The War on Bias: Black Lives Matter in MA Communities
by The Milton Measure on Friday, March 31st, 2017
I am at the First Church in Roxbury to listen to Mari Gashaw, a graduate student and advocate for Black Lives Matter (BLM) speaking in a “Surveillance in the Post-Trump Era” panel. With no organization phone number, contacts, physical headquarters, or protest events in the near future, BLM has yet to have a voice in my feature article on Black Lives Matter in the Greater Boston area– I really hope Mari shows up.
When I enter the service hall, I am struck by the big windows casting warm light onto the pews. But after sitting down and looking around, I realize that the church is in dire need of renovation: water corroded walls don iodine colored stains and chipped paint; pew cushions are faded from a bright salmon to a light petal pink; and in sunny areas, I can see dust suspending in the air. Everything in this room is worn, faded, chipped, or missing. And it’s cold. With no heating, the church is an uncomfortable 35 degrees. The small group that has shown up to watch the panel (maybe 50 or 60 people) sits sprinkled throughout the rows, shivering in their winter jackets, wool hats, and scarves. Everyone’s head perks when a man’s voice booms from the front:
“REPEAT AFTER ME,” the man shouts and paces vigorously. “Stop surveillance!”
The crowd shouts back, “Stop surveillance!!”
The man and crowd exchange “stop surveillance” back and forth, escalating the volume of the chant with each repetition. I am caught off guard by this sudden swell of voices, but I assume this marks the start of the panel.
Next, the man introduces the panelists: a porcelain-skinned lady wearing a hijab; a dark bearded man in a suit; a young, bearded millennial typing on his computer; and a black woman holding a newborn baby who is definitely not Mari Gashaw. No one explains why Gashaw does not show up, but the woman who comes in her place is someone I recognize from my online research. This is Di Di Delgado, poet and leader of BLM Cambridge! I have been trying to contact her for weeks with no luck, and here she is.
Most of the two-hour panel is not relevant to my research, but I am nevertheless drawn in by the passionate sentiments of the panelists. People chant, snap fingers, and listen respectfully. I like this spirited crowd that is willing to bundle up and freeze their toes off to hear from these activists.
When Di Di speaks, she commands the room. She has the rhythmic, unwavering voice of a seasoned poet. Even her purple lipstick and thick winged eyeliner are bold.
“…And the Boston Herald wanted to do an interview with me on the radio,” she says. “On air, my interviewer said something to the effect of, ‘Don’t you think that [white people and Black Lives Matter] should just join forces and change things from the inside out?’ and I couldn’t help it.” Di Di raises her eyebrows and takes a breath.
“I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?? That’s as ludicrous as you asking me to join ISIS and infiltrate change!’ I think that was the worst thing I could have ever said!” Di Di and the audience explode with laughter.
I laugh too but I am confused– what’s wrong with joining together to fix issues of racism?
In 2012, black activists Alicia Graza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi invented the hashtag #blacklivesmatter in response to death of black teenager Trayvon Martin. Martin had been shot by mixed-race Officer Zimmerman in Sanford, FL, but, after years in court, Zimmerman was ultimately acquitted. Two years later, the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri would sensationalize the concept of racist police brutality:
August 9, 2014: Michael Brown, an 18 year-old black man, has just stolen cigarillos and assaulted the clerk at a convenience store when he was confronted by white police officer Darren Wilson. The two engaged in a struggle. A shot was fired. Brown ran and Wilson pursued. Brown, unarmed, turned to face Wilson. Wilson shot Brown 12 times, hitting Brown’s arms, chest, and head until he lay limp on the ground. Wilson was accused of homicide but ultimately acquitted.
Only minutes after the shooting, photos of Brown’s dead body on the pavement circulated online. Rumors spread quickly: Brown had raised his hands in surrender. Brown had jumped the officer. Every news outlet (CBS, ABC, Buzzfeed, etc.) covered subsequent protesting in the Ferguson community. Believing that Brown did raise his hands and that the shooting was a racist homicide, protesters chanted, “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” Social media, particularly twitter, was trending with heated discussion of the case. And so, the hashtag would turn into a full-blown movement, Black Lives Matter.
