Antwon Rose’s Life Matters

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Antwon Rose could have been my student.

 

I teach 7th and 8th grade language arts in a district located minutes away from where the 17-year-old was shot and killed by police.

 

East Pittsburgh, the neighborhood where his car was stopped and where he ran from officers before being shot three times in the back, is minutes from my house.

 

He went to Woodland Hills School District, minutes from my house.

 

Michael Rosfeld, the officer who just started working at East Pittsburgh less than two hours before he shot and killed Antwon, had been fired with cause from his previous job as a security officer at the University of Pittsburgh, where I got both my graduate and undergraduate degrees and where my wife works.

 

The poem Antwon wrote about not wanting to become another statistic that was read aloud at a protest was the product of an assignment I give my own classes.

 

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So I say again – he could have been my student.

 

I have had many children like him.

 

Most of my kids are like him.

 

Promising, smart, burdened by fears no teenager should have to face.

 

When I look at the smiling picture of Antwon released to the media, he looks like so many others I have known and loved.

 

How many kids have passed before me worried that they’ll be the victims of police violence?

 

How many kids have sat in those seats trying to concentrate on my work while anxious about the reality of the streets they have to walk just to get home?

 

How many kids have been afraid that if the worst happens, the rest of us will forget their humanity?

 

I am a white teacher. I don’t know what it’s like to live as a black person in America except by extension of what my kids and others tell me.

 

When my daughter goes to school or plays in the yard, I don’t have to worry the police will consider her a threat simply because of the amount of melanin in her skin.

 

But I do see how white people like me blame a 17-year-old kid for his own death.

 

If he hadn’t been in that car, he’d still be alive. If he hadn’t run from police, they wouldn’t have shot.

 

Maybe. Maybe not.

 

But being in the wrong place at the wrong time shouldn’t bring with it a death sentence. Running away shouldn’t bring with it the finality of the grave.

 

Yesterday Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the death a homicide. That’s a good start.

 

But plenty of questions remain.

 

Rosfeld is still on unpaid leave. Why hasn’t he been arrested?

 

Civil rights writer Shaun King reports that when Rosfeld worked at the University of Pittsburgh, he had a history of harassing black students and was only let go after he harassed one of the chancellor’s own children. If true, was that reported to East Pittsburgh before they hired him?

 

Why is it police can apprehend white shooters with no violence, but when a suspect is black the rules of engagement start and end with bloodshed?

 

Protests have rocked this city for two days and will continue today.

 

And I’m glad.

 

We need answers to those and more questions. We need justice for Antwon.

 

But more than anything we need to recognize that he was a human being.

 

He was a little boy with his whole life ahead of him.

 

His life matters.

 

I don’t say “mattered” because even though he’s gone, his life still matters.

 

We can’t bring him back, but we can honor who he was.

 

We can recognize his common humanity is the same as anyone else’s.

 

We can give him and his family justice.

 

And we must – we MUST – make sure that things like this don’t happen again.

 

I’ve had far too many students die at the end of a gun.

 

At absolute minimum, the hand holding it shouldn’t belong to someone tasked with the job to serve and protect.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Racism is Just One of Two Things Shown in Alton Sterling Killing

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Americans are notoriously bad at holding two thoughts in our heads at the same time.

We look at the police shooting of Alton Sterling and can’t decide whether it was racist or if the 37-year-old black man just had it coming.

But we’re missing the point. Sometimes twice.

Baton Rouge Police shot and killed the father of five on July 5th.

The 37-year-old man was killed outside a convenience store in Louisiana because police allegedly got a tip someone was selling CDs and was armed. In the resulting scuffle, Sterling was shot and killed.

If the whole thing weren’t caught on a cell phone video, it probably wouldn’t be more than a sad headline. Just another black dude killed by police.

But the resulting attention has made his name a hashtag and his death a source of outrage – for good reason.

On the video, police tackle Sterling to the ground before gunshots are heard.

One of the officers shouts “gun” before shooting, but store owner Abdullah Mulfahi told the media that Sterling’s hand was not near any weapon and the alleged gun later recovered from his pocket was not visible.

People watch the video (or not) and immediately take sides.

Who is to blame – the police or Sterling?

Was the black man armed? Maybe – though Louisiana is an open carry state so he would be within his rights to do so.

What should he have done when confronted by police? What actions of his might have resulted in police not shooting him dead?

Did he have a record? Is that even relevant since police had no access to that information at the time?

Typically people come to conclusions based on their convictions and not based on the evidence. If you think black people are being victimized by police, then you’re probably on Sterling’s side. If you think black people are naturally violent and police rarely do any wrong, you’re probably on the side of law enforcement.

But what both sides are ignoring is a sense of context.

This was the 15th American killed by police so far in July alone.

Not the 15th black person. The 15th person. Period.

