Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Choking on the Truth: Race, Justice, and the Thin Blue Line From HuffPost Black Voices 12/08/2014

In the wake of the decision of a New York grand jury not to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the choking death of 43-year-old unarmed Black peddler Eric Garner, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called Garner's death "a terrible tragedy" and pledged to continue to explore ways to curb the use of excessive force by police. It was the kind of statement in both style and substance that protesters in Ferguson, Missouri wanted to hear from politicians in the aftermath of the non-indictment of police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown. Then again, New York has had far more practice in apologizing for unchecked police brutality. This explains why to some de Blasio's words ring hallow. The New York City police actually banned the very hold that resulted in Garner's death more than two decades ago.
Given the current discussion on ways to restore harmony to police-community relations, it is worth revisiting this history. In November of 1993, the New York City Police Department officially banned the use of chokeholds. Explaining the decision, the department's Chief of the Office of Management, Analysis and Planning John F. Timoney stated what should have been obvious, "We are in the business of protecting life, not taking it."
"The bottom line," he continued, "is that if somebody is emotionally disturbed, they really need police help and we should render it in the most humane and professional way possible."
It is difficult to read those words and not to think of the video of Eric Garner clearly pleading for his life with the officers who took him down in a violent tussle. "I can't breathe," he muttered nearly a dozen times before he lapsed into unconsciousness with policeman Daniel Pantaleo's arm still wrapped around his neck. He never revived. At the very least, the use of the banned chokehold warranted an indictment.
At the time of the department's decision to ban the chokehold, there was an ongoing national debate over the use of excessive force by law enforcement. In 1980, for instance, Los Angles police banned chokeholds in advance of several wrongful death lawsuits and in response to growing public outrage particularly in Black and Brown communities over the number of deaths associated with police use of deadly holds.
Despite a sharp increase in the number of people killed by New York police administering similar holds, the city managed to avoid the issue until 1985 when police officials issued a pronouncement carefully outlining new guidelines for the appropriate use of such submission grips. The order, which defined chokeholds as "potentially lethal and unnecessary," outlawed their use with one exception "when an officer's life was in danger." Even then the deadly maneuver was only to be applied as a last resort and as the "least dangerous alternative method of restraint."
Nevertheless over the next eight years, the killings continued. One of the touchstone cases involved 21-year-old car theft suspect Federico Pereira who died after police officer Anthony Paparella placed him in a chokehold in the wee hours of the morning of February of 1991. Pereira's slaying was particularly barbaric. After police discovered him sitting in a stolen car, he was placed faced down, rear-cuffed and hogtied. Paparella then according to the prosecutor in the case "pulled back on his neck and choked him."
An autopsy later revealed that Pereira died of "traumatic asphyxia." Police originally filed charges against five officers in Pereira's death. When a new District Attorney swept into office that spring however, he threw out the charges against four and reduced the charges against Paparella to manslaughter. Much to the Pereira family and the community's dismay a trial judge acquitted Paparella of any wrongdoing in 1992.
His death, however, seemed not to have been a beacon for change when the following year, with tensions in the city still simmering, officials amended the 1985 chokehold protocol. While police Commissioner Raymond Kelley attempted to frame the modification as more of a clarification than a wholesale revision, the change was nevertheless substantive. The 1993 amendment outlawed chokeholds without exception.
Fast forward to the summer of 2014 when Eric Garner had the misfortune of encountering Officer Daniel Pantaleo and other police officers on a warm July afternoon. Allegedly, Mr. Garner peddled illegal smokes. It was, hardly the type of crime that justified deadly force--especially not deadly force in the form of a lethal and illegal chokehold. Yet on clear cell phone video, millions of people worldwide watched and re-watched Eric Garner's life extinguished literally at the hands of Officer Pantaleo.
So why did the Grand Jury considering charges against Pantaleo fail to indict? Perhaps for the same reason the Grand Jury in Ferguson, Missouri failed to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary they, like many others, identified more with the authorities who did the killing than their unarmed victims.
One of the words most often used to describe Black and Brown "suspects" from Trayvon Martin to Eric Garner to Michael Brown is "thug." In the narratives spun to explain their ignominious deaths and despite the menial nature of their transgressions, they become larger than life representations of all the fear and negativity associated with the inherent assumption of criminality that accompanies the use of the word.
