The Best Way To Honor Tamir Rice is by Reforming Our Broken Justice System

Memorial for Tamir Rice, 12-year-old shot dead by Police in Cleveland

Michael Brown – no indictment.

Eric Garner – no indictment.

Sandra Bland – no indictment.

And now Tamir Rice.

How many times will our justice system refuse to charge police with killing unarmed black people?

What will it take for our courts to accept the responsibility for at least attempting to seek justice?

When will our judicial system deem the death of people of color at the hands of law enforcement to at least be worthy of a trial?

Brown had no weapon but was shot to death by law enforcement.

Garner had no weapon but was choked to death by police.

Bland had no weapon but was found hanged in her jail cell after being assaulted by police during a traffic stop.

Rice had a legal pellet gun that was not pointed at anyone yet he was shot to death two seconds after police arrived.

This is not justice. This is a national travesty that continues to be played out daily. How many more human beings will be ground under the boot of a system that finds no value in their lives?

And don’t give me any of your excuses! Police were just doing there job! These people should have listened to law enforcement! Rice shouldn’t have had a pellet gun!

Listen to yourself. Lethal force is the only option!? Police have no tasers anymore, no pepper spray? Their guns only fire death strokes? They can’t hit non-vital areas meant to incapacitate but not kill?

What a bunch of cowards we are if we don’t demand police publicly explain themselves when they kill another human being – especially someone who posed them no bodily harm! How morally and spiritually bankrupt a nation we are not to weigh the evidence and decide guilt or innocence! “Freedom and justice for all!?” What a sham! What a lie! What a farce!

I don’t know about you, but I am sick of it. I refuse to put up with it for even one more day.

But what can we do?

No. Really.

When reading about these government sanctioned murders, I feel helpless. I’m just one person. What can I do to stop it?

Here are a few suggestions:

1) Ban Grand Juries in Fatal Shootings by Police

Connecticut and – most recently – California already have laws to this effect. District attorneys should have to decide whether officers face criminal charges when they kill people in the line of duty. This decision should be made in the light of day in full view of the public and not behind the closed doors of a grand jury hearing. These hearings involve no judges or defense attorneys and the transcripts of these proceedings are almost always sealed.

The problem is that district attorneys work closely with police and depend on them for political support. Sending cases like these to a grand jury gets the DA off the hook so he or she doesn’t offend the officers.

If the decision had to be made in public, voters could hold DAs accountable. With the grand jury system, there are no consequences because we have no concrete evidence about what happened during the proceedings, what arguments were made, by whom and who made what decisions. That’s a poor breeding ground for justice.

2) Construct a National Database on Police Killings

Right now there is no way to tell exactly how many people are killed by law enforcement in this country every year. Moreover, there is no way to tell if officers involved in these killings were ever charged.

Information can be compiled state-by-state, often through unofficial and anecdotal sources. However, this does not nearly give the full picture of what is going on. The people of this country deserve to know the full scope of the issue. That’s why apologists often claim these sorts of incidents are relatively rare and blown out of proportion by the media. But are they? A national database would prove the matter one way or the other.

Federal law from 1994 already calls for just such a database, yet it has not been funded. This may be due in part to the cost. A pilot study found that it would take a decade and cost $1 billion.

Certainly this is not a quick fix. But don’t we deserve to know this information? And isn’t it suspicious that nothing is being done to compile this data now?

3) Overturn Graham v. Connor

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to seeking justice for those unnecessarily killed by police is a precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court 25 years ago. Graham v. Connor effectively ruled that police can kill you if they feel you present a “reasonable” threat to their own lives.

The problem is the word “reasonable.” What does that mean? In court, it can be almost anything. It’s a “Get Out of Jail Free” card to police for wanton murder. Justice Sonia Sotomayor calls this a “Shoot first, think later” approach to policing. She says this violates the Fourth Amendment which stipulates what counts as “probable cause” for police actions including arrests. However, Sotomayor is the only sitting justice publicly to take this stance.

This is why without more robust protections for citizens and more realistic expectations for law enforcement, even when cases like these go to court, they rarely result in police convictions.

But courts change. Public opinion can move mountains if given enough time. We need to start putting on the pressure.