According to their online platform, Black Lives Matter “is working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. We affirm our contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression. We have put our sweat, equity, and love for Black people into creating a political project–taking the hashtag off of social media and into the streets. The call for Black lives to matter is a rallying cry for ALL Black lives striving for liberation.”
Soon, news stories of black men being shot by police officers were popping up everywhere: Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray… People began protesting at government centers, in the streets, and online, demanding changes in law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and legislation. Over time, the decentralized Black Lives Matter organization opened “Chapters” in 38 different cities including BLM Cambridge and BLM Boston.
While there has yet to be a media-sensationalized police shooting in Massachusetts, Black Lives Matter is alive and well in the greater Boston area. In particular, you may remember when BLM protesters cuffed and cemented themselves to cement barrels on Interstate 93, near the Milton exit. The Cambridge and Boston BLM chapters have a total 28,000 likes on facebook and schedule protesting events every few months. Just this year, BLM activists have cuffed their necks to the doors of Cambridge city hall, police have protested a “Black Lives Matter” sign hung at the Somerville Police Station, and one hundred Boston police wear body cameras for a 6-month trial. Admittedly, I decided to write this feature article because I felt ill informed and confused by issues of race. I wanted fully understand the vision behind BLM, tease apart the importance of BLM chapters in a liberal state, analyze police brutality statistics, and attempt to identify the root cause of the country’s intense polarization. An ignorant Asian American living in a liberal bubble, I started my adventure in the place I felt most comfortable: Milton Academy.
Solace Mensah-Narh (Class I), who attended a BLM protest in New York City and gave voice to BLM on campus, was my first on-campus interview. Sitting across from me in the Magus Mabus office, Solace is smiley and put-together, using her hands expressively when she speaks. She begins by explaining why she believes the term “all lives matter” is exclusive to the white majority. She argues, “Saying “all lives matter” isn’t including black lives. With current systems in the country, people do not understand the value of a black life. Of course, black lives matter does not mean that only black lives matter.”
Phrases championed by gender equality protesters during the recent Women’s March on Washington use similar logic. Exclusion of the historically privileged in progressive rhetoric is not meant to insight derision. Rather, terms like “black lives matter” and “the future is female” highlight the people who are in need of attention. And Solace’s claim that black lives are undervalued is right. Black people were liberated from slavery 150 years ago and were given equal rights fifty years ago. Logically, most historians agree that black people living today are absorbing the repercussions of their ancestors’ recent oppression. As a result, black citizens are disadvantaged more than any other race in America. Compared to white people, black people have nearly half the median income, double the unemployment rate, three times the poverty rate, and 1/15 the amount of household assets. In indicators such as early learning, parental structures, education, and incarceration, black people underperform as well.
Disproportionate police brutality towards black people also appears to stem from historical structures. Dr. Victor E. Kappeler, a professor at the College of Justice and Safety at Eastern Kentucky College, underlines that “the institution of slavery and the control of minorities… were two of the more formidable historic features of American society shaping early policing.” In the eyes of many, particularly BLM activists, modern law enforcement is deeply influenced by historic slave patrols and night watches (the first versions of policing in America), unfairly profiling black men and criminalizing them at higher rates.
Solace recognizes this racism in law enforcement and neatly explains what she thinks the root of the problem is. “We are human and we all have implicit biases. And because of that, we are racist or prejudiced,” she says, pausing to let the idea settle. “The reason many police are against Black Lives Matter is because they think it’s like ‘fuck the police,’ but I’m not saying [that]. I’m saying we really have to monitor the way that we are using our implicit biases in the real world. If one has a life or death job, [how they exercise bias] matters.”
