever minorities dedicated to change, with an understanding of the issues have risen in the ranks of big city police departments. Dallas Chief of Police, David O. Brown, (an African American), immediately made changes when he took office over the city. He made it a public point to fire officers who could not connect properly with the community. Manuel Ortega, formerly the Chief of Police in Placentia Ca., started his career in a classroom at my high school with the goal of bridging the communication gap between cops and their community. He encouraged me to take the POST courses and asked me to be part of a task force focused on community policing. I had to set aside my prejudices to be part of the solution.
When I hear the anger and hate coming out of the mouths of community activists I cringe. Empathy kicks in because history floods my mind and I remember my hatred. My body tenses up when I watch the videos of innocent people shot to death because of poor training, or the wrong person in uniform. Anger fills my heart when I hear the stupid commentary on how that person could have avoided being shot if they just cooperated because I remember being abused even when I complied. I do know however, hate can never drive out hate, only love can do that.
Love requires acts that are not self-promoting, like so many activists practice. Love does not stand quietly about the issues but rather points to them openly and honestly. We have a problem with bad policing practices. We have a problem with how we respond to bad authority. Our voice should never inspire people to take the lives of parents from their children, children from their parents or spouses from each other. It starts with a deep inventory of our souls and the questioning of our motives.