Forum Left, 3/27/12

Progress Depends on People

By Ben Tomkins

The lasting value of the declaration of intent by the Dayton police department and prominent members of the Dayton community will prove to be as valuable as the signers choose to make it.  That’s about all I have to say about this particular aspect of the topic.  Either they’ll take it as a license for community initiative or they won’t.

That said, I can’t imagine how this could possibly be construed as bad unless you went with some crackpot BS like “any deal citizens make with a corrupt government that steals our tax dollars with the threat of violence is inherently awful.”  I mean, if you view a young man’s tragic suicide as an opportunity to bitch about the contents of your wallet, well, I guess that’s as far as you go.

As for those of us who live on Earth, individuals who see this as hot air and no action are sorely missing the point and the opportunity.  This declaration is not so much about physical alterations of the city of Dayton’s policies as it is an acknowledgement that the police and the black community need to speak openly about their relationship.   Whether one views the case of Kylen English as police engaging in racial misconduct or a 20-year-old kid who committed suicide after fighting with his girlfriend, that perspective is grounded in experience.

Look, I don’t get police brutality from this, and it’s not because I’m white.  I just don’t see it.  The girlfriend thing makes much more sense to me.   But the fact that a black person who reads the same story feels tremendous frustration and anger well up inside them doesn’t mean those feelings aren’t rooted in something.   Whether it’s real or residual, the imagery of this case is far more compelling and evocative than its significance as a particular incident.

That is absolutely worth talking about, and I guarantee there are truths and misconceptions on both sides of the aisle.  Here, I’ll prove it to you.  I worked security with a retired Cleveland Heights detective, and he told me the following story:

“Me and my partner took a domestic violence call once.  These are always the worst, because everybody’s crazy and you’re just getting in the middle of it.  Sure enough, we get to the apartment and this dude is beating the shit out of his girlfriend.  So we go to arrest him, and all of a sudden she comes running out of the bedroom screaming, “You can’t take my man,” and shoots me in the elbow!  My partner pulls out his gun and blows her away.  Can you believe that?  She calls us to arrest this guy, and when we do she shoots me.  Crazy bitch.”

By the way, what color was everyone?  I have to be honest here, without any thought at all I pictured the guy and his girlfriend as black.  Sorry, I did.  But you know what, I told my black friend the same story and he pictured the cops as white.

Isn’t that ridiculous?  Neither of us knows anyone’s skin color.   But even more revealing than that, I also never told my friend if I was asking about the perps or the cops.

Ooooh … those are deep waters.   In the absence of information, I (white) psychologically perceived the situation from the perspective of the police, and he (black) viewed it from the perspective of the tenants.  That is fundamentally warped.

Clearly, the color of our skins and the subsequent life experiences we have had has led us down vastly different psychological orientations to the law.  And my friend isn’t under socioeconomic pressure either.  He’s rich as hell compared to me and our subconscious still plays these games. The fact that we found this hilarious made us both feel much more evolved than our previous thoughts may have led us to believe.  Then we got Chipotle and talked about how much Tebow sucks.  See?  If you are willing to talk you can overcome anything.

If marriage counseling has taught me anything, it’s that the only way for things to improve is to talk when it’s really, really hard.  If we want any kind of progress, we have to break down the barrier of anger and resentment erected by our petty egos and acknowledge that the other side may not be what we think they are.  That both sides agree the time has come to readdress the black community’s relationship with the police is both laudable and progressive.  I hope it moves forward and the police and the citizens of Dayton come closer together.  Will it happen?  Who knows?  That depends on people.

Benjamin Tompkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist, and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colo. He hates stupidity, and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of the issue. Reach Ben Tompkins at BenTompkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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