Solace emphasizes that she recognizes bias and subliminal racism as inevitable qualities. Her plea is for people, particularly people who are responsible for the livelihood of others, to undergo education programs that will help them recognize their biases so they can fight against them. I start realizing that the work of BLM is more complicated than the civil rights movement of the 60s. The racism Solace discusses cannot be remedied by legislation. At heart, BLM is fighting the intangible beasts of human beliefs and perceptions.
In the book Bowling Alone, author Robert Putnam describes two types of “social capital” or the social interactions people have with one another: 1) bonding capital: “social ties that link people together with others who are primarily like them along some key dimension” and 2) bridging capital: “social ties that link people together with others across a cleavage that typically divides society (like race, or class, or religion).” According to Putnam, the former is a lot easier to build than the latter, but “bridging capital” is the key to a united and peaceful society.
Particularly in the 2014-2015 school year, tensions surrounding the Brown and Garner shootings were nearly unbearable on Milton Academy’s campus. Hari Patel’s controversial article in The Milton Paper, “Hariscopes: The Ferguson Failure,” only made conversations between differing viewpoints more impossible. In the article, Patel (class of 2015) stated that white people in the Milton community were “[allowing] raw emotion to cloud their judgment and [adopting] their opinions from the teleprompters of sensationalist media [covering the Ferguson shooting].” Patel goes on to analyze the events of the shooting, concluding that “Michael Brown acted in ways… that would have gotten any Milton Student shot in any part of the country, regardless of their race, religion, class, or gender.” He accuses “radical liberals” on campus of “[bringing] disgrace to their movement” by protesting Brown’s shooting and criticizes Milton leaders for their “blatant attack upon Western values.”
To say the least, the article was inflammatory, and the student body’s reaction was visceral. The Milton Paper’s next publication became a special issue dedicated to responses to “The Ferguson Failure” from teachers and students alike. Soon, the entire student body seemed to go silent either with rage towards their peers or with fear of being yelled at by their peers. There was no middle ground, and by the end of January 2015, students talked only to other like-minded students. BLM supporters, dissenters, and everything in between all engaged in “bonding social capital” exclusively.
In February 2014, conservative club attempted to break the ice. The heads sent out an email announcing they were going to hold a forum for productive conversation around BLM. Shortly after, Mr. Ruiz emailed the school saying that such a meeting would be postponed to a later date. According to The Milton Paper, Mr. Ruiz “[viewed] this conversation as the culmination of months of tension” and that the forum needed to be given the appropriate environment if productive discussion were going to occur.
Perhaps Mr. Ruiz’s planned-out meeting would engender some bridging capital. After all, it seemed as though the ice were about to thaw: “There was a buzz [on campus],” notes Josh Aronson (Class of 2015), “I was planning to go [to the conservative club meeting]. My whole history class was talking about it.” But after the meeting and even as graduation rolled around, my peers and I were still hearing the same passive aggressive sentiments of months earlier. Attempts at constructive conversation had failed.
It seems to me that the white majority that exists at Milton only complicated matters further. Whenever I look into the bleachers during all-school Wednesday assemblies, I see an overwhelming sea of white– a seven to one ratio of white to black, to be exact. With 599 white students enrolled at Milton Academy K-12, the 83 black students on campus stand out as an obvious minority. Thus, I sought out Sam Oldshue, known for his support of BLM and socially conscious artwork, to give me insight into how he, as a white male, engages in activism on campus.
Sam lounges comfortably in the armchair across from me in Cox library. He speaks with ease in a subject he knows well, sprinkling important events in the BLM movement and moments of systematic racism into his answers to my questions. Most interestingly, Sam helps frame the awkward issue of whites engaging in social justice: according to Sam, many white people operate under the idea that “I’m not racist, so why should I listen to you telling me about all these other white people who are racist?” Sam explains that some other white people simply do not know how to be an advocate because they cannot relate to the experience of disenfranchisement.
I somewhat understand the barriers of the awkwardness he describes. When I started asking questions during my feature article interviews, I felt the particular need for sensitivity when talking to my black sources. I worried, what if I say something ignorant? Is it my place, as a privileged prep-school kid, to be asking these questions and presenting BLM’s story? I feared getting the “fuck you” response Di Di gave her Boston Herald interviewer. However, Sam manages to engage anyways, seeing his role in BLM as a microphone rather than as a person sharing his own experience.
