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“A Drifting, Angry America”: America Has Gone Mad And There’s No Place To Hide

“What sort of people are we, we Americans? … Today, we are the most frightening people on this planet.” — Historian Arthur Schlesinger

As these words are written, I am on a cruise ship pulling into the harbor of the Greek island of Crete. All around me, the morning sparkles. The water is placid, the sky is clear and pale blue, our ship is embraced by gently sloping hills dotted with houses and shops.

And I just turned on the television.

And I just heard about Dallas.

I have made it a point to keep the news at something of a distance these last two weeks of travel, filling my days instead with shell craters on a beach in Normandy, a shopping square in Barcelona, the ghostly remains of Pompeii. So while I know that two African-American men were killed by police under dubious circumstances in Louisiana and Minnesota a couple days ago, I haven’t seen the videos, haven’t checked too deeply into the circumstances.

I’m off the clock now. I wanted to keep the horror at arm’s length.

But distance is an illusion, isn’t it? That’s what I just learned when I made the mistake of turning on the television.

Indeed, sitting here in this picturesque place on this peaceful morning far away, it feels as if I can see the madness of my country even more clearly than usual.

Two more black men shot down for no good reason in a country that still insists — with righteous indignation, yet — upon equating black men with danger.

That’s madness.

Last night, I called my sons and grandson to tell them I love them, explain to them yet again that they terrorize people simply by being and plead with them to be careful. I am required to fear what might happen to my children when they encounter those who are supposed to serve and protect them.

That’s madness.

Eleven police officers shot by sniper fire, five fatally, while guarding a peaceful demonstration against police brutality.

That’s madness.

The usual loud voices of acrimony and confusion are already using this act of despicable evil to delegitimize legitimate protest by conflating it with terrorism, asking us to believe that speaking out against bad cops is the same as shooting cops indiscriminately.

That is madness.

And then, there was this coda: A black man, a “person of interest” turns himself in to police after carrying an AR-15 rifle through the protest in downtown Dallas.

An AR-15.

Through downtown Dallas.

As police are dealing with an active shooter.

Apparently, the guy was not guilty of a crime, but he is certainly guilty of the worst judgment imaginable — and lucky to be alive. But then, in carrying that war weapon on a city street, he was only exercising his legal right under Texas law. The NRA calls that freedom.

But make no mistake: It, too, is madness.

America has gone mad before.

The quote at the top is from one such period, 1968. Hundreds of urban riots had wracked the country, the war in Vietnam was uselessly grinding up lives, recent years had seen the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X. Now, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had just been murdered within two months of one another.

And many people were wondering, as Arthur Schlesinger was, about America and its character, about what kind of country — and people — we were. Said New York Mayor John Lindsay, “This is a drifting, angry America that needs to find its way again.”

His words, like Schlesinger’s, feel freshly relevant to this era, almost 50 years down the line.

There is a sickness afoot in our country, my friends, a putrefaction of the soul, a rottenness in the spirit. Consider our politics. Consider the way we talk about one another — and to one another. Consider those two dead black men. Consider those five massacred cops.

Deny it if you can. I sure can’t. Something is wrong with us. And I don’t mind telling you that I fear for my country.

On the night Martin Luther King died, two months almost to the day before he himself would be shot down in a hotel kitchen, Bobby Kennedy faced a grief-stricken, largely African-American crowd in Indianapolis and with extemporaneous eloquence, prescribed a cure for the sickness he saw.

“My favorite poet,” he told them, “was Aeschylus. And he once wrote, ‘And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.’ What we need in the United States is not division. What we need in the United States is not hatred. What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness but is love and wisdom and compassion toward one another and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer in our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”

Those words feel hopelessly idealistic, impossibly innocent and yet, wise, grace-filled and … right for the raw pain of this moment I commend them to all our wounded spirits on this shining morning from a peaceful place that, as it turns out, is not nearly far enough away.

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist, The Miami Herald; The National Memo, July 10, 2016

July 11, 2016 Posted by | Americans, Black Men, Gun Violence, Police Shootings | , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Mementos Of The Act”: George Zimmerman Takes A Victory Lap On A Dead Boy’s Grave

It was not enough just to kill Sam Hose. No, they had to make souvenirs out of him.

Hose was an African-American man lynched by a mob of some 2,000 white women and men in 1899 near the town of Newman, Ga. They did all the usual things. They stabbed him, castrated him, skinned his face, mutilated him, burned him alive.

Then they parceled out pieces of his body.