Organize, people. Start writing letters. Write petitions. Hold rallies. Meet with your Congress-people. Make some noise.

In the meantime, let us grieve for all the Browns, Garners, Blands and Rices.

Their lives matter. And the best way to prove that is to get off our collective asses and do something about it.

NOTE: This article also was published on


Dissent – The Most “Un-American” American Value


Shut up!

Don’t you know that what you’ve just said has caused this horrible tragedy!?

It’s ironic that in a country born from dissent, the most popular message the powerful have for the powerless is “shut up.”

When two NYPD officers were ambushed and murdered by a madman on Saturday, the media was quick to point out his motive. Allegedly, the “execution style” shootings of Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenijan Lui were in retaliation for the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown – unarmed black men killed by police.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio entered a press conference to speak about the murders, police turned their back on him. The reason? The mayor had been outspoken against a grand jury decision that Garner’s death didn’t need to be investigated with a full criminal trial of the officer who killed him.

Criticism was even worse in an internal department memo which accuses de Blasio of having his hands “literally dripping with our [NYPD’s] blood because of his actions and policies” and that the NYPD is now “a ‘wartime’ police department”  that will “act accordingly”.

It’s beyond ludicrous.

What does that even mean? Who exactly is the NYPD at war with – the people its officers swore to protect and serve?

But perhaps more troubling is the insinuation of guilt – that the mayor caused this tragedy because of his criticisms of police brutality.

Across the country, on social media, between friends and family the same pattern emerges. People complain the death of these police officers is because of the nationwide protests against a wave of police killings of unarmed black men.

If only people hadn’t spoken up, Ramos and Lui would still be alive!?

America has a history of crazy people doing all kinds of crazy things for just as many crazy reasons.

When Ted Kaczynski, the “Unabomber,” killed 3 people and injured 23 with home-made bombs because of his hatred of modern technology, no one blamed Apple computers.

When John Hinckley shot President Reagan to get the attention of Jodie Foster, no one blamed the Academy Award winning actress.

When Brenda Spencer fatally shot a principal and custodian and injured eight children and a police officer from her home across the street from a school because she “didn’t like Mondays”… Well, we still have Mondays.

But suddenly when a lunatic’s motives are politically expedient, they’re justified.

Millions of people all across the country have taken to the streets to protest a racist system of justice that doesn’t hold police accountable for killing unarmed black men. We could confront that system and change it, or we could try to shush those calling for reform.

What’s worse, protestors are shamed into silence. Before they can continue to air their grievances, they’re told they must stop and recognize the tragedy of Ramos and Lui’s death. Of course these murders were despicable! But what does that have to do with us?

Once again the powerless have to repeatedly condemn violence while the powerful have no such mandate put on them. Ex-Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson hasn’t offered any regret over his fatal shooting of Michael Brown. He went on national television and said he’d do the same thing again.

If people are worried about the negative image of police instilled by these protests, perhaps the cause isn’t the protests. Perhaps the cause is the negative actions of some police.

Before this story broke, the nation was reeling from the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture. The report details actions by CIA officials including torturing prisoners, lying to government officials and the media, harsher treatment than was previously disclosed, and the failure of the program to obtain accurate information.

Senator Dianne Feinstein made the rounds explaining the report to congress and the media. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer echoed many pundits when he asked her if the release of the report made America less safe.

What a stupid question!? The report didn’t make America less safe. The fact that America tortured people made us less safe!

But again we have attempts to squash dissent with appeals to shame and fear.

Why did you speak up, Sen. Feinstein? If you had remained silent about the heinous actions done in our name, we would remain safe and secure.

We used to hold freedom of speech as one of our most cherished values. It was a point of pride. Now it’s a dusty trophy on the mantle that we rarely practice in public. It’s just not worth the effort.

That’s a lesson North Korea learned this week. After hacking Sony Pictures and making threats against movie theaters that showed the Seth Rogan comedy “The Interview,” the film company pulled the picture from distribution. After all, the movie made fun of Kim Jong-un in a plot where the American government fictitiously planned to assassinate him with late night talk show hosts.

There was a time when the United States would not abide by such terrorism and threats.