Their killers, on the other hand, are portrayed as the last line of defense between the law-abiding public and Black and Brown "thugs" waiting to prey on them. They enjoy a degree of empathy as the "thin blue line" often described as "the barrier between anarchy and a civilized society, between order and chaos, between respect for decency and lawlessness and for a many people of color, victimized by laws such as stop and frisk and racial profiling, the line between Black and white.
Significantly in the graphic representation, the thin blue line is embedded in a Black background meant to serve from the officer's perspective as a "constant reminder of our fallen brother and sister officer." What it has come to represent for many people of color in the United States is presence of police as an occupying army, present not to serve and protect, but serve as judge, jury and executioner, on Black and Brown bodies in public spaces. Rightly or wrongly, this view is reinforced every time the very persons entrusted to ensure safety and security take the life of another person of color.
Predictably, critics of this view attempt to shift the discussion to the high rate of Black on Black crime and the difficult position police face in patrolling neighborhoods where such crime is prevalent. They fail to appreciate the cyclical nature of the problem as one of poverty and mistrust with deep historical roots often fed by police misconduct in failing to appreciate the humanity of the people in the communities they patrol. While communities of color have tried to make this clear, the larger society remains fixated on crime and the "thin blue line." The explosion in gun sales in Ferguson, Missouri in advance of the Grand Jury's verdict in the Darren Wilson case is indicative of this.
Several theories have been floated about the New York Grand Jury's decision not to indict. Officer Pantaleo's remorseful testimony before that body remains the most compelling. In spite of the video evidence and the testimony of other eyewitnesses, Pantaleo was able to confirm what we all desperately want to believe that the police exist to serve and protect. Sometimes, they make mistakes but for the most part they are well-intentioned.
Pantaleo claimed that he never intended to hurt Mr. Garner. He said the move he used was not a chokehold, but a wrestling move that he accidentally applied after he and Garner nearly fell into a nearby glass window. What began, he claimed, as a sanctioned police hold accidentally morphed into the lethal chokehold. Pantaleo also acknowledged that he knew he was being recorded, apparently confirming in the jury's mind that what transpired was not intentional but a series of unfortunate circumstances precipitated by Mr. Garner's resisting arrest. Why, his testimony left them to consider, would he blatantly apply such a hold in full view of cell phone recording devices?
While suspects rarely testify before Grand Juries, Pantaleo and his counsel understood that in this case his testimony would carry significant weight. As Paul Martin, one of the lawyers in the Sean Bell case conceptualized the problem the testimony of police officers in such cases carries strong credibility. Police officers may further enjoy what Martin described as the professional sympathy and courtesy of prosecutors who work most closely with police and empathize with their predicament. This was clearly at work in Ferguson, Missouri. Time will tell if the same is true for New York.
In the meantime, we are left to bear the burden of grief and disbelief regarding the decisions in both cases. While the words of Mayor de Blasio and even President Barack Obama were offered as a political salve on the deep emotional wound both decisions have left, where, we are left to ponder is the real sympathy for the families of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Sympathy not be found in empty expressions of grief for their loss, but the impetus for real change that must begin with a hard look at the entire criminal justice system in the United States and a move toward real reform if not whole scale revision.
Such reform will have to tackle the issue of race. We can no longer, as Attorney General Eric Holder observed, remain a nation of cowards on this subject. The cost is too high in life, in property damage, and in our efforts to ensure fair and democratic practice.
Until mainstream society appreciates the real fear that people of color harbor toward police, the dialogue will be fruitless. The quickening heart rate that comes whenever an officer pulls you over, the demands that your children not wear hoodies or play with toy guns because the larger society fears them, and that such actions might be an invitation to harm, and the ever present reality that the people it deputizes to serve and protect often internalize that fear, is real. Yes, Black lives matter. Until we are ready to deal with the full meaning of this language, we fight a losing battle. Our nation can no longer afford to function as two societies, separate and unequal, deeply divided, and policed by the racially insensitive Thin Blue Line. We must find a way to be inclusive and to make real in all aspects of our society and culture a deep respect for life and liberty regardless of race. This will ultimately do more to help us build bridges to understanding instead of continuing to populate the tombs of indifference with the bodies of unarmed men and boys of color.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Beyond 42 Jackie Robinson and the Quest for Racial Justice