You could buy a small fragment of his bones for a quarter. A piece of his liver, “crisply cooked,” would set you back a dime. The great African-American scholar, W.E.B. DuBois, reported that Hose’s knuckles were for sale in a grocer’s window in Atlanta.

No, it wasn’t enough just to kill Sam Hose. People needed mementos of the act.

Apparently, it wasn’t enough just to kill Trayvon Martin, either.

Granted, it is not a piece of the child’s body that was recently put up for auction online by the man who killed him. George Zimmerman is offering “only” the gun that did the deed. But there is a historical resonance here as sickening as it is unmistakable.

Once again, a black life is destroyed. Once again, “justice” gives the killer a pass. Once again, there is a barter in keepsakes of the killing.

Sam Hose was not unique. People claimed hundreds, thousands, of trophies from the murders of African Americans. They kept bones. They kept sexual organs. They kept photographs of themselves, posed with mutilated corpses. It happened with the killings of Thomas Shipp, Abram Smith, Rubin Stacy, Laura Nelson, Claude Neal and too many more to count.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to see it happen with Trayvon.

And someone will say, yes, but isn’t there a lively trade in all sorts of murder memorabilia? One website alone offers a signed postcard from Charles Manson, a letter from Jeffrey Dahmer, pictures of Ted Bundy. So how is this different?

Funny thing, though: All those men went to prison for what they did. Zimmerman did not. Initially, authorities couldn’t even bring themselves to arrest this self-deputized neighborhood watchman who stalked and shot an unarmed boy four years ago near Orlando.

Not that it mattered much when they did. Zimmerman went to court, but it was 17-year-old Trayvon who was on trial. A nation founded, rooted and deeply invested in the canard of native black criminality very much needed to believe Zimmerman’s improbable tale of self-defense, very much needed to find a way for the boy to be guilty of his own murder.

And so he was.

And the marketing of the gun that killed him by the man who pulled the trigger does not feel like simply another example of flagrantly bad taste. No, it feels like a victory lap on a dead boy’s grave. It feels like America once again caught in its own lies.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”? No we don’t.

“…with liberty and justice for all”? No there is not.

One is left breathless, not just with anger, not only with frustration, not simply with a sense of betrayal but also with a grinding fatigue at the need to, once again, ride out an assault on the basic humanness of African-American people.

Like Sam Hose, Trayvon Martin was “thing-ified,” made into something not his singular and individual self, made into an all-purpose metaphor, the brooding black beast glaring through the night-darkened window of American conscience. And like Sam Hose his murder is now commodified, made into a trophy for display in someone’s den.

African-American life is thereby — again — debased, and the nation, shamed. So when this thing is sold it really won’t matter who writes the check.

We all will pay the price.

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist, The Miami Herald, The National Memo, Msy 18, 2016

May 19, 2016 Posted by | Black Men, George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin | , , , , | 2 Comments

“Why Do Cops See Guns That Aren’t There?”: Our Perception Is Driven By Our Biases

It happens with disturbing regularity. Police shoot someone who is unarmed, all too often a black male. And as the officer recounts their version of what happened, they frequently repeat the same phrase: “I thought he was armed.”

It’s impossible to say exactly what the officer perceived and the visual information their brain used to determine a person was armed. Far from acting like reliable, high-definition cameras, our vision is actually rather imperfect, transmitting only bits and pieces of the whole picture and leaving the rest for our brain to fill in. And in high-stress situations, says a new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, our brains prioritize the processing of coarse features rather than the fine details that would enable someone to tell the difference between a real gun and a cellphone, can of soda, or even a toy gun.

“How stressed we are affects how we perceive,” said Karin Roelofs, a neuropsychologist at Radboud University in the Netherlands, and senior author of the new study.

All students in Introductory Psychology classes learn about the fight-or-flight response and how, when an animal perceives a threat, it prepares to take a stand or run away. There’s also a third option, in which the animal freezes in place. It’s the deer-in-headlights phenomenon and serves to protect the animal from predators that often hunt by detecting movement. In dangerous situations, humans will freeze, too, our nervous systems governed by the same hundreds of millions of years of evolution. Animals use the time while “frozen” to take in information about their surroundings and make the decision whether to fight or run.

Scientists generally believed that freezing behavior heightened sensory perception, but no one had actually measured this in the lab. What Roelofs and her team wanted to know was how feeling threatened and the subsequent freezing behavior altered visual perception in humans. She recruited 34 healthy young adults to complete a task that asked them to judge whether a series of lines were horizontal or vertical. Some of the options contained a few, large lines, which simulated coarse information, whereas others contained many thinner lines to simulate fine detail.