“The administration listens more closely to me than they have to any black student,” Sam states bluntly.
I ask him why. “Well… It’s easy for white people to communicate with other white people about race because there is a level of comfort.” Thus, Sam spent a lot of time talking to black students (especially after the Michael Brown shooting) and used, in his opinion, his white privilege to more effectively voice their complaints to the administration.
The notion that white people are more effectively heard at our school is hard to pinpoint- technically, no white majority exists among the seven administrators that students interact with (Bland, Ball, Ruiz, Singh, Flewelling, Bonenfant, and Heard). Even so, the ‘white-institution’ feel of Milton Academy is felt by many students on campus.
Sam believes he opens up communication about race through meetings with administrators, but also with his art. In the radio silence that followed 2015 tension on campus, he decided to collaborate with five other black and white students to make well-executed, provocative posters hung on the balcony of the student center.
“Mr. Ball wanted to have a meeting with me about my art, and I told him I would if subsequently, there was a meeting with the full administration and other students who have been involved in BLM.”
Advocacy from white students like Sam is important and infrequent; many other white students, myself included, have not taken such active roles towards challenging racism. Yet, his last statement about coordinating a meeting with Mr. Ball and other BLM activists raises questions for me. Even though Sam has diligently attended ONYX and listened carefully to some of his black peers, he advocates for a struggle that is not his own because he believes that black students are not heard as well as he is in the Milton environment. The balancing act between being a ‘white ally’ and ‘white savior’ is complicated territory. BLM needs white allies to be at the table, but not to overstep and own the movement. Possibly, many white people remain bystanders because they do not want to struggle with something that feels so awkward and difficult.
Next, I talked to Alexandra Steinhauer, a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who offered a ‘less risky’ model for white people to engage in activism. Steinhauer attended and then taught a five week series called “White People Challenging Racism: Moving from Talk to Action.” The goals of the course were to help white people understand systematic racism and then determine a way in which they can fight it. To my surprise, Steinhauer explains that while working with black students makes sense to many white educators, working with white students is how she strives for race equality.
“I’ve sort of moved away from ‘it’s my responsibility to teach and support students of color’ and more towards ‘it’s my responsibility to make sure that white teachers and white people in education are aware of the implications of their direct services,” Steinhauer states with conviction.
Steinhauer’s engagement comes with its own set strengths and weaknesses. She helps white people become more aware, but does not use “bridging capital” in her mission for equality like Sam does. After hearing from both Sam and Steinhauer, I cannot decide which model is better for white allies to follow. If anything, these interviews revealed to me how tricky it is to be a white advocate for BLM. How should white people fight for a cause that is not their own? Where does white engagement cross the line?
In some cases that Di Di Delgado discussed in the Roxbury church panel, she felt that white allies to BLM Cambridge actually made her job to tackle racism more difficult. When a trend of wearing safety pins on one’s shirt to demonstrate that he/she was a white ally began, Delgado and her BLM peers asked people not to wear the pins. In the words of a Huffington Post writer, “[white people] don’t get to make [themselves] feel better by putting on safety pins and self-designating [themselves] as allies. Marginalized people know full well the long history of white people calling themselves allies while doing nothing to help.” Delgado felt that the pin made white people stagnant bystanders, inhibiting efforts for white people to truly wrestle with injustice. However, her white “allies” continued to wear their pins.
After the panel concludes, I speed walk as quickly as I can out of the pews and towards Di Di Delgado. I am determined to get a face-to-face.
“Uh, Ms. Delgado? Could I ask you some questions? I’m writing a paper on Black Lives Matter for school,” I say in a high-pitched voice. I don’t recognize myself in this shy teenager who can barely get her words out, but Delgado is warm. “Of course! What’s up?” She gives me five minutes.
