On Becoming More Human

Not dying is not living

Sojourner Truth Parsons, I’m Thirsty. 2014, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 30 x 24”. Courtesy of the Jessica Bradley Gallery.

A version of this speech was prepared for a student rally at Emory University on December 4, 2014, in the wake of national protests over the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

I am proud that you have convened this assembly for a much-needed discussion. We are talking about an issue personally important to me. I am a 46-year-old black American man, and I myself have survived some extraordinarily violent encounters with the police. I have had two friends killed in encounters with the police. I am inspired by the willingness of young people like yourselves to march and risk arrest to bring justice to American streets and work to repair the nation’s troubles. But I also worry that few gains will come of our work. I worry that the main beneficiaries will be a self-enriching group — those of whom it was once said, in the 1970s, that their “livelihood depended on finding continuous instances of racial discrimination.”

Last week, as I walked to campus, I listened to the news broadcast Democracy Now!, which has offered some of the most balanced and probing reportage there is on the public killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Kajieme Powell in St. Louis; Eric Garner in Staten Island; Tamir Rice in Cleveland; Akai Gurley in East New York; Rumain Brisbon in Phoenix; and Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. But listening to these reports, I felt it was insincere of people to express shock when confronting the fact that lethal police violence toward black men is endemic to American society. As a teacher, I wondered how it was possible for the Democracy Now! panelists to have missed that lesson in school. On another level, I was even more flabbergasted to hear, again and again, that the policemen and policewomen and emergency medical technicians had failed to recognize or appreciate the humanity of their African American male victims.

I’d like to follow up on that. I think you have to have a shared collective memory of the past to recognize another human being. But if we can’t remember the Watts Riots of 1965, which burned for six days after a police officer struck a woman in the head with a nightstick, or the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, which followed the brutal police beating of Rodney King and videotaped shooting of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, what makes us so confident that we know a human being, or that we recognize or think deeply about humanity?

People seem surprised that police officers like Daniel Pantaleo and Timothy Loehmann, who had been cited multiple times for poor performance or sued for abusive actions even before they murdered unarmed Americans, are still employed and carrying out their duties with measured, mundane brutality. To those who are surprised, I ask what you think the typical policeman is doing, and why municipal budgets have expanded to hire more policemen and fewer teachers. We live in a nation that has chronically high unemployment for black men, and whose fastest-growing economic sector is somewhere between the fingernail parlor and the speculative-financial-services industry. The job of the policemen or the district attorney is not to regulate and control the behavior of investment banks or, as you all are well aware, even to uphold the law on this campus; we are a private university with a private police force whose primary job is to ensure the safety of the campus residents. The most fundamental job of the working-class police in the United States is to regulate the behavior of people like themselves (typically a half-step but almost never a full step below): a sometimes idle, sometimes job-seeking population in cities like New York, Cleveland, and Atlanta that is visibly black and Latino.

I think we misstep if we assume that our crisis is one of police reform, training, or instruction. The police in the United States are a reflection of the funding priorities of its elites. They are expressing the will of our best and brightest, which is us and our classmates.

Let me tell you about one of the greatest disappointments in my life. I was raised in a city that closed down its major industries during my childhood and young adulthood, resulting in an exodus of taxpayers. A famous quarterback once refused to fulfill his contractual obligations to play football in my hometown; it wasn’t the kind of place where an ambitious, elite person wanted to go. But by the time I had finished third grade I understood the United States could be invaded by the Soviet Union any day, or that, even more likely, the siren that rang all through the city might finally call us to the basements of our houses, where we would try to survive a nuclear attack. I disliked the Russians the way one dislikes a sports rival, and I wanted to see them defeated. But I hoped that the giant war promising both victory and defeat would never come.

In 1989, when the Wall fell, the distant halves of Germany reunited, and we declared victory in a war against the Soviet Union that had been unofficially declared in 1946, I imagined our world would shortly change. I had always admired the sparkling, affluent suburbs as a child in the 1970s; politicians had told us we couldn’t have better lives in our cities, because it was so crucial to devote the national budget to massive military spending — to fund the wars in Vietnam and dozens of other places, to create space-age weapons and their equally fantastic delivery systems, including the ships and planes of the Navy and Air Force. When the US declared victory in this history-ending war to end war, I expected that at least some government spending would be redirected inward. To rebuild the underfunded public schools I had attended; to pay and reward good teachers and self-sacrificing doctors; to create neighborhood recreation centers; to fund after-school programs and athletics, neighborhood hospitals and parks; to provide treatment centers and clinics for the visibly ill people crowding the streets; to resurface our roads and build effective transportation systems; to provide a banking system that offered affordable loans, so that when I turned 16 the small businesses in my neighborhood could be run by people who lived in my neighborhood, who would hire me after school or in the summer; to make the technology available so that the radio station I liked could stay on the air after dark; and, yes, to pay the person we used to call “Officer Friendly” in the ’70s to walk his leisurely patrol around the neighborhood, acting like he cared about the people who lived there.