But there was a catch. Roelofs also intermittently displayed a red or a green dot. Occasionally, the red dot was followed by a mild electric shock that was unpleasant but not painful or dangerous. The sight of the red dot elicited freezing behavior. When Roelofs and colleagues measured how well the subjects did, they found that the stressed and fearful conditions improved their abilities on the low-detail images but hampered their judgement on the high-detail images.

“The brain is always making predictions about what we see. It’s generally more important to know if something’s there than what it is,” Roelofs said.

These and other studies help to underline the close links between emotion and perception.

The brain has certain templates that help us predict what to expect, says Aprajita Mohanty, a psychologist at Stony Brook University. If you’re driving on snow, you instinctively look out for icy patches. If you see a black person, years of growing up in a prejudiced culture may make you assume they are armed and dangerous. “Your brain is never really walking into a situation blind,” she said.

However, Roelofs cautions that her study took place under controlled lab conditions, which makes it difficult to say exactly how these results might apply to the real world, where tense situations often require split-second decisions. Other studies provide some detail that provides clues about how the brain makes rapid decisions while under stress, such as when a cop pulls a gun on a civilian.

Racial bias is everywhere in America, and police are no more immune than anyone else. Social neuroscientist Daniel Amodio of New York University has spent his career studying how thoughts and emotions, including stereotypes, affect perception and behavior.

One of his studies asked a racially diverse group of individuals from different countries around the world to play a computer game in which they were the police officer and had to decide whether the person on screen was armed and whether to shoot them. Regardless of the ethnicity of the participant, the Americans were far more likely to shoot African Americans, regardless of whether or not they were armed.

When Amodio and his team tracked the eye movements of the participants to see what they were looking at, he found that people always looked at the face of the person on the screen before they shifted their gaze to the object they were carrying. The problem was that they had made the decision about whether or not to shoot before they turned their attention to the object to determine whether it was a gun or something non-threatening. Other of his social neuroscience studies show that people often show decreased neural processing of faces from different racial or ethnic groups, meaning that people see them as being, in some ways, less human.

“If you’re under stress and need to act quickly, you tend to rely on mental shortcuts” such as prejudice and stereotypes, Amodio said. “If someone is amped up and afraid because there might be a shooter and they see a kid, like with what happened with Tamir Rice, they say that when I drove up, I saw a man who looked to be armed. In the split second it took for the officer to drive up and shoot, it’s quite possible that all of these instincts lead to that decision.”

This isn’t to say that the appropriate response to these shootings is a defense of “my brain made me do it.” Rather, the goal of his work, Amodio says, is to try to counter these prejudices and understand how people make these snap decisions to provide better training to police officers. Racial bias plays a key role because it’s the raw material from which the brain fills in our perceptual gaps.

“We need to raise awareness of how bias might affect what police officers see,” Amodio says.

To Mohanty, our perception is driven by our biases. “There is no such thing as true perception,” she said. “Modifying our beliefs can change how we perceive.

 

By: Carrie Arnold, The Daily Beast, January 22, 2015

 

January 24, 2016 Posted by | Black Men, Police Shootings, Racial Bias | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Why Do We Humanize White Guys Who Kill People?”: We Live In A World Made For And Shaped Around White Men

On Friday, November 27, a 57-year-old white man named Robert Louis Dear allegedly injured nine people and killed three in a shooting spree at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. Among those shot were four police officers, one of whom died. As several media outlets and many on social media noted, Dear was given the opportunity to surrender peacefully, just like convicted mass shooter James Holmes, and alleged Charleston mass shooter Dylann Roof, both of whom are white, and very much unlike the black men, many of them unarmed and not engaged in criminal activity, who nonetheless have been shot and killed by law enforcement in just the past couple of years: Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, John Crawford III, Freddie Gray, Rumain Brisbon, Walter Scott, Eric Harris …

By Monday, reporters had begun to gather information on Dear’s past, including allegations of assault, rape, animal cruelty, and being a peeping tom. A Washington Post story detailed at least eight episodes in which Dear “had disputes or physical altercations with neighbors or other residents.” Yet the headline of the Post story practically conveyed a kind of tenderness, with its description of Dear as “adrift and alienated.” An early version of a New York Times report went further, leading with a description of the shooter as “a gentle loner who occasionally unleashed violent acts toward neighbors and women he knew.” The Times, which has since produced some of the best and most thorough reporting on Dear, soon changed the careless wording of its initial story.

