With apologies for our use of profanity, we have to ask: What the hell is wrong with this country?
Yet another death of a black man at the hands of police for no discernable reason. Yet another wave of protests in cities across the nation decrying senseless police brutality. We’re not surprised, and you shouldn’t be, either. Six years after the murder of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, and the murder of Eric Garner at the hands of New York City police, plus countless less publicized incidents since then, whatever progress we’ve made, if any at all, seems to have vanished.
Monday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she sees “historic inequities of racial justice coming to a tipping point in communities across America.” But is it really a tipping point? Weren’t the murders of Garner and Brown a tipping point? What about the mass murder of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook? Was that not a tipping point?
All of them should have led to meaningful reforms, but none actually moved the needle on eradicating police violence against people of color or squelching America’s love affair with guns. Yet in Canada, a single incident of gun violence brought an immediate nationwide ban on assault weapons. What’s wrong with America that we can’t find the wherewithal to effect and sustain real change, that we can’t find solutions to our nation’s deepest ills?
America’s ongoing appetite and tolerance for violence, especially when aimed at people of color, conspires with a fleeting attention span, where even the most profoundly shocking incidents disappear into subsequent news cycles, all but erased from the national conscience and political agenda. Just as wave after wave of school shootings has failed to produce any meaningful reform in national gun laws, the continuing pandemic of police brutality against people of color has prompted little improvement in weeding out the bad actors from the ranks of law enforcement.
Here in Lansing, we are more fortunate than many. Our city has a proud tradition of racial harmony, rooted in the efforts of black and white residents in the 1960s and 1970s, who worked hand in hand to push back against discrimination in housing, education, public accommodations and employment. Today, Lansing is second only to Kalamazoo among Michigan cities in the racial integration of its neighborhoods. We are also blessed with a better-than-average Police Department with a relatively small number of excessive force incidents over the past decade, scant evidence of racially biased policing, and a bonafide commitment to community-based strategies that strengthen the bonds between police officers and citizens.
While we are thankful for that, we can’t help question the judgment of police commanders who failed to prevent a volatile and entirely predictable situation on Washington Square over the weekend. When lawless idiots are in the process of destroying a car, flipping it over and setting it on fire, shouldn’t the police intervene and arrest those responsible? Which begs the question: why were cars allowed on the square in the first place? After several nights in a row of downtowns being destroyed in cities across the country, did it not occur to Lansing’s leadership that a proactive plan would be needed to protect Lansing’s downtown if and when things turned ugly?
Instead, Lansing police opted to stand back at a safe distance, allowing the melee to grow, then clearing the streets with tear gas well after the damage was done. Never mind that there were innocent bystanders, including children, caught up in the gassing. First Ward Lansing City Council member Brandon Betz, who was on the scene offering aid to people exposed to tear gas, expressed his disgust with the tactic on Facebook. We find little cause to disagree with him.
And where was Mayor Andy Schor? He showed up for the photo op at the police operations center for the retaking of the oath, a lovely gesture to be sure, but we couldn't help notice his absence while downtown Lansing was under assault. Enacting a curfew hours after the car was burned and windows broken?? Too little, too late. Repeating the curfew the next night with virtually no advanced notice to the public speaks to a lack of forethought. And did we miss the press conference with the mayor and police chief updating Lansing residents on the situation and calling for calm — as well as providing the media a place to ask the hard questions that need to be addressed about police performance. That’s what leaders do in times of crisis.
More than a half century ago, when America was just beginning to reckon with its shameful treatment of black citizens, Sam Cooke sang that a change is gonna come. Frankly, we’re tired of waiting for it. Generation after generation of Americans have seen wave after wave of social upheaval around issues of racial injustice and economic inequality. Yet too many of us go about our daily lives as if these issues are someone else’s concern.
Like the deadly scourge of COVID-19, the cultural sickness afflicting our nation falls heaviest on people of color. But there will be no vaccine for the structural racism and ravages of poverty that deny equal opportunity and social justice to millions of our citizens, or for the police brutality that causes people of color to live in fear that they or their children may be the next to die. Change may yet come, but it will only happen as a result of a new generation of leaders at the local, state and federal levels who pay more than lip service to demands for reform. Above all, it will only happen when each and every one of us looks deeply at our own biases and privileges and commits to being part of the solution.
Echoing the words of President Barack Obama, whose calm and enlightened leadership we desperately miss at this frightening and perilous juncture in our nation’s history: Let’s get to work.