First, I ask her if she believes in body camera implementation, she answers without pause. “I don’t. I know a lot of my cohorts probably do believe that body cameras will help…. But Eric Garner was caught on tape! So so many people have been caught on tape killing black and brown youth but- you know? Walter Scott? Mistrial!”
Delgado, although her train of thought is a little difficult to understand here, points out an important fact: Walter Scott had been shot in the back while running away. Eric garner was suffocated in a chokehold by an unprovoked NYPD officer. Both cases, fully caught on tape, seem like clear cut homicides as I watched them on the internet. But neither officer was indicted. Even with incriminating footage, officers are overwhelmingly acquitted. In 2015, officers killed 1,200 American citizens, but none were convicted of a crime. This statistic suggests one of two things: either cops have been perfectly justified in all of their shootings or America has a somewhat corrupted judicial system.
In Delgado’s eyes, the body camera “effort” to challenge police brutality is an ineffective veneer of progress. “I just feel like [body cameras are] a waste of money. We need to appeal to people’s moral compass.” Delgado sighs. Like Solace, she wants to change the minds and actions of law enforcement rather than try and catch them on tape after the fact. I can tell Delgado does not see court as a means of achieving justice. And given the stats, why would she?
Under blue tinted ceiling lights of the C-11 Boston Police Department, Officer Duffy and I try to block out the conversation of two black men negotiating bail for their brother (charged with domestic abuse). We are standing in the small square lobby because she has not invited me to enter the office rooms behind the glass screen or sit down.
Officer Duffy does not want me to record this interview- “It’s protocol… I’m pretty sure.”
“No problem, I’ll just take notes,” I say. Her freckled, pale face relaxes a little.
Admittedly, I feel awkward doing this interview standing in front of all these people, scrawling notes under these eerie night lights. Already, I am worried Officer Duffy is putting her guard up and that this interview may be a colossal failure, clouded by a pressure to be “politically correct.”
Before agreeing to the interview, she had gone to the back office to ask two white cops if they would do the interview with me. I could not hear anything from the front desk, but I saw the officers shaking their heads and grimacing when Duffy approached them with the question. So Officer Duffy reluctantly volunteered, not tough enough to turn away a kid in a massive knee brace. But I’ll take it– I have just been turned down by the Mattapan and South Boston police departments and am relieved that an officer will finally talk to me.
As I ask her about how Black Lives Matter has changed her job description, she loosens up. From her perspective, Massachusetts’ police that have yet to unjustly kill a black man are wrongfully being accused of racial profiling. “Massachusetts, specifically, is ahead of the times. So progressive. And we are all paid well, and most, me included, have college degrees.”
However, the argument for Massachusetts’ reputation of “progressiveness” is quite flawed. Boston is ranked the second most racist city using the metric of racist hate crimes, and the Boston-Cambridge-Newton area is ranked the 7th most segregated area in the nation. For example, in 2012, an overwhelming amount of Bruins’ fans posted bigoted comments targeting black Capitals’ player, Joel Ward, who scored on the Bruins in OT to end their season. Boston Magazine writer Casey Lions reflected on the incident, stating “[Bostonians] have got racism deeply lodged inside [them]– and this from a state that elected an African American to two terms as Governor and voted overwhelmingly pro-Obama in 2008.” Lions gets at the most difficult part of race relations in the New England region: as a state with the best academic institutions and history of liberal voting, Massachusetts citizens feel less urgency to wrestle with issues of racism. The distinctive segregation of the Boston region aids this bubble-like experience, where privileged demographics are completely isolated from the disenfranchisement of their fellow citizens. People cannot sympathize with racism that they do not see.
Yet, the question of whether it is okay to persecute someone for her job, with no knowledge of her beliefs, is legitimate. Officer Duffy’s concluding words to the interview are hard for me to shake. “On a personal level, I feel attacked for doing my job. Why do people assume I will be abusive?” She rubs her eyes in exhaustion.