Beyond 42 Jackie Robinson and the Quest for Racial Justice appeared in the HuffPost Black Voices 10/24/2014 4:36 pm EDT 

When the Kansas City Royals and San Francisco Giants take the field Friday night for Game 3 of the World Series, it is unlikely that viewers will be thinking of Jackie Robinson or Ferguson, Missouri. Yet, Ferguson is a little over a three and half-hours drive from Kansas City, where Jackie Robinson began his baseball career; he started in the Negro Leagues as a member of the Kansas City Monarchs. October 24, 2014 marks the 42nd anniversary of Robinson's death -- significant because that is the number that Robinson wore. It is a number that has been universally retired throughout baseball in tribute to the way he helped to transform the game and the nation.

Just nine days before his death, on October 15, 1972, Robinson himself attended a World Series game that included a ceremony to honor the then 25th Anniversary of his historic accomplishment. In what proved to be his final public engagement, Robinson pressed baseball officials to do more to foster integration: "I'd like to live to see a black manager," he noted in his televised remarks, "I'd like to live to see the day when there's a black man coaching at third base."
Today some of those dreams have been realized, even as Black representation in baseball as a whole continues to plummet. According to a 2014 report, the percentage of black players has dropped to its lowest number since integration, standing at 8.3% down from 26% in 1979. Last month, one of those African Americans, Seattle Mariners Manager Lloyd McClendon, linked the decline in black participation with fewer opportunities for African Americans to pick up the game in financially strapped and racially stratified inner cities. Clearly as baseball legend Hank Aaron observed in May of 2013, "Jackie certainly would be disappointed in the way things are today."
This observation extends beyond baseball when once considers the nation's failure to tackle other racial and economic disparities that were important to Robinson. The "historical" Jack Robinson was a man who cared far more deeply about social justice than many realize and spent the better part of his post-baseball life working toward achieving equality for all people. Given where we find ourselves at this moment in the nation's history, Robinson's legacy in these arenas should speak as powerfully to us as his record of achievement on the baseball diamond. Although Robinson can speak to us across time on a variety of issues, I would like to focus on two: education and police community relations that continue to haunt us.
Robinson was born in Cairo, Georgia but grew up in Pasadena, California. His mother instilled in him a deep respect for the value of education -- a respect that segregation helped to erode. Struggling to meet the financial burden of paying for his education and despite his athletic prowess, Robinson left UCLA shorty before completing his studies. In his autobiography, I Never Had It Made, Robinson recalled leaving because "I was convinced that no amount of education would help a black man get a job. I felt like I was living in an academic and athletic dream world."
Nevertheless, Robinson remained a staunch supporter of ensuring the broadest accesses to education for all throughout his life. It is unlikely that he would be happy with the present state of affairs in the United States and efforts to undercut funding for public schools. In spite of the rhetoric of corporate education reformers, our nation's schools remain largely segregated. A persistent achievement gap, especially on high stakes standardized tests, mocks so-called reformers desire to achieve true equity.
The disillusionment Robinson experienced was fueled partially by the knowledge that in spite of earning a college degree, very little opportunity awaited him as a person of color. It is the same disillusionment many students presently face in a climate where high stakes testing and cuts to funding for music and the arts, not to mention vocational training, erode the value of a high school diploma. Perhaps, more importantly, given Robinson's experience, high stakes testing may cut access to universities for students of color who continue to struggle on such standardized measures of achievement and who are not gifted athletes eligible for athletic scholarships. Students may also see less value in completing school when the vast majority of jobs since the economic recovery have emerged in low wage sectors for positions in which neither a high school nor college diploma is necessary or required.
It is equally important to acknowledge Jackie Robinson's view of the problem of police community relations. Although considered primarily a sports hero, Robinson participated in the Civil Rights Movement. Columns he wrote for several newspapers, including the Amsterdam News, regularly weighed in on issues of race and criminal justice. Shortly before a wave of urban unrest swept Harlem over the killing of an unarmed 15-year-old named James Powell by a police lieutenant in July of 1964 Robinson published a piece, "Watch That Brutality" in which he cautioned city officials that police brutality would "not be tolerated by the Negro and Puerto Rican people of New York City." Robinson challenged officials' record of excessive force, "There has been too much of it and unless it is seriously curtailed, there can be serious and crucial times ahead for the city."
Those words ring true today as protesters continue to demonstrate on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri to demand justice in the murder of unarmed teenager Michael Brown and the myriad social, economic, and political factors that continue to contribute to racial inequality in America.
As many of us enjoy the grand spectacle of athletic competition on display at the World Series we would do well to remember that America's pastime is not invitation to close our eyes to this injustice and inequality but renew our resolve to fight it, as Jackie Robinson did, in the hopes of helping our nation reach its highest moral and democratic potential.

The Day the Music Died

The Day the Music Died Appeared in HuffPost Education on 11/12/2014 5:04 pm EST

In 1984, the group Huey Lewis and the News scored a hit with the song, "The Heart of Rock and Roll." Besides its driving beat, the song also garnered attention for its lyrics--or at least what people thought they heard that "the heart of rock and roll is in Cleveland." In fact, the lyrics read, "the heart of rock and roll is still beating." Unfortunately in 2014, in both cases the band would be wrong. A controversial measure before the Ohio State Board of Education threatens to seriously lop music and arts instruction in the Buckeye State.