That time has passed.

We not only bow down to foreign powers, we attempt the same kind of coercion for our own people.

How dare you say THAT! You are causing harm by speaking THIS WAY.

Imagine if we thought that way in 1776.

How dare you speak out against Great Britain! Sure, we have no say in our own government, but speaking out will only bring on more tragedy.

Dissent has truly become the most “Un-American” American value.

This article was also published in the LA Progressive and Badass Teachers Association Blog.

An Exercise in Empathy

Eric Garner protests in Boston

I can’t breathe.

I can’t breathe.

I can’t…

I awoke abruptly from a troubled sleep and I literally could. Not. Breathe.

I stumbled out of bed and into the hall, banging into the walls, rushing to the bathroom commode.

I looked down into that porcelain abyss hoping and dreading the spasms that soon rocked my stomach.
It all came pouring out of me like I was a burst balloon.

After a brief eternity it was over.

My lungs sucked in air. My mind was awake.

I shivered realizing the video was still replaying in my head. The video of Eric Garner’s death.

I had watched that video with the same morbid curiosity as everyone else.

A heavyset black man choked to death by police as he screamed “I can’t breathe,” over and over again.

But now, merely a week after the police officer who killed Michael Brown was let free without so much as a criminal trial, the same thing happened to the cop who killed Eric Garner.

Death ruled a homicide by the medical examiner.

Officer using a banned choke hold.

No weapon, no resisting arrest.

All of it caught on video.

And No Trial.

That set it going again – the snuff film of Garner’s death might never stop playing itself over-and-over on the youtube screen behind my eye lids.

Why was this bothering me so much?

It was horrible, sure, but I’m a white man. This is unlikely to ever happen to me or mine.

When I see the police, the worst they’re liable to do to me is give me a ticket for speeding.

Black men – especially young black men – have it much worse. They’re 21 times more likely to be shot by police than their white contemporaries.

That’s frightening. Even if it probably wouldn’t happen to me.

The thing is – even though Eric Garner and I are very different, when I look at his picture, I see myself.

We’re both around the same age, same build, both have facial hair, both are fathers. There are more similarities than differences. The thing that separates us the most is the color of our skin.

When I look at him, I don’t see a danger to society. I see a guy who looked pretty friendly, a gentle giant – a guy whose house I’d have loved to visit for a cookout. I could see myself eating barbecued brisket on his porch sharing a joke and looking desperately for a napkin.

Many people don’t see that. When they look at his picture they see an OTHER, someone distinctly not like them, someone dangerous.

I don’t know really how you bridge that divide.

When I was a kid, I went to a very diverse public school. It taught me to get along with people who society labeled as different than me. It taught me that the label was a lie – we really weren’t all that dissimilar. I made lifelong friends of various races – people I probably would never have met otherwise.

The other day, I even got a strange instant message on Facebook from one of my black high school friends living out of state.

He said that he had been reading my blog and he was struck by how much I’d changed. He said I’d come a long way from the kid in high school who thought movies like “Boyz n the Hood” were exaggerated.

We talked for a while about it. I was surprised because I hadn’t noticed anything different at all, but he’s right.

I had clung to the notion that black grievances – though based in fact – were media contrivances to sell rap albums and movie tickets. I wanted to believe it so much. It was almost a mantra against news stories that seemed to indicate otherwise.

But at some point in the last few years I had given up that conceit, and I never even realized it.

I’m sure my job has a lot to do with it. I’m a public school teacher in a district much like the one I went to when I was growing up. My kids are mostly minorities.

You can’t go to work day in, day out and not come to empathize with the plight of people of color. You can’t see their miseries, fears, hopes and joys without sharing in them to some extent.

When Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were killed, their deaths hit me hard, too. I saw them as my students, my kids.

But Eric Garner wasn’t like any of them. He was like their father. He was like me.

Perhaps if our schools still weren’t so segregated, more people would see it. Perhaps more of us would recognize our common humanity.

Too often we live separate lives in separate worlds. We don’t live in the same neighborhoods. We don’t work in the same jobs. We pass each other by uneasily because we don’t know each other beyond the grisly accounts on the TV news and police blotter.

