I’ve spent the last few days nursing a numbness and rage that feels foreign to me. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile: these are now household names for the most terrible of reasons, as the world witnessed, almost in real time, on Facebook threads and living room televisions, the last moments of their lives. We watched as two more black bodies lay dead, two more casualties of an unjust system were Black Lives don’t always matter.
Their deaths occurred within a system in which black people are twice as likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts. A system in which black people are four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police. A broken system of narratives that consistently paints black people as well-rebuked archetypes. A system that requires people of conscience to say over and over: “Black Lives Matter,” because they so often have not.
I have a trademarked optimism – it is the kindling that sparked my initial interest in community advocacy. Yet, in the face of a righteous rage, my hope and faith can feel so feeble. So, I’ve cried, screamed and prayed. I’ve done so even harder after watching a madman turn a peaceful protest in Dallas into a war zone that ultimately left 9 injured and 5 police officers dead. Five more families left to mourn loved ones, missing pieces that will never be returned.
In the face of this week’s bloodshed – and the long history of carnage and discrimination against people of color and minorities – any call for justice can feel futile. It’s easy to throw your hands up and succumb to crippling resignation, to anger against the status quo.
But the status quo is no longer tenable. In the age of Black Twitter, Facebook Live and Periscope, and because of the bravery of those who challenge our broken system, neither faulty body cams nor Paul Ryan can keep the truth from view any longer.
The American people are demanding that our leaders act to stop gun violence in every form. I really don’t need to lay out a laundry list of policy prescriptions to change the culture of policing, because the work, while slow, is under way. The work is being done at every peaceful rally, sit-in and vigil. It’s being done as more and more police districts begin to implement President Barack Obama’s Criminal Justice Task Force recommendations. It’s being done every time our elected officials look past the next election and pass smart, data-driven public policy on guns, as recently enacted in California. It’s being done every time an ally checks in on how they can help. It’s being done every time we address root issues like the nagging poverty that has choked urban communities for generations.
So what do we do? We don’t give up, because there is no one coming to save us. It’s the responsibility of each of us, in whatever way we can, to secure the American Dream for the next generation.
Contrary to the most extreme and disheartening arguments, you can be against police brutality and also be against cops being murdered. In fact, we must be against both.
We must acknowledge the fact that black people have historically received harsher treatment by law enforcement and the criminal justice system. We must acknowledge the fact that accountability for cops who break the rules often means little more than “administrative leave.”
We can demand reforms and simultaneously honor the tremendous sacrifice and bravery that it takes to serve. We must make sure that law enforcement has all tools at their disposal to do their jobs; protect and serve. That means we can’t just provide our forces with the best new gear; we must also equip them with the best training that over time can root out the implicit and explicit bias that has riddled our system and so often stacked the deck against people of color. My older cousin was a cop for 15+ years and she joined the force for the reason many others do – to make a positive impact. Police brutality dishonors the service of every good officer and it must be rooted out.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We’ve heard those words before; I repeat them because they’re still true. It’s the activists and advocates who challenge unjust systems that do the work of true friends; we must speak the uncomfortable truths that keep us moving toward that more perfect union our founding fathers wrote so eloquently about. We can only achieve it together – it’s the people and the things that we love the most that we fight the hardest for. And it’s from that place of love that we must transform our country into a place that truly has justice and liberty for ALL.
Malcolm Kenyatta is the member engagement coordinator for the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, and is a community leader who sits on the boards of numerous Philadelphia nonprofits.