But what the earliest attitudes toward a man who allegedly sprayed bullets into 12 people — people who were parents, cops, friends, husbands, wives, Iraq War veterans — show us is the reflexive sympathy, interest, and dignity that we as a nation, our law enforcement and our media, are capable of extending even to those who commit monstrous acts.

Provided that those monstrous actors are white men.

It is, of course, correct and just that Colorado Springs officers made such efforts to take Robert Dear alive. It’s also perfectly humane to acknowledge that individuals are capable of containing troubling contradictions: that even criminally aggressive people may be lonely. But the notion that we might understand a person with the capacity for violence to also have the capacity for gentleness is downright laughable set against the contemporary backdrop of state violence committed against black men. An ability to consider Robert Louis Dear as a complex and compelling figure, one whose motivations might be worthy of our curiosity, highlights our lack of curiosity about, and certainly our lack of compassion for, all kinds of nonwhite, non-male figures who might themselves be adrift or alienated.

Robert Louis Dear’s alleged murder spree happened, after all, in the same week that protesters marched in response to the release of video that showed Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old black teenager, walking down the middle of a Chicago street, at a slow pace and a solid distance from police, nevertheless getting shot to death by those cops. McDonald was spared so little sympathetic acknowledgment that, as is plain on the video, he lay dying without a single officer approaching him to offer help or comfort. His life, his nature, his very humanity was accorded so little value that it took over a year for his death, by 16 bullets, to be treated as a murder by authorities. Here is what I have read about Laquan McDonald: He had PCP in his system and was carrying a three-inch knife at the time of his killing.

It’s a stark contrast that plays out all around us, the horrifying product of a culture, of a media, and of social, economic, and political structures that teach us to value white men more than any other kind of human beings. White men are our norm; we are told practically from birth, via the books we’re read and the television we watch and the history we learn, that their existence stands in for human existence. White men’s contradictions, priorities, and personalities are sifted, sorted, nudged at, explored, described. They’re the figures that drive our fictions and our facts. We are shown regularly their strengths, their failings, their flaws, their complexities, the full range of their humanity. Other kinds of people may exist around them, as subsidiary characters, but the status of these others is secondary, their internal dimensions compressed and more swiftly caricatured.

To be sure, white men may be charged, tried and convicted; they may be regarded as brutish criminals. But they can be simultaneously understood as human beings, driven by conflicting emotions, able — even in their criminality — to have experienced loss and confusion and anger and love, emotions we do not imaginatively afford America’s poor and black, the men and women who often find their way into our news cycles simply by having the audacity to live in a world that was not built for and around them.

Think that’s an exaggeration? Recall earlier this summer, when Roof, the 21-year-old white man charged with killing nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, was arrested after fleeing the scene. Cops described him at the time of capture as “very quiet, very calm … not problematic.” Roof told the cops he was hungry, so they bought him lunch at Burger King.

Which, I hasten to add, is the humane and correct way to treat a prisoner. But it’s not the way most people who have run-ins with law enforcement are treated.

In the same month that Roof quietly ate his Burger King after killing nine people, 15-year-old Dajerria Becton attended a Texas pool party and got into a fight after some white kids reportedly told a black girl to “go back … to Section 8” housing. When white cop Eric Casebolt arrived on the scene, he slammed Becton to the pavement, grabbing her violently by her braids. Later reports helped us understand that Casebolt had been particularly stressed that day, having already attended to two suicide calls. But Becton, the black teenager, was described by Fox News host Megyn Kelly as “no saint,” for having not obeyed the officer. There was little curiosity about Becton’s experience of having been held roughly by her hair while wearing only a bathing suit, just the pressing question about white-male psychology: What could this one-dimensional black girl have done to make the multidimensional white man react in the way that he did?

It goes on and on: After 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, the New York Times famously asserted that the teenager was “no angel.” After 25-year-old black man Freddie Gray died from spinal injuries after having been arrested, dragged roughly into a van, and driven around the city without a seatbelt by Baltimore police, CNN described him, stunningly, as “the son of an illiterate heroin addict” and “a symbol of the black community’s distrust of the police.” Curiosity about this man extended only to his relationship to things Americans recognize as deviant — illiteracy and addiction — and to his usefulness as a symbol, not as a full human being whose life was lost and mourned by family or friends. When 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot dead by cops while playing with a toy gun, he and his family were regarded as so far from discernibly human that when his 14-year-old sister ran to help him as he bled, cops forced her to the ground, cuffed her, and placed her in a police car.