So, yeah, we need to fix our broken justice system. We need independent prosecutors, body cameras, police training and a host of other things. But more than anything, we need an introduction to each other. We need to be a part of each others lives. Reducing school segregation may be a place to start.

Maybe then we could all breathe easier.

This article has also been published on the LA Progressive and Badass Teachers Association blog.

Black Lives Matter – Except in Court


Let me ask you a question. When exactly would a grand jury indict a white police officer in the death of a black man?

No. Really. When?

Let’s look at some possible scenarios.

If the police shoot a black man who’s minding his own business holding a bb gun he got off the shelf at Walmart…
No indictment.

If the police are described by multiple witnesses as shooting a black man who’s in the process of surrendering with his hands up…

If the police are caught on video choking a black man to death while he screams, “I can’t breathe”…


I mean it. If not then, when WOULD a grand jury make this indictment? What would it take?

The way things are going it’s easy to imagine a black man being stabbed to death in a court of law right in front of the jury box, and those 12 angry men still wouldn’t be able to find enough evidence to bring it to trial!

That’s what we’re talking about here.

This has nothing to do with guilt or innocence. This has to do with there being enough evidence for a jury to decide that there are enough questions about the incident to make it worthy of a criminal trial.

We’re not talking about finding the police guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

We’re not talking about finding the police guilty at all.

We’re talking about the possibility that something might be wrong here.

In the top three examples above, grand juries didn’t even think there was an outside chance the police might have been in the wrong. And those are all real cases.

The fourth example is pure fantasy but look for it to hit the news real soon.

Some will say this has less to do with race and more to do with the police. To which I’d ask where are all the cases of this happening to white people?

Where’s the police officer killing a white man holding a child’s toy gun? Where’s the police killing a white man with his hands up? Where’s the video of the police choking a white man to death?

If you go looking, this is what you’ll find: white guys pointing guns – not toy guns, real weapons – at police and bystanders before being calmly talked down by police. You’ll find white men with hands in the air being taken peacefully into custody. You’ll find white guys choking on a cup of coffee the officer provided and being helpfully slapped on the back.

This isn’t to say all police officers are racist. Far from it.

This isn’t even really about the militarization of the police force. It’s a huge problem, but it’s not the central issue here.

What is at issue is a justice system that continually fails to seek justice.

For some reason in a court room, all human life is precious unless it is wrapped in a black skin. And police are innocent. Period.

The system has repeatedly failed. That’s why people are taking to the streets and in some cases looting and rioting.

If you can’t trust the police and the justice system, what’s the point of obeying the law? You’re a target – fair game – whether you’re law abiding or not. Might as well tip those scales back a bit in your favor.

I’m not saying this reaction is right, but it’s certainly comprehensible.

When people become citizens they enter into an unspoken contract with society. I’ll obey the laws if you’ll treat me fairly. We’re letting down our side of the bargain.

You’ve probably seen the hashtag #nojusticenopeace. That’s not a prescription. It’s a description of reality.

We MUST restore our courts to working order. Justice must be blind. Fair. Impartial.

If not, we will have no society at all.

Only questions about what went wrong.

This article has also been published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

A Moment of Silence for Michael Brown


Michael Brown has been dead for more than 100 days.

Yet he was in my classroom this morning.

He stared up at me from 22 sets of eyes, out of 22 faces with 22 pairs of mostly Black and Brown childish cheeks.

The day after it was announced Missouri police Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted in the shooting death of the unarmed Black teen my class was eerily quiet.

There was no yelling.

No singing or humming or tapping either.

No one played keep away with anyone else’s pencil or laughed about something someone had said or done the night before.

No conversation about what so-and-so was wearing or arguments about the football game.

My first period class filed into the room and collapsed into their seats like they’d been up all night.

Perhaps they had been.

By the time the morning announcements ended and I had finished taking the 8th graders attendance, I had come to a decision.

I had to address it.

There was simply no way to ignore what we were all thinking and feeling. No way to ignore the ghost haunting our hearts and minds.

“May I ask you something?” I said turning to the class.

They just stared.

“Would you mind if we had a moment of silence for Michael Brown?”

I’ve never seen relief on so many faces all at once.