Even as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame makes its home in the city of Cleveland, the measure before the board may literally cut the musical heart out of Ohio's public schools. This would be a tragedy anywhere, but especially in Ohio, given the state's rich history of contributing to musical innovations through artists, who in many cases were first introduced to music and the arts in the state's public schools.

Significantly, music and the arts are not the only programs at risk, but they are the most vulnerable. On November 11, the board was scheduled to decide if it would abandon what is known as the "five of eight" rule. That directive currently requires schools to maintain a minimum of five staff from eight different specialty areas for every 1,000 students. In the past those specialty areas included librarians, nurses, social workers and guidance personnel along with music and the arts teachers. Now the state wants not only to abolish the rule but also include other specialty areas such as reading specialists and English language learning professionals in the pool of specialty personnel.
Music and arts teachers, of course, are justifiably worried. In advance of the meeting teachers and education activists from Ohio and from across the country took to social media to send the Ohio State Board of Education a message. When the proposal came up for a vote on Monday before the board's Operating Standards Committee, the presumed strong support had crumbled. Although the proposed changes passed that committee in a close 4-3 vote, the three committee members specifically cited that the wave of email and social media messages caused them to reconsider their previous support.
The digital outcry affirmed the observations of Ohio parent Nathan Buchanan who summarized the problem in an interview with a local news station. "You can't do without the nurses, you can't do without the librarians," he explained; "I mean those are things that you need, you have to have those. Every part of the school needs it, I wouldn't cut any of it."
The outcry also apparently resulted in a change of heart on the part of four members of the board who walked out of another meeting on Tuesday in protest after controversial board Chair Debe Terhar attempted to change the meeting agenda in a move that would have effectively silenced a large group of people who had come to voice their opposition to the change.
While, this may have the desired effect of forestalling the vote in Ohio, the battle is far from over and is indicative of a much larger struggle on the national stage. Ohio would be wise to look to other states like Pennsylvania and Illinois where similar efforts have been disastrous.
Ohio's Republican Governor John Kasich, in league with the Republican dominated General Assembly, has been targeting education budgets for deep cuts for four years. This has precipitated a crisis frighteningly similar to other states where cuts have forced districts to make impossible choices between hiring nurses, librarians or instructors in the music and the arts, all vital in their own way.
Although state and local tax issues have also compromised funding, the Kasich administration's deliberate choice to funnel money to charter schools through a voucher program has further contributed to the current funding crunch fueling the present crisis. Ohio has also rushed to embrace online testing compelling districts to choose to commit millions of dollars on new technologies devoted solely to high stakes testing over the retention and hiring of new personnel to fully staff schools.
As a result, the range of academic offerings has become increasingly limited and in many cases, with schools sharing nurses and guidance personnel, there is little cohesion or support raising concerns not only about curriculum but safety.
In making such "hard" choices of course, music and the arts, are generally the first to be eliminated. Seen as non-essential by the non-educators making these decisions, music and arts programs are quickly disappearing from the educational landscape.
While this is a nationwide concern, in highly deindustrialized cities like Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, and Youngstown, Ohio, the slashing of music and arts programs along with the advent of high stakes testing may offer a new reading on another great song, Don Mclean's "American Pie."
Mclean, interestingly, penned the song in Philadelphia in 1971. The refrain, "the day the music died" refers to a plane crash that took the lives of three musicians, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper in February of 1959, whom Mclean admired.
Given recent efforts to strip school districts of music and arts programs Mclean's lyrics might be revised and offered in a whole new context. Set against the backdrop of corporate education reform and the insistence that the only thing students need to focus on are Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics courses; the arts and humanities--along with what most would consider essential services such as school nurses are left to compete for remaining funding dollars in a high stakes battle royal in which nobody and especially not students, wins.
If some daring artist was to amend Mclean's classic for the present moment, I imagine she might, in light of the present moment begin something like this:
In the three places where the music was first to go
Philadelphia, Detroit and Ohio
They drove the teachers out and left the students low
The day the music died.

Preventing this from taking place will certainly take a lot more people willing to stand up and speak out against the further retrenchment of our schools. "Vision," satirist Jonathan Swift once observed, "is the art of seeing what is invisible to others." The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche expressed it more plainly, "Without music, life would be a mistake." That, unfortunately, is exactly what the Ohio State Board of education will be making if they forge ahead with the current proposal. It is our collective responsibility as caretakers of American education to keep the pressure on to keep this from happening.