Stop the Madness
I once shot and killed a man.
It was in the late ’80s, during a women’s gun safety program called “Lady Beware,” offered by local law enforcement officers. While the course included training as to how to clean, hold and fire our weapons, the most impactful part of the program was the series of situations through which we were paced, armed with our unloaded weapons.
The first setting was described as our home’s backyard shed. The training officer shined a light on an individual standing in the dark room, with his back turned to us.
“You hear a noise in your backyard, step outside and this is what you see. Go.”
I held up my gun, and ask the subject who he was and what he was doing.
He turned around, pulled his gun and shot me.
Just like that, I was “dead.”
The officer advised me that when he had shined the light on the subject, he had aimed it directly toward the gun tucked in the waist of the would-be burglar’s pants. But I hadn’t seen it.
And so, a bit shaken by what would have been a fatal error in judgment, I followed him to the next scenario.
The scene was an isolated street setting, late at night. I came upon a rather large man, dressed in somewhat tattered clothing. As he moved closer and closer into my personal space, he was nonresponsive to my inquiries as to what he wanted.
Then he reached for something in his pocket.
My heart began beating faster and my body surged with adrenaline as I envisioned that he was reaching for a gun. Without even thinking, with my gun in hand, I pulled the trigger.
And just like that, he was “dead.”
The officer advised me that I had just shot a deaf, mute man, a gentle giant, who was reaching for his paper and pen so he could communicate with me. He was unarmed.
I made a decision, in a split second, driven in part by intuition and in part by primal fear. It was a combination that led to the death of an innocent man.
There’s a lot to be said for the lessons learned in those training sessions.
Every day in America, decisions are made in an instant that can shatter lives forever. Often times, they’re not driven by malice or hatred. They’re driven by fear.
I will never know what it’s like to be black in a nation in which, despite numerous claims to the contrary, there remains an undercurrent of bigotry. We see it in small towns and large cities, in the workforce, in neighborhoods, in the community at large. Despite claims of tolerance and acceptance, just watch and you’ll notice the telltale signs. You’ll see a white woman discretely pull her purse a little closer to her chest as she is about to pass a black man on the street. It’s quite evident when a group of black teens are judiciously scrutinized as they enter and wander through a store. And it’s not uncommon for a black driver in a predominantly white neighborhood to draw undue attention.
Every day, countless black mothers and fathers send their children off to school, or out to play in their neighborhoods, secretly praying that today will not be the day that their children are placed in harm’s way.
They teach their children how to respond in the event they find themselves in volatile situations–lessons they are expected to carry into their adulthood. Sadly, especially in many impoverished neighborhoods, with neither the consent nor knowledge of parents, guns have become an accepted and expected part of daily life, with an ever-growing “kill or be killed” mentality. This isn’t living. It’s existing on the edge.
Meanwhile, every time law enforcement officers prepare for their shifts, their spouses quietly worry if today will be the day that something goes horribly wrong.
They wonder if it will be the last time they see their loved ones, if it will be the day that their children will lose their father or mother to senseless and unnecessary violence. It’s a somber reality that has escalated with the countless killings, senseless acts of violence, and the broadening perceptions of those who judge the behaviors and professions of all law enforcement officers based on the actions of few.
It’s a disturbing irony that for those who are sworn to protect and serve, there has never been a time during which it has been less safe to be a law enforcement officer.
And that’s not acceptable.
Because here’s the thing: just as the blacks are often scared when approached by the law enforcement officers, the officers are equally scared.
They’re not supposed to be. The officers are trained to remain calm, to think before reacting, to disarm situations with the power of persuasion.
They’re tough. They’re brave. They’re heroic.
But yes, they’re scared.
Because every time they approach a subject, they don’t know what to expect. Is a hand reaching for a wallet going to return with a gun? Is a response to a brawl going to turn into a barrage of bullets?
As humans, we all share the same fears. Fear of the unknown. Fear of what could happen if we react too quickly. Or not quickly enough.
We are a nation dying of fear. One. Person. At. A. Time.
And it’s got to stop.
We must dispel the notions that many blacks are out to kill cops, and many cops are out to kill blacks, which unintentionally are becoming self-perpetuating perceptions and prophecies.
I believe that the overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers are good people with good intentions, who wake up each morning, head to work, and do their best to protect and serve. It’s a noble, honorable profession.
And I believe that the vast majority of the black community includes good people with good intentions, who wake up each morning, head to school or to work, and do their best to live decent lives with their families.
But it’s unfortunate that even with good people, bad things can happen.
The decisions one must make in a millisecond, in a moment of fear, do not define who that person is or what he or she believes. But in less than the time it takes to blink one’s eyes, lives will change.
Black lives matter.
Blue lives matter.
Their families’ lives matter.
They’re not mutually exclusive choices.
But the bottom line is that when law enforcement officers respond to a situation, they’re doing their jobs. And regardless of one’s race or age or socioeconomic status, regardless of their innocence or guilt, when individuals are being asked by officers to raise their hands, to sit, to kneel, it’s imperative that they comply. In that moment, the officers are just as apprehensive as the individuals being addressed. And all it takes is one split-second bad decision by any of those involved to turn what could be an appropriate resolution into a deadly situation.
Nobody wants that.
It’s time to stop the madness.
Topics including racial tension, hate crimes and environmental issues will be among the topics addressed by artists in the “Stop the Madness: Artists Voices. Critical Conversations.” exhibit premiering in the CECA Gallery in Cutting Edge Theater, November 18 to December 23, 2106. Presented by the East St. Tammany Cultural Economy Coalition.
The artist statements regarding their works are available for download here: Stop the Madness artists’ statements.