And these are not, of course, unusual examples. In a 2014 study that has now been cited often, researchers found that police officers were more likely to dehumanize black boys and men, to see them as older and more dangerous than they are, and to confer on white young men a presumption of innocence. These dynamics persist well beyond instances of violence, as we struggle to find the humanity in some kinds of people, while easily dismissing others.

We learned an awful lot about the childhood of white Colorado-movie-theater shooter James Holmes, in part because he was arrested and brought to trial. During that trial, we learned that Holmes, who killed 12 people and injured 70 during a showing of The Dark Knight Rises, called his mother “Goober” and his father “Bobbo” as a child. One (very compelling) Los Angeles Times story about Holmes’s devastated parents evoked their horror at watching the trial of “their awkward little boy turned murderous man.”

This kind of reporting is not bad; it is crucial that we explore the psychological development of human beings who turn violent, as well as those who are felled by and affected by violence. The urge to tell their stories, to try to make sense of their paths is natural.

What’s wrong is our failure to give equal time, energy, emotional and narrative consideration to the experiences of those figures who are not white and male. Why might Dajerria Becton not have listened to the cop? What had her morning been like? Besides being the son of an illiterate heroin addict, who was Freddie Gray? A CNN story attempting to answer that question made sure to note his long rap sheet before getting to a few confirming details about a brother lost to street violence and the lead poisoning he and his siblings suffered as children. It did not address the possibilities that Gray might have felt alienated, adrift, that he might have been gentle, stressed, or hungry.

Race, in combination with class, is especially powerful at removing certain kinds of people from the scope of our empathy and interest, but gender can perform the same trick. Recall the time that the New York Times covered the gang rape of an 11-year-old Texas girl by a group of teenaged boys, and reflected the wonder of residents at how “their young men [could] have been drawn into such an act,” also taking care to quote some neighbors fretting about how the accused boys would “have to live with this for the rest of their lives.” The 11-year-old girl was depicted as having invited these young men to go astray: She wore makeup and dressed older than her age. “Where was her mother?” some local residents wondered about another subsidiary female, whose indirect actions surely also got these boys into trouble.

In the abortion debate, too, women are simply not central to some American estimations of humanity, so much so that feminists have long posed the rhetorical question: Are Women Human? Take Marco Rubio speaking about how “you’ll recognize [a fetus] as a human being” at five months gestation, while not recognizing women who have been raped or experienced incest as human enough to be allowed to access abortion services. At least he hasn’t gone as far as some of his Republican colleagues, who have shown little shame in recent years about comparing women to cows, pigs, and chickens or to caterpillars.

It’s not that white men themselves are always the ones placing higher value on the white-male experience. It’s that all of us — women and people of color and every sort of non-white-male variant — work and read and think and talk within a system that measures worth on a white-male scale. This is how, as of this summer, more than a third of 2015’s top-grossing films had not managed to pass the Bechdel test, which means that they did not include more than two female characters with names, talking to each other about something other than men. It’s actually a pretty low bar for acknowledging humanity in female characters, and more than a third of this year’s hit movies did not clear it.

This is what writer Claire Vaye Watkins was getting at in her recent, widely read essay in the literary magazine Tin House. In it, she writes about writer and Rumpus editor Stephen Elliott, whom she hosted when she was an MFA student. She describes her horror at discovering that after his visit, Elliott had publicly described one of her male peers by his full name, acknowledging his writing, his forthcoming book, his teaching career, and his children, all while referring to Watkins — also a writer, with an agent and book in the works — only by her first name, as a student with “a big, comfortable bed” who had turned down his advances.

As Watkins notes in her essay, “professional sexism via artistic infantalization is a bummer … distinct and apart from those violent expressions of misogyny widely agreed upon as horrific: domestic violence, sex slavery, rape.” But, she went on, “sexist negation, a refusal to acknowledge a female writer as a writer, as a peer, as a person, is of a piece with sexual entitlement … more than of a piece, it is practically a prerequisite … You cannot beat the mother of your children, or rape your childhood friend while she’s unconscious, or walk up to a sorority outside Santa Barbara and start shooting without first convincing yourself and allowing our culture to convince you that those women are less than human.”