There’s some dispute over exactly how many people have been killed by police so far this year, but the number is surprisingly high. You’d think that would be something the federal government would keep track of, but no. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program tabulates every criminal statistic imaginable – except homicide by law enforcement. Alarmingly, it leaves this to the private sector – almost as if it had something to hide.

Much of this is done by the news media, both in and out of the country. The Washington Post puts the number of Americans killed by police this year at 505 people. The Guardian puts it at 560. An open sourced database called Killed by Police puts the number at 580.

Any way you look at it, no matter which tally you go with, 2016 is turning out to be one of the deadliest years for police shootings since people have been counting.

It’s a problem for everyone. Police should not be killing such high numbers of civilians. In fact, in other countries, they don’t. Police kill more people in the U.S. in days than they do in other countries in years.

For instance, U.S. police killed 59 people in 24 days last year. In England and Wales, 55 people were killed by police in 24 YEARS!

And the numbers aren’t that high solely because the United States has a larger population. The entire nation of Canada has about as many people as the entire state of California, yet Canadian police killed 25 people last year to 72 by California law enforcement.

That may be due in part to a lack of accountability.

Despite such high body counts in this country, not a single police officer has served jail time for it in the last few years. Several officers went to trial in 2016, but none were convicted, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Last year had the highest number of officers being charged for shooting civilians in a decade. That number? 12. And none of them – not one – was convicted of murder or manslaughter.

We have a real problem here. American police kill far too many people.

However, this doesn’t mean that racism isn’t a motive in many of these police shootings. In fact, the numbers back that up.

Though more white people are killed by law enforcement in this country, it is black people who are killed at a disproportionately high rate. They only make up 13.2% of the population, yet they are twice as likely to be killed by police as whites. Nearly a quarter of all police homicides this year resulted in dead black folks.

What’s going on here?

First, we live in a police state. Officers often kill suspects with impunity and face little to no consequences. Not all police, certainly, but far too many.

Second, black folks are killed more regularly by police than whites. In fact, if all things were equal, you’d expect MORE white people to be killed than already are. Whites make up 77.7% of the population, yet they account for only half of the victims of police shootings.

This isn’t because black people are so much more violent than whites. According to the Center on Disease Control’s annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey, they engage in violent behavior at similar rates to whites.

For instance, they carry a weapon (whites 17.9% to African Americans 15.2%) and carry guns (whites 5.5% to African Americans 6.5%) at about the same rates. However, blacks are twice as likely to be arrested for weapons possession.

The same holds for assaults. African Americans report being in physical fights at similar rates (36.5% versus 32.5% for whites) but are three times more likely to be arrested for aggravated assault.

It should come as no surprise then that black people are more likely to be killed by police. This holds with everything else we know. When it comes to the criminal justice system, black people are penalized more often and that includes being shot and killed by law enforcement.

Why? Because they’re black. Because of societal attitudes, fears, phobias and prejudices.

For many of us, when we see Sterling’s last moments enacted on that cell phone video, we’re confronted with that fact. We put ourselves in his position. What could he have done differently? Whether he was guilty of a crime or not, what action on his part would have assured that he got out of this situation alive?

Eric Garner was choked to death by police while repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe!” Tamir Rice was shot by police in two seconds. What exactly could a black person do to avoid being shot if law enforcement already perceives him or her to be a threat?

These are important questions. But they aren’t the only ones.

America has a problem with police violence. In fact, it has two problems. And we can’t solve one without solving the other.

We have to come to terms with this. It is not a case of racism or a police state. It is a case of BOTH.

Blame the Victim – America’s Favorite Pastime

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I watched a little girl at school refuse to get out of her seat and get pounded by the police.

I watched a teenager in his car try to zoom away from a cop and get shot dead through the driver’s side window.

I watched all of these things and more from the safety of my cell phone. I wasn’t there in person, but I felt like I was.

And I am not alone.

It seems these two events were on everyone’s lips yesterday.

This is one of the fruits of self surveillance – the selfie, the dashcam, the youtube video. Events that would have been shrouded in the haze of he-said-she said are now public domain. The shadowy corners and back alleys are now just as flooded with spotlights as the most crowded theater on Broadway.

In some ways, that’s a really good thing. So many events that only a decade ago would have been hidden forever are now open to public view.

You’d think that would solve a lot of our society’s problems. No more secrets. No more lies. Just objective facts. THIS is what happened. No denying it. We’ll need context, but facts are facts. Now we can come together and decide with clarity what really happened, why it happened and who’s to blame.

However, things don’t always work out as you’d expect.

We can – in fact – agree on the facts but not necessarily on their meaning.

We all see the same images but we somehow don’t see the same things. The same light enters our eyes and forms the same images, but our brains process those images very differently.

We all see a little girl forcibly removed by an officer of the law. We all see a victim and a perpetrator. But which is which?

We all see a police officer exit his car, approach another vehicle which flees from him before he draws his gun and shoots. But who is to blame – the cop or the driver?

