Recognizing Police Brutality and Mass Incarceration

fence, macro, barbed wire

In light of the many events in the past few years that have brought police brutality and mass incarceration to the attention of the American public, I’d like to share my experiences with coming to the realization that these are indeed problems, and add my voice to the many that are discussing how we can address this. Too many people in my country are still denying these issues, saying black people are provoking the police, claiming that it’s just a few bad apples, or that black people are breaking the law more than white people. As with many things in life, there’s way more to this issue than meets the eye.

I’m a short white girl, so unsurprisingly, I have never experienced police brutality in my own life. I have, however, seen the results of police brutality and mass incarceration on a community I lived in, where I served as a volunteer throughout college.

I went to college in a city with a majority black population. A poor city where a good education is nearly impossible to attain. The city used to thrive, until the day came when its many factory jobs were outsourced to places where labor is cheap. As the jobs dried up, the people who could afford to leave packed their bags and moved somewhere better. Everyone else would stay on, getting jobs as janitors. As food service people. As cashiers at Walmart. Legitimate jobs to be sure, but jobs that usually cannot support a family, or even a single individual, without some other source of income. When those jobs failed to provide the people in that city with what they needed, they turned to other means.

I can’t fault someone as much for selling drugs when that’s the only valuable thing in their city. Yes, there are cruel people in the world, but crime isn’t always as simple as the Saturday morning cartoons I grew up watching. Sometimes people join gangs to have a family. To have support, or protection from violence. To feel like they belong somewhere, when nothing in their life feels like a home should. People die that way. People go to prison. But no one stops to address the route causes of these crimes.

When I was in college, I volunteered as a tutor at an after-school program near campus, helping local kids with their homework. While I was there, I watched a girl in second grade deal with the fact that her mother had just been arrested. She came in with tears in her eyes several weeks in a row, and the adults there had to take her aside to help her cope. She was a very bright child, with a reading level well above her grade level–so much so that even in her poor school district, she was being given more challenging reading assignments from 3rd and even 4th grade. I sometimes wonder where she is now. If all’s well with her, she’ll have finished 6th grade by now. Was she doing work for 7th or 8th that whole time last school year, or have the traumas of life in her city ripped the love of learning out of her? Her younger sister by a year or two had no idea what was happening at the time. Why mommy was gone. That was perhaps the saddest thing for the older sister, because in many ways I think she felt very alone through all this. Her sister was too young to understand what had happened.

Another day, when I was tutoring at the same place, a police siren went off in the distance, and one of the other children–not one of the aforementioned sisters, but yet another child–immediately started to cry. That was when the reality hit me. For some people, especially in cities like that one, the police aren’t the good guys who protect us. They take mommy and daddy away. And, as I would later learn, they beat or even kill parents in front of their children. A four year old was in the car when Philando Castile was shot and killed. Imagine the life that child may have going forward. It’s hard to focus on your school work when you’ve seen someone get killed right in front of your eyes in close quarters. Especially someone you know. A four year old shouldn’t be dealing with death, much less murder.

This is the reality for some people at a very early age, but if you’re white, and you’re growing up in a wealthy school district, this is not your reality. I didn’t attend public school, but my homeschooling community set up a field trip where we visited our local police station. The police joked with us, told us stories, and talked about crime fighting in a positive way. I looked up to the officers who spoke with us. It was one of my favorite “homeschool field trip” experiences. They showed us my town’s jail cells and jokingly let us walk in and pretend to be arrested. They showed us the restraint they use for unruly, dangerous arrests, and I didn’t imagine someone getting abused in it. I imagined the police using it to restrain someone who was a genuine danger to others. I had full and complete trust in the men in blue who protected my town, because they’d never given me a reason to think otherwise. But in the next state over, in the city where I went to college, there was probably a child walking into one such jail with a parent in tow, coming to bail out mom or dad after a routine traffic stop. The jail cells in my affluent town were empty the day we visited. I promise you, in some places, they are always full.

We need to indict the officers responsible for these shootings. They need to be tried, and steps need to be taken to stop this from happening again. I have some ideas. I’m not the first person to say this, but I think it bears repeating:

  1. TRAINING. So many of these terrible scenarios could have been avoided if the police officers had been able to take control of the situation in a way that works on calming people down, not riling people up. It’s human nature to amp up your volume and increase your forcefulness in a stressful situation when you’re an authority figure, but people in a job like theirs need to realize this, and to know how to calm themselves and others. They also need to assess the situation realistically. Training should include teaching them to be sensitive to the different experiences of people of different backgrounds. Also, and this is a big one for me, they need training regarding how to handle mentally unstable people. When the police are called to help the mentally ill, it often doesn’t end well.
  2. Police should look like the communities they’re policing. A mostly black neighborhood with a mostly white police force is doing something wrong. The police should be invested in the communities they’re serving. They shouldn’t feel like the people they’re interacting with on a daily basis are part of an “other” outside group.
  3. We need to make it easier, not harder, for people to film the police. Police officers should wear body cameras, and there should never be any question of legality when it comes to filming the police. It’s beginning to seem like that’s the only way they’re being held accountable: the court of public opinion. That shouldn’t be the case though. We also need to take the next step once footage of a police officer misbehaving surfaces. They need to face reasonable consequences for the severity of the misdeed. I’m not saying every mistake they could make is worthy of termination or charges, but if you’re killing people on the job then yeah, I’d like to see both.
  4. We need to address mass incarceration, and the way in which the United States criminal justice system is being used to oppress minorities. I only wish I were imagining this, but unfortunately investigations of police forces known to be involved in cases of police brutality have turned up a widespread pattern of abuse and racial profiling. In other words, contrary to what we’d all like to believe, it’s not just a few bad apple cops. It’s often an entire police force. The roots of mass incarceration are three fold: the behavior of the people enforcing the law, the laws that are being written without regard for minorities, and the situations that lead people to choose crime in the first place. Poverty is a massive factor. With poverty comes a major deficit in opportunity. We need to address all of this, not just one part of it, if we want this issue to go away completely.
  5. We need to talk about race, but in a more nuanced way. Racism isn’t always overt. It’s not just people knowingly making judgments based on race. It’s not just about hiring discrimination, housing discrimination, wage discrimination, and dropping the N word around. It’s not just about lynchings, and people having a problem with biracial couples. It’s not just when people knowingly say or do cruel things because of someone’s race. Racism is in the assumptions we make unconsciously too, and those assumptions are some of the most pervasive ones because we tend to not notice them when they’re happening.

Even with all the things I just said, I am very aware that I HAVE RACIST TENDENCIES. I tense up when an unfamiliar black man walks by, far more so than with a large white man.  I shouldn’t be afraid of these people I’ve never met, but I am. I’m trying not to be this way. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s hard, but I do think that with time I can unlearn at least some of this negative conditioning. I think the first step to fixing a problem is realizing you have one. My hope is that others will come to the same realization and begin to take the steps to change.

If we want racism to end, we need to catch ourselves making that snide remark. We need to stop judging people who speak differently from us, whose hair is a little bit different, whose skin is a different color. We need to walk past the black man on the park bench calmly, comfortably, without clutching our purses in a panic. We need to recognize that unfortunately the police may not always handle an emergency involving diverse people very well, and if they fail to behave appropriately, we need to stand up for the people being abused. We need to find it in us to question authority when necessary, especially for those of us who are coming from a place of white privilege. It’s fucking tragic that I have to say it, but if they won’t listen to the black voices, the voices of the victims and their families, maybe they’ll listen to us.

If you have thoughts or experiences related to this issue, feel free to share them. Please be respectful of others and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking.

Nancy

Why I Didn’t Report My Sexual Assault

An old acquaintance of mine from my homeschooling days has been making some pretty infuriating comments on social media about Ke$ha’s recent court case. In case you don’t know, Ke$ha has stated that her producer and writer, Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald,  raped her for years. She has since attempted to end  her contract with Sony (which she signed at the young age of 18) to avoid having to work with her abuser. Many people have claimed to know for a fact that Ke$ha is lying, and simply trying to get out of a contract. Others, many of them part of the feminist movement, have assumed she is telling the truth and rushed to defend her. I find myself in neither camp, feminist though I may be. I firmly believe that regardless of the crime they are being accused of, people are innocent until proven guilty. However, all allegations of abuse should be taken seriously regardless of who is being accused. Think about all the high profile cases that have come to light recently. Bill Cosby comes to mind. It’s completely unjust to immediately assume that a victim is lying, but I’m not going to talk about Gottwald as if I’m positive he’s guilty. He hasn’t been tried.

My acquaintance is among those who assume that Ke$ha is lying, and the reason my acquaintance gave for that assumption isn’t even a good one. Rather than pointing out that Ke$ha stands to gain more control over her career by having her contract with Sony thrown out, my acquaintance instead complained that Ke$ha waited so many years to report this abuse. My acquaintance said (I’m paraphrasing) people don’t wait that long (I believe it was around 10 years) to report abuse, and if they do, then it’s their fault if the abuse continues because they should have reported it. She added, “So many women lie about rape I’m doubtful.”

The ignorance and victim blaming in that statement is mind boggling, and frankly it touched me in a personal way. This friend and I haven’t talked in years, so I didn’t bother to comment–luckily, another friend of hers argued with her about this and made some very good points. The reason this bothered me so much is that I was sexually assaulted myself, (Not raped. I was fortunate that it didn’t go that far.) and in an abusive relationship with the boy who did it for about a month during high school. I never reported it, and at the moment I have no intention of doing so.

That’s not because I want it to happen to other people, nor is it, as my acquaintance suggested with Ke$ha’s case, because it never happened. My main reason for not reporting it is that there simply isn’t any concrete evidence to make a case against him. All I have is my word against his, and while I don’t know what the statistics are in cases of sexual assault, it’s true that most accused rapists walk away without facing jail time. I hope he never harms anyone the way he harmed me or worse, but I know I don’t have enough evidence to do anything about it, especially because for some reason, people often don’t believe rape and sexual assault victims by default, and as the article in the above link explains, the police are often not properly trained to talk to victims.