I try and put myself in her shoes: by virtue of being a cop, she feels profiled as bigoted and abusive. She talks about being videotaped while interacting with citizens, even when she is trying to help an abuse victim or help someone cross the street. When she attends BLM protests to protect them from other angry citizens, the protesters throw things at her and tell her “to go die” or “educate [herself].”
Duffy goes on, “The Black Lives matter is saying that we are the cause of the problem, when in fact, this problem is a larger national problem that does not lie in the Boston Police departments. I agree we have major issues of racism, but to blame us? We just want to be able to come to work, do our jobs, and come home like everyone else.”
Her self-proclaimed distinction from racist cops reminds me of the way Sam said white people tend to engage in such issues: “It’s their problem, not ours!” But simultaneously, I do understand that she would have to be an ethical angel to rise above her personal experience with the Black Lives Matter movement, and support it when she feels disrespected by its members. In fact, all three of the law enforcers that I talked to had reservations for this reason. They all cited the 2014 BLM protest in New York, where protesters are filmed chanting, “What do we want? Dead cops! When do we want it? Now!”
As I interview and research, I notice that both BLM advocates and law enforcers overwhelmingly engage in Putnam’s “bonding capital.” Both groups feel profiled and bond over their shared experiences to further polarize the Boston area. But before I can continue my exploration of the Black Lives Matter Movement, I feel I must legitimize the movement at the core: does data in fact support that black people are killed by law enforcement at a higher rate than other races?
Starting in 2015, the Washington Post decided to compile a database of every person shot by a police officer. The database is comprehensive, breaking down the shootings by gender, age, signs of mental illness, race, and whether the victim was armed. Depending on the way this data is analyzed, publications have gone either way in deciding whether black people are disproportionately targeted or not. For instance, The Post wrote that “black men make up only 6 percent of the U.S. population, [but] they account for 40 percent of the unarmed men shot to death by police this year,” concluding that racist police brutality is prevalent in America. In contrast, The National Review concluded that “after a year of research, the data [from The Post confirms] the conservative position: The police use force mainly to protect human life, the use of force against unarmed suspects is rare, and the use of force against black Americans is largely proportional to their share of the violent crime rate.” The National Review, one of the most conservative publications in the nation, goes on to say that the amount of black men being shot is a function of their disproportionate crime rates, not police profiling.
As I consider the different viewpoints of these prominent publications, I am puzzled by how The Post and The National Review can draw such disparate conclusions from the exact same database. The contradictory opinions of liberals and conservatives as they look at the same issue goes beyond newsprint: on a larger scale, Milton’s, Massachusetts’, and America’s intense polarization exists because people perceive what they want.
After looking at the numbers myself, I think the database, while interesting, may possibly be irrelevant to the question of whether racial profiling exists in America. What The Washington Post fails to do, and cannot realistically do, is quantify the number of unjust killings. Each shooting is unique, and although conditions such as being unarmed or having a mental illness are factors that must be considered in an analysis of each shooting, those metrics alone are not substantial enough to draw conclusions about the intentions of law enforcement.
Deputy O’Neill, who has been in law enforcement for twenty-nine years, helps me consider The Washington Post’s statistics in a new light. He went to Stonehill College, received a bachelor’s in criminal justice, became a police officer in ‘87, got promoted to Sergeant in ‘96, got promoted to Lieutenant in ‘05, and became Deputy Police Chief this past October. And he looks as seasoned and experienced as his resume suggests. Championing his “Deputy Chief” badge on his uniform pocket, Chief O’Neill has wrinkly white skin and a full head of silver hair. Like Officer Duffy, he appears stiff and awkward at the beginning of our interview, perhaps intimidated by the topic.
After expressing his concerns with the movement– selectivity of the deaths BLM protests and certain violent rhetoric– he begins to reflect more deeply about what frustrates BLM protesters. “I do think that the system needs to be looked at, and if there could be reforms through the Department of Justice, police heads, the attorneys, the judges, the court, and correctional facilities, I think that could be very helpful…and probably needed.” Chief O’Neill goes on to criticize laws that disadvantage the destitute, like small criminal infractions that leave people with records and fines to create a vicious cycle. We talk about the inequity of public defenders, the insidious bail system, and drug laws that target certain demographics.