But none of this happened, you all. In fact, the opposite happened. After a brief and very minor drop in the 1990s, people for the next complete generation argued that military spending should be not just what it had been, but even greater, and that our lives in the cities should be even less like the lives of people in the suburbs. They argued that war was now endless, in fact — a part of the human condition. We should have a war on drugs, one that would push the incarcerated population past 2 million. We should no longer build schools in the cities but prisons, detention centers for “wilding” juveniles, and hire as many police as possible on the shoestring budgets of local governments. All the amenities that I had dreamed of, that I connected to the American way of life, were to be the unregulated province of private companies.

And throughout the nation, a brand-new model for urban revitalization was trumpeted. It was based in New York City, where the police — who had always been aggressive, sparking massive riots in 1943 and 1964 for shooting unarmed black men — were praised for finally getting tough on crime. The New York Police Department got tough by a policy known as “stop and frisk,” and millions of young black and Latino men were violently seized, searched, and detained, and had their information stored in police files. These men, like Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, and Sean Bell, had no constitutional rights. But New York’s streets shone with glitter and gold for people with money to spend there. I don’t believe it is at all far-fetched to say that we as individuals have made some unadvised choices about who gets to be human, but some very significant choices were made for us, too.

And let’s be frank. Our own pursuit of “humanity” is weak-kneed and insincere. My suspicion, based on the students I recognize among you, is that you are among the few even taking humanities courses in the college. Our crowd today is not seven thousand strong, perhaps because our undergraduate student body, and really most American elite college students, are disinclined to major in the humanities, to take more than an obligatory course. We aren’t strongly inclined to think too hard about issues — or even the language — of fairness and justice. Our concerns lie more generally with rationalizing and computing our privilege and our hopes of individual enrichment. And if we don’t, on our own campus, take the humanities so seriously, why would we believe that retraining the police and giving them added technological equipment like cameras, like from that old movie, Robocop — or, more frighteningly, that other old movie, The Terminator — would help them appreciate human life more perceptively? Increased surveillance, tape-recorded representations of life, played back and rewound and remixed over and over again, digitally and virtually, will only remind jurors of an imitation of life, but it won’t revive the real thing. Rather than die knowing my death had been recorded by the camera, I would just rather not die. And rather than not die, I would like to choose to live.

Two final points about change and sacrifice. Many of us today hope to take our protest to the streets, to join in national solidarity and to be on the right side of history. But I suggest that if you want to make a decisive change, you should not exclude the place where you can see the obvious fruits of your victory: your own campus and among your own classmates.

Second, I am certain that every one of us has the capacity to find very useful, very necessary employment. However, it might not be lucrative. Which is to say that while we might earn enough to eat, put a roof over our heads, and pay off our debt, the jobs that are at our fingertips require us to be servants of the public. We would be vulnerable, we would be humans, taking a public bus, being forced to share, having to reconcile our differences with strangers from all walks of life, perhaps purchasing only the things that we could afford right then, not on credit or future leverage but cash on the barrelhead just like the poor, no longer among the elites we know at this school, and perhaps not so wealthy. Perhaps not wealthy at all. We might be disappointed because we were not sharply upwardly mobile. We would have to face, for a period at least, that we had failed the American dream. We didn’t earn more than our parents, we didn’t have a larger home or a more exclusive social circle or wield more political or economic power. We weren’t living under the bright glare of glamorous reward. But it is at least possible that of the 21 million Americans enrolled in college, we have here among us some special abilities that have to be harnessed, developed, and then set free. It is quite possible that we have the capacity to engage in some special discussions, and to put into language what is in crucially short supply in America’s public places. One of our real challenges is whether or not we will freely make our voices, and our knowledge, and our skills and our learning about humanity available to the other citizens of this land. Those of you at this rally must help your fellow classmates, teachers, and administrators make choices that will benefit not the ranking, not the endowment, not the stock market, not the numbers, but the people, but humanity.

If we do that, we might well have created the reform that all of us here understand is so desperately needed if our country is to survive and thrive. We might have helped to create the conditions for justice in the land. We might have truly become human.

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