Can King’s Dream End This Nightmare?

The struggle for basic decency in the US is front and center. A 17-year-old got his mother to take him and his long gun to a protest, after curfew, to supposedly defend businesses in the event of a riot.

What could that mother have been thinking? Her boy shot unarmed people, killing two and wounding a third.

When the Kenosha chief of police talks about it– “the curfew’s in place to protect. Had persons not been out involved in violation of that, perhaps the situation that unfolded would not have happened”– all I hear is victim-blaming. No they were not asking for it! Being out after curfew isn’t a capital offense, Wisconsin has no death penalty, and the shooter was neither judge nor legal executioner.

The law on openly carrying firearms is muddy on many points, but clear about the age requirement: 18 years old. Some children have been murdered by cops for toy guns, but he was praised by the Kenosha police, “We appreciate you guys, we really do.” I wonder why? Even after allegedly murdering two people officers allowed him to leave.

All this reflects culture, structure, and system in need of change.

Kenosha officer Rusten Sheskey repeatedly shot Jacob Blake in the back, in front of his children, when he appeared to pose no threat. Video indicates that Blake was walking away from Sheskey when the officer began shooting.

Racists say people of color are shot in the back because they refuse to do what they are told.

Legal precedent makes that an illegal act by police. Let’s be clear.

Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985), found that use of deadly force to prevent escape is an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment, in the absence of probable cause that the fleeing suspect posed a physical danger.

Federal data show that young black males are as much as 21 times more likely to be shot dead than their white counterparts. In 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010-2012 blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police. These are not isolated cases but part of a long pattern history of abuse and injustice.

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr., delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at the Lincoln Memorial. He described a problem we still experience, “one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”

He reminded people of the promise:

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

He described a dream: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

How did we get here?

Hate crimes happen all the time. People are targeted for the color of their skin. Racial profiling and other biases are ubiquitous and challenging them has been rare. I understand that this terrorist is being hailed as hero and patriot in some circles. Frequently these are the same people who find excuses for the violence perpetrated by police.

I was surrounded by racists when I was younger. A friend’s younger brothers would go out to pick fights with minorities, literally shouting racial slurs until someone reacted. Hate crimes are a scourge to eliminate before anyone can legitimately claim that America is a great country.

Having worked my way out of my racist-influenced upbringing, I know that it is much more than simply saying to oneself or others that “I am not racist.” We have mending and healing to accomplish. Being anti-racist requires work and accepting accountability. Some of what we can do:

* Know thyself—identify and understand your own privilege. Identify your own biases and possible sources of the stereotypes you operate with.

* Help those in need—validate the feelings and experiences of people who’ve been marginalized. Confront “colorblind—I don’t see color” narratives for what they are: dismissal of history, identity, and injustice.

* Shut down bullies and “joking.” Let people know that you do not support their humor. Confront insecurity in ways that mitigate coercion and enable empowerment and problem solving.

There is a saying: hurt people hurt people.

Last year my friend was terrorized in a hate crime, I wrote about the aggressor in support of my friend:

He shouted profane slurs to disparage them based upon their skin color. He openly mocked the way he believed they prayed and told them he would bury them all in the river. Finally, when his abhorrent behavior did not repel the family, the visibly intoxicated man drove his golf cart to retrieve a .357 Taurus Magnum revolver. He returned, pointed it in the direction of the family, and fired two shots over their heads. He confesses that his motivation was to scare the family into leaving.

There was a guilty plea and sentencing earlier this year. My friend told the court that his family had forgiven and did not hold grudges. The true reflection of their strength and faith.

It is not up to the oppressed and victimized to change the conditions of their struggle. It is up to the people with privilege to fix the structures they have benefited from. This is a very real possibility and it scares some people, but it is time that we finally put an end to the scourge of racial hatred and prejudicial bias. There should never again be police shooting unarmed people nor a mother deploying her son to threaten or even kill unarmed people.

Wim Laven has a PhD in International Conflict Management, he teaches courses in political science and conflict resolution, and is on the Executive Boards of the International Peace Research Association and the Peace and Justice Studies Association.