This if course begs the question, why didn’t I report it sooner–like right away, when I might have been able to produce some evidence? There are two reasons for that, neither of which I had any control over:

  1.  He was actively manipulating me. He claimed to be suicidal, and I was terrified that if I said no to his advances or did anything that might make him unhappy, he would kill himself.
  2.  Once I figured out that he was manipulating me (with some help from a close friend), it would be months before I figured out for sure that he had also sexually assaulted me. I didn’t have a clear understanding of what sexual assault even was, and I felt guilty for allowing myself to be manipulated, as if it were my fault for participating in his lies. I felt dirty, and somewhat responsible. I didn’t know that agreeing to something when you’re being manipulated is not the same as freely giving consent. Besides, I had agreed to do some things with him, so wasn’t it just a miscommunication when he did things I didn’t want him to do?

Eventually, I figured it out. When I said “Please don’t touch me here. I don’t feel ready for that,” he would wait a few moments, then almost immediately try to do the thing I had specifically told him not to. This happened multiple times. With his claims of being suicidal, I felt obligated to allow him to touch me, so I didn’t protest while it was happening. For too long, I thought that meant it was consensual, that even though I hadn’t wanted to I had technically agreed. Having been raised in a conservative family and taught that premarital sex was very, very bad, with no proper sex education covering the concept of consent, I didn’t know how to handle these situations I was suddenly finding myself in, where he would corner me and do whatever he wanted. It had never happened to me before. And to make it all more confusing, I was genuinely attracted to him.

He did not match the image of a sexual abuser that we get from the media. I used to picture ruffians: fat middle aged men with crooked teeth, scraggly beards and balding heads who couldn’t get any action through acceptable means. And that’s the image we’re given through various rape narratives hidden in our culture. For instance, as an English major, I learned that Little Red Riding Hood is a cautionary tale portraying a little girl’s loss of innocence as she is accosted by a stranger on her way to grandma’s. I may be ruining your favorite fairy tale for you and I apologize, but earlier versions from oral tradition were very sexual and implied rape or at least sexual assault. We’re taught that there are wolves among us who can strike at any time. But statistics show that those wolves aren’t likely to be the strangers we pass in the alley. Instead, they’re the people we see every day. People we know.

My abuser was someone I knew, someone very attractive to me in multiple ways. He was a fellow Christian homeschooler who claimed to be saving his first kiss for marriage. He was athletic, ran frequently, and had a six pack. He played guitar, and we were in a music-related homeschooling organization together. Throughout the entire ordeal, he never kissed me. Not once. He could technically say he was still pure for marriage when he’d had his dirty hands all over me.

I was touched repeatedly without my consent, and choked on multiple occasions. I turned out OK after all that, after some serious struggles with anxiety over sexual contact. But I want people to understand that while I want very much for all victims of rape and sexual assault to be able to report what happened, that’s not always as simple as it sounds.  For starters, we have to come to terms with the fact that this actually happened to us. That alone can take a very long time, and that process is all the more difficult when the authorities don’t know how to talk to victims.

I’ve read too many personal accounts of women being asked what they were wearing when they were assaulted–and not as a means of collecting evidence, but as a way of implying that the victim was somehow to blame. I’ve seen that the percentage of rapists who face jail time is embarrassingly small in this country, while we put people away for possessing something as harmless as marijuana. I’ve read the news stories about multiple municipalities with thousands upon thousands of untested rape kits. Those are cases where they actually have DNA evidence, and they never did anything with it. Seeing these news stories, how am I supposed to feel confident that the authorities will take my case seriously? How am I supposed to trust them with my testimony? Especially when my testimony is all I have? My parents don’t even know that this happened to me.

There were no witnesses. As is the case with many sexual crimes, all of this happened behind closed doors. The people who know about it only know because I told them. Rape and sexual assault are very difficult crimes to prove, because sometimes there is no evidence. Sometimes, as in my case, the person isn’t forced into it through violence. I never had his skin under my fingernails. Sometimes it happens entirely out of sight. And sexual contact can be consensual. So how do you prove that in your case it wasn’t?

Those are the circumstances in which I chose not to report my sexual assault. I can’t speak for why other people don’t report, but I can empathize with them. Say what you will about this, but can I really expect the authorities to accept a case that is built entirely on my testimony?

I have so many difficult questions.

I don’t want innocent people put away for rape, so I do have to accept the need for evidence based convictions. I don’t expect people to just believe rape victims based on the fact that they’re accusing someone of a serious crime. But I do want those victims to be taken seriously. I want their claims to be investigated. I want their rape kits tested. Is that really too much to ask?

If you have any thoughts about the way rape and sexual assault victims are treated in this country, feel free to share them in the comments. Please be sensitive to victims and be respectful of others. This is a very painful issue for many people.

Happy thinking.

Nancy