We come to different conclusions. And I think the reasons why depend on deep human truths about each of us.

Which side you take says something about you. It shows what kind of person you are, what you value, what assumptions you make about human nature.

When I watch that South Carolina police officer violently grab the little girl and throw her from the room, I focus on the child. Here is a 16-year-old black teen. She apparently was told to leave the room and refused to do so. She was wrong. But my heart won’t let me side against her.

Maybe she hit the officer. Maybe she was verbally abusive. It doesn’t matter. I don’t think a police officer – or any adult – should manhandle a child. If she had a gun, a knife or some weapon, that would be different. But she was just sitting peacefully in her seat. She probably deserved some sort of punishment for insubordination – but not one that would cause her physical harm. I’d be furious if someone treated my daughter that way. And so I am angry at this police officer and all the bystanders who took pains to ignore what was going on.

In a similar manner, when I watch another South Carolina officer approach 19-year-old Zachary Hammond’s car, I begin on the adult’s side. When the teen starts to drive away, I’m with the police officer. The teen is breaking the law. He should listen to the cop who is reasonably asking to question him. However, when the officer draws his gun, things get muddy for me. As the car drives away and the officer shoots into the window, I demand answers. All ambiguity disappears when I discover the teen was unarmed. He wasn’t pointing a gun at the officer. As you can clearly see, the car was not pointed at the cop. The adult was obviously in no danger.

The officer overstepped his bounds. Despite his claims of self defense, despite prosecutors siding with him, I cannot. It seems to me this 19-year-old boy out on a first date was victimized. Yes, he may have had drugs in his system. Yes, he may have possessed drugs with the intention of selling them. None of that justifies murder by a public servant who is charged with protecting and serving society. It may justify arrest, but it does not give the officer the right to be judge, jury and executioner. Imagine if death was the consequence for your own 19-year-old misdeeds! Far too high a price.

However, there are many who disagree. They side in both cases with the adult, with the police. And I see their point to an extent. Police have very difficult and dangerous jobs. They put their lives on the line to uphold laws that are sometimes ambiguous and of dubious value. But there needs to be limits to their authority.

What I find even more troubling is the dynamic between adults and children. Too often grown ups act as if they can do whatever they want to young people. They can touch, hit, belittle. And all in the name of discipline and order.

But maybe this says more about me than anything else. I care deeply about children. Not only am I a parent, I’m a public school teacher. I’ve devoted my life to helping young people get a good start in life. As such, I think violence against children is the most heinous thing anyone can do. It is despicable beyond words. Harming or killing an adult is bad. But do the same thing to a child and it is much worse.

This should be a shared value. It should be a tenet upon which our society is built. But instead too many of us blame the child or the parents. We’re presented with facts but lapse into assumptions about the child’s upbringing and the parents shortcomings. If the youngsters parents had done this or that, things would have been different. And – heck! – that may even be true! However, unlike our infinite surveillance of moments, the facts are not there. We have no record of mass parental neglect. We have just the opposite. In so many cases parents work multiple jobs to feed and clothe these children. They work night shifts. They take classes to improve themselves. So they can’t be present to the degree they’d like. But here we are passing the blame with nothing to support our assumptions but a feeling in our bellies. And we’re so deadly certain about it.

It’s sad really. We all can see the same events but remain unclear about the blame. We share the same senses and most of the same values. But our life experiences and prejudices make all the difference.

When an adult looks at these situations and sides against the child, I think it shows a terrible blindness. When some people look at the student roughed up in the classroom, they automatically side against her for a variety of reasons – race, gender, age, etc. among them. They have preconceptions about how black people act. Preconceptions about little girls. Preconceptions about poor children and their parents. And frankly it shows their moral judgment to be sick, diseased and untrustworthy.

Likewise, when some people see the teen gunned down in his car, they have preconceptions about the police and young people. Anyone on the other side of a police officer’s barrel is wrong simply by virtue of the direction in which he is pointing his gun, they might say. Police are defined as right. Suspects are defined as wrong. This is deeply troubling. It’s counterfactual. It’s untrue. Police are just humans, too. They can be wrong. They have been wrong. If we always assume they are correct in every situation, we are being morally lazy and willfully blind. We’re refusing to look at the facts and then judge accordingly. We stop at who is involved and not at what they did.

It’s so easy to blame the victim. It’s reassuring and safe. It means nothing is out of sorts with the world. Everything is just as it should be. Only this one person who was beaten by the police or shot dead – only that person is to blame. The social order remains intact and proper and good and justified.

It takes a kind of intellectual and moral honesty to look the world in the face and accept that which is uncomfortable but true. Sometimes those charged with protecting us actually do harm. Sometimes adults know less than children. Sometimes actions are racially motivated.

Because when we watch the world, the world looks back. We reveal ourselves. And sometimes we show the world exactly how ugly and depraved we can be as a nation.


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.