This point, made so sharply by Watkins, is a serious argument for why — even in this season of gibbering about over-the-top political correctness — we must acknowledge the real costs of small injuries perpetrated by institutions and pop culture, simply by continuing to put white men at life’s fulcrum. This is why even the stuff that feels worlds away from police violence and abortion-clinic shootings matters. It’s why it matters when a white male actor talks over a successful black female filmmaker, explaining diversity to her. It’s why it matters when a newspaper prints an obituary of a pioneering female rocket scientist that kicks off with the fact that she made a “mean beef stroganoff,” followed her husband, and was a great mom to her son, all before mentioning that she had also “invented a propulsion system to keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.”

It matters because it shows us all the ways in which we live in a world made for and shaped around white men. And in aggregate, when the statues are of white men, the buildings and cities and bridges and schools are named after white men, the companies are run by white men and the movie stars are white men and the television shows are about white men and the celebrated authors are white men, the only humanity that is presented as comprehensible — the kind that succeeds and fails, that comprises strength and weakness, that feels love and anger and alienation and fear, that embodies nuance and contradiction, that can be heroic and villainous, abusive and gentle — is the humanity of white men. The repercussions of this kind of thinking? Well, maybe they explain some of what we see on the evening news.

 

By: Rebecca Traister, New York Magazine, December 2, 2015

December 10, 2015 Posted by | Black Men, Law Enforcement, Police Shootings, White Men | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Nobody’s Symbol, But Somebody’s Mother”: Toya Graham Simply Doing What Mothers Do

A few thoughts about Toya Graham, just in time for Mother’s Day.

You may not know her name, but you probably know what she did. You’ve probably seen the viral video of Graham, during last week’s unrest in Baltimore, using some rather pungent language and some open-handed smacks upside the head to pull her 16-year-old son out of the riot zone. She told CBS News he had gone there in defiance of her orders. When she saw him, dressed for mayhem in a black face mask, rock in hand, “I just lost it.”

In so doing, Graham, a single mother of six, has inadvertently become enmeshed in the ongoing shouting match between left and right. She has become a symbol — though neither side can agree on what she is a symbol of.

On the right, where many observers seem just a little too giddy over the image of a black boy being smacked, Fox “News” contributor Ben Stein called her “Rosa Parks for 2015.” It was an inane observation that minimized the legacy of Rosa Parks, but it was perfectly in line with the conservative view that says our most pressing concern in Baltimore’s unrest is “behavior” — i.e., the need to rein in lawless Negroes smashing windows and setting fires in the city.

Fact is, behavior is, indeed, our most pressing concern: but it’s the behavior of police in dealing with African-American citizens. Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man whom police arrested for carrying an illegal knife — a charge that is hotly disputed — somehow wound up with a partially severed spine while in their custody and died. Death seems to come with jarring frequency to unarmed black men who interact with police, something that ought to trouble us all.

The fact that some knuckleheaded black kids used the protest over Gray’s death as a pretext to riot — in other words, to behave as knuckleheaded white kids do after sports victories, sports defeats, and during last year’s pumpkin festival in Keene, NH — makes that no less true.

On the left, meantime, there is a tad too much dewy-eyed hand wringing over Graham’s resorting to violence to drag her son off the street. While conceding that her actions were “understandable and maybe even reasonable” under the circumstances, Eliyahu Federman, a columnist for USA Today, nevertheless wants you to know her parenting style was not “ideal” — whatever that means.

“Shouting and insulting teens just doesn’t work long term,” he writes. “You are more likely to positively modify teen misbehavior by calmly and maturely discussing the consequences of the misbehavior.” One struggles to imagine how a calm and mature discussion with a willful teenager might have played out at ground zero of an urban riot.

Look: that video — the hitting, the cursing — is not a pretty picture. Such tactics would never be endorsed by Parents magazine. On the other hand, the largely white and middle-class readership of that magazine likely does not live where Graham does, nor struggle with the challenges and fears she faces.

Every pundit, yours truly included, has the sometimes-regrettable habit of reducing people in the news to symbols of our own social and political concerns. But if we want to understand what she did, it might help to concede that Graham is nobody’s symbol, but somebody’s mother. As she said, she “lost it” because she feared her son might end up like Freddie Gray, another tragic police “oops.”

For most of us, that is a distant and unimaginable fear. But for some of us, it is a fear all too close and all too imaginable, a night terror that gnaws at sleep. Understand this, and that video becomes less of a mystery. When she saw her son in danger, Toya Graham waded in to save him from it — at all costs and by any means necessary.

Is that not what mothers do?

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, May 6, 2015

May 7, 2015 Posted by | Baltimore Riots, Black Men, Police Violence | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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