“The unfortunate thing for the police is that we are probably the most visible arm of government and unfortunately, in history, the police have been used to enforce laws that may have been unpopular and unlawful.” Chief O’Neill underscores that law enforcement gets the most criticism for an entire system of unjust government. Being a police officer comes with an extra burden– they are scrutinized more that politicians, judges, and legislators that contribute to the same issues of racism.
Perhaps, it does not matter if The Post’s data demonstrates statistical significance to support Black Lives Matter. The types of institutionalized racism and bias that I discussed with Chief O’Neill are almost impossible to quantify using statistics– prevalent, but insidious in nature.
As I continue to browse BLM’s website and its platform, I notice that they protest for initiatives way beyond police brutality in areas of sexism, LGBTQIA discrimination, mass incarceration, education equality, and the Standing Rock initiative (for Native Americans). Perhaps, the focus on police brutality exists because of the emotional reaction that an unjust shooting provokes. Incidents of racism in law enforcement, unlike other forms of racism in legislation or education, can be seen clearly in life-or-death situations. As I finish up my research, I come across a video in which I feel the direct impact of the dramatic visual a shooting provides:
Paul O’Neal (black male) stole a car, crashed it, and then ran away from pursuing police. The officers that shot O’Neal all had their cameras off, but one officer who came later to the scene caught the handcuffing on tape. O’Neil, bleeding out through his back, has his face violently pressed into the cement as two officer cuffed his limp arms. Another officer steps down on O’Neal’s leg, as if the maimed black man is going to run away in his critical state. Another officer seethes, “Don’t fucking shoot at us!” The irony was that O’Neill had been unarmed.
The footage nearly makes me puke. The way in which the officers mistreated this black man bleeding out on the pavement is undeniably violent. But is it undeniably racist? BLM advocates and I would say so, but I wonder what a police officer or the rest of Massachusetts would think. Unfortunately, no one can prove that those cops would have treated a white criminal differently. In fact, unless a cop calls the victim a “n*****!” a court cannot substantiate the shooting as racist nor can statisticians quantify it. Thus, when people watch videos like the O’Neal handcuffing, they see what they want to, and without great headache, it is extremely difficult to change what people perceive and feel. As Solace, Delgado, Steinhauer, and Chief O’Neill all expressed in my interviews with them, fixing current race relations in their communities requires changing the human mind.
I think back to Di Di Delgado at the Roxbury church panel. She thought that investing in Putnam’s “bridging capital” was as “ludicrous as joining ISIS and infiltrating change.” After all of the interviewing I have done, I see that the sides of BLM supporters and dissenters at Milton and in Massachusetts are as radically different as Delgado suggests. Worse yet, I struggle to fully invalidate the perspective of anyone I talked to. I am more frustrated than ever: How can Massachusetts ever fix racism under these circumstances?
In response to “The Failure of Ferguson,” Rick Dionne (Class of 2015) wrote an article about “building effective and constructive dialogue.” According to Dionne, “Ad hominem arguments… distract from productive discussion and only serve to hurt those they target. People who have their deeply held beliefs dismissed as radical and uninformed are unlikely to be receptive to any sort of argument.” In his opinion, healing discussions will come from challenging assumptions and facts, not from attacking a person’s character and intelligence.
In Dionne’s framework, creating bridging capital and working towards race equality would require everybody to put aside his or her personal experience and seek unbiased compromise. As I try and imagine such noble behavior, I see Delgado’s point: if I were black, I could not imagine compromising my right to full equality in service of a “bigger picture.” My research has led me to an unfortunate reality. Dealing with intangible mediums of bias, personal experience, and controversial ethics is hard. Even in a relatively low stakes environment such as Milton Academy, one that preaches respect and provides a great deal of support, students struggle to engage in constructive discussions. As progressive as Massachusetts may appear on the surface, local communities have hard work to do before they achieve the race equality that BLM envisions.
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