It was like I had pulled a splinter from out of 22 pairs of hands with a single tug.

The White teacher was going to acknowledge Black pain. In here, they wouldn’t have to hide it. They could be themselves.

Some mumbled affirmatives but most had already begun memorializing. There had been silence in their hearts since last night. Silence after the rage.

How else to deal with a reality like ours? Young men of color can be gunned down in the street and our justice system rules it isn’t even worth investigating in a formal trial. The police are free to use deadly force with impunity so long as they tell a grand jury they felt threatened by their unarmed alleged assailant. And if a community can’t control its anger and frustration, it’s the oppressed people’s fault.

These are bitter pills to swallow for adults. How much harder for the young ones just starting out?

So we bowed our heads in silence.

I’ve never heard a sound quit like this emptiness. Footsteps pattered in the hall, an adult’s voice could be heard far away giving directions. But in our room you could almost hear your own heart beating. What a lonely sound, more like a rhythm than any particular note of the scale.

But as we stood there together it was somehow less lonely. All those solitary hearts beating with a single purpose.

I made sure to do this in all of my classes today.

The first thing I did was make this same request: “Do you mind if we have a moment of silence for Michael Brown?”

They all agreed.

In most classes this became a springboard for discussion. No grades, no lesson plans, just talk.

We talked about who Brown was and what had happened to him. We talked about the grand jury and the evidence it had considered. We talked about what their parents had told them.

And as you might expect, speaking about Brown was like a séance inviting a long line of specters into our classroom – Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Emmett Till, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – fathers, brothers, classmates.

Some groups talked more than others. Some students spoke softly and with an eloquence beyond their years. Many only shook their heads.

One boy asked me, “Why does this keep happening, Mr. Singer?”

It was the question of which I had been most afraid. As a teacher, it’s always uncomfortable to admit the limits of your knowledge. But I tried to be completely honest with him.

“I really don’t know,” I said, “But let’s not forget that question. It’s a really good one.”

Every class was different. In some we spent a long time on it. In others, we moved on more quickly.

But in each one, I made sure to look into their eyes – each and every one – before the moment ended.

I didn’t say it aloud, but I wanted them to know something.

We live in an uncertain world. There are people out there who will hate you just because of the color of your skin. They will hate you because of your religion or your parents or whom you love.

But in this room, I want you to know you are safe, you are cherished and you are loved.

I hope they understand.

For me this is not just an academic concern. It’s personal.

I have devoted my life to those children.

Some of my colleagues say that I’ve gone too far. That what happened to Michael Brown and issues of racism aren’t education issues, they aren’t things that should concern teachers.

If not, I don’t know what is.

Our society segregates public schools into Black and White. It defunds the Black schools, closes them and funnels the wastrels into privatized for-profit charters while leaving the best facilities and Cadillac funding for the elite and privileged.

And we allow it. Our deformed society leads to deformed citizens and a deformed parody of justice.

My room may be haunted. I teach among the ghosts of oppression. But that’s the thing about phantoms. They demand their due – honesty.

It’s all I have to give.

This article has also been published in the Washington Post, Diane Ravich’s blog, Yinzercation blog and the Badass Teachers Association blog.

Perfect Strangers: Racial Injustice as a Symptom of Continuing School Segregation


I remember faces.


Names fade over time, but after more than a decade of teaching in impoverished Western Pennsylvania schools, I still remember all my students’ faces. I remember the smiles, the mischievous looks, the winks, the fronting, the brows knit in concentration and the rare honest smiles when they surprised themselves that they really can do the impossible.


Most of those faces are brown though mine is white.


Does that matter? Sometimes I lie to myself and say it doesn’t. We’re all just people, after all. Sure we have different stories, different cultures. What does it matter how much melanin we have in our skins?


But it does matter.


