Not Just About the Money

Becky O'Malley
Friday June 12, 2020 - 02:17:00 PM

One day last week I got an email from my neighbor across the street inviting me to join her and others in what she described as “a #blacklivesmatter #endwhitesilence ‘honk and wave’” at the nearest big intersection, the corner of Ashby and College. British-born, she’s a recently naturalized U.S. citizen, so this was her chance to exercise her newly-minted first amendment rights (and duties) in the company of friends.

Since at our house we’re older these days than we once were, we hadn’t joined any big marches as we might have done earlier in the last 60 years, so we appreciated the opportunity to speak out close to home. What’s been so remarkable about the actions all over the world this week in response to the death of George Floyd is how spontaneous they’ve been, with no apparent international central organization.

This one was BYO sign, but my neighbor, a skilled graphic artist, generously offered to make one for us. What should it say?

Well, Black Lives Matter, of course, but what about Ending White Silence? It’s true that my personal gene pool came from in Europe in the last millennium or so, and my skin is melanin-challenged, so I’m certainly White.

But I’m seldom considered silent on any topic. Here’s what came to me instead: Black Lives Matter to All of Us.  

What’s seemed different to me, as I watched a revolution being streamed as well as televised, is the huge representation of non-Black demonstrators, especially the young ones. It was not like this in the civil rights demonstrations in the 60s, perhaps with the exception of college towns like Ann Arbor and Berkeley.  

What I see, both in the media and when talking to the two generations behind mine, is that many ordinary people are just plain fed up with the racism that they see all around them. They genuinely appreciate everything that Afrocentric culture has contributed to their lives: music, fashion, sports, food, the whole nine yards. And even if they are White, they’re tired of seeing Black people abused.  

This phenomenon has caused understandable unease among Black people, particularly African-Americans. They fear that their White supporters (now politely called allies) might turn out to be, in the words of Thomas Paine, summer soldiers and sunshine patriots who will get going away from the fray in the winter when the going gets tough.  

A number of Black writers have expressed this concern in op-eds in the last week or so.  

Here’s the headline on a column by my favorite, Charles Blow, in the New York Times:  

Allies, Don’t Fail Us Again  

“Many white people have been moved by the current movement, but how will they respond when true equality threatens their privilege?”  

That’s a good question. But when I look at the spectrum of faces in the demonstrating crowds, and also at the faces around the Thanksgiving table at our house, I see a different answer from the one the inimitable Mr. Blow worries about.  

Many families like ours, especially in the United States but also in Europe and even in Asia, are already firmly multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-national (not all the same thing.) The hard line which once separated descendants of enslaved Africans and their European-descended allies is fading in the upcoming generations.  

Black Lives Matter to All of Us because they are all of us. That’s the future, and we celebrate it.  

But when the sins of the past are still perpetuated against our children and grandchildren because some of their ancestors were brought to this country in slavery, there’s work for all of us to do in the present.  

Where to start? The ultimate precipitating event has been the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police. In the United States, the criminal justice establishment is the most visible and shocking manifestation of racism, in everything from policing to incarceration to capital punishment. The Floyd video supplied graphic evidence in every medium everywhere in the world.  

Police oppression of minority residents exists world-wide, especially of those with dark skins. A French friend of African descent, now a U.S. citizen, says that in Paris where he was raised he is continually stopped and searched by the police for no particular reason--he was once kept in jail for a weekend because he protested a raid on an African party in a public park. He prefers the United States, where he’s been stopped just a couple of times, because he firmly believes that police don’t have the legal right to do so, even though they still do it illegally.  

But our police can find plenty of quasi-legal excuses for harassing African-Americans. George Floyd was killed because he might or might have tried to pay for some cigarettes with a twenty-dollar bill which he might or might not have known to be counterfeit.  

The solution du jour is the demand that police be defunded. I agree with my old friend George Lakoff, the advocate of effective framing of political messages, on this one. He’s quoted in the Chronicle as saying” ‘defund the police’ is a terrible phrase.”  

It’s a terrible phrase because it’s endlessly subject to misinterpretation.  

It’s true that police forces consume huge percentages of the normal city budget. Policing is 44.5% of Berkeley’s fiscal year 2021 General Fund budget, as outrageous as that seems.  

But even worse than the expense, police officers now do a huge number of duties that they’re in no way trained or qualified for. They are asked to be social workers, mediators, psychologists and even medical providers when they’re dealing with addicts. They’re tempted to use force to solve these problems because that’s all they know how to do.  

Yes, the part of the police budgets that now pays them to perform these services should be redirected to professionals who are appropriately trained. If that’s what “defund” means, well and good, but unfortunately the average Joe (including Biden) takes it to mean that when you call 911 no one comes to help. It's supposed to mean that the right kind of help arrives, most often not armed.  

But now even the traditional “crime fighting” role of the police is done wrong much of the time. The problem is not just budgetary.  

At Tuesday’s Berkeley City Council meeting, Police Chief Andrew Greenwood said, perhaps somewhat sarcastically, that if he wasn’t allowed to fire teargas canisters at demonstrators he’d just need to shoot them. That’s pathetic. 

He and police in general sorely need training in conflict avoidance and strategic retreat. The whole militaristic culture that infects police officers in this country must go. In the time that I've been working on the Planet, I've reported on all too many instances where Berkeley police have relied on a show of force when patient non-violence would have worked much better to solve a problem. 

Let’s ask Charles Blow to chime in again: 

“We will have to come to see and accept that this system of oppression has been actively, energetically designed and deployed over centuries, and it takes centuries of equally active and energetic efforts to dismantle it.” 

Exactly. Americans of