All those brown-skinned faces walking in-and-out of my life everyday are in real danger. I’ve seen their pictures in the newspaper – gunned down, wounded by a stray bullet, sometimes even pulling the trigger. These aren’t strangers. They were my students. They came to my class almost every day and sat right there in those desks. I may still have their writing journals locked away in a drawer and I can read about what they wanted from life. I can read my pen-marked critiques on their papers – a beautiful image here, bad spelling and grammar there, did that really happen to you, excellent creativity…


And in a week there will be a whole new group. They’ll take those same seats and look up to me with the fear of the future shinning in their eyes. As time goes on, it’ll get easier to hide, but on that first day it will be piercing like a knife. It’ll be my job to calm them, to let them know it’ll be alright – at least for a while.


I love my students, but I don’t know what they go through. Even when they tell me. The only gun I ever saw as a child was a BB gun. The only dead body I saw was on TV or in the movies. The police never followed me through a department store. I never knew what it was like to go hungry, to wonder who my father is, to wonder when he’s coming back from prison, to wonder what he did to end up there so far away from me.


Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin – they could have been my students. Eric Garner could have been any of their fathers. And they were murdered – each and all – for no reason except they had brown faces. Meanwhile, white lips strained, white cheeks filled with blood and white foreheads creased with furrows as they killed these boys and men. But it didn’t matter. The White World – my world – would let their murderers go. They had only shut the eyes on black faces. A misdemeanor at most.


It’s a shock to me, but not to my students. It just reaffirms the fear I’ve seen in their eyes. And no matter what I do, I will always be a part of that White World where they can be gunned down for nothing. Will I rise my voice in protest once their bodies lie cold in the ground? Is that what I’m doing now? Does it matter?


In the adult world, black and white keep so apart, so distinct. We live in different areas of the city, work at different jobs, go to different entertainments. Separation breeds fear. Maybe if we knew each other better, maybe if we saw each other every day, maybe it would make a difference.


It used to be the job of the public schools to introduce us to each other. We used to go to class together side-by-side. Many of us even ate lunch together, played sports together, even got in trouble together.


Maybe it wasn’t such a big deal but it taught us something important: we couldn’t know what it was like to BE each other – you have to live a life to really know what that’s like – but at least we knew the other person was human, too.


Among all the educational “advances” of increased standardized testing, ipads and data walls, we’ve lost one of the most important lessons we could teach each other: each other.


Some schools – not all schools – still teach that. Certain schools that are given the most oversight, squeezed financially and bad mouthed in the press – the kind that serve impoverished populations. They’re the only kind that still mix. My kind.


But our educational policy of the past few decades has been to segregate public schools of all stripes – encouraging charter schools and private schools and taking the remaining public schools and making sure they serve mostly one race or another.


Charter schools have always been about segregation. They were invented in The South after Brown v. Board of Education as a means to facilitate white flight. Now these mostly for-profit ventures are set up in impoverished neighborhoods to suck out the black kids and bleach the public schools a more respectable color. Or sometimes they do just the opposite – enticing away the white kids. Remember charters can accept whoever they want. They don’t have to take everyone. The bottom line is profit.


School vouchers are just the same. What’s a school voucher but a free ticket to get away from all those brown faces? Marketers claim they want to help the black kids go to private schools, yet those same vouchers never provide enough money to completely cover tuition. They end up being a boast for more affluent white kids to get away from all those stifling black faces.


For those left behind in public schools, we have Common Core. It’s job is to feed the School-to-Prison Pipeline by sucking the life out of education. For instance, imagine being told to constantly read every text three times looking for different things each time. A poem – three times. A short story – three times. A nonfiction piece – three times. That will kill any love of reading for sure – especially if you didn’t have much to begin with! Policymakers like Bill Gates decry low graduation rates but then make huge dividends from the for-profit prisons that sweep up these same dropouts.


For a country that prides itself on being a melting pot, we certainly work hard to keep the various ingredients separate. I wonder if changing our education policies would make a difference. After all, it’s harder to fear the known. It’s harder to kill someone when you see them as a person. It’s harder to ignore the injustices of lost opportunity, unfair funding, senseless murder.


I live my professional life among brown faces. Most days I give my time, my strength, my thoughts to helping them, loving them. I don’t want to keep losing them. I want to be able to do more than just dim the fear in their eyes. I want to do more than just give them platitudes. I want more than to dry their tears after the violence is done. I want to stop if from happening in the first place.


Please help. Fight segregating education policies. Or else be haunted by the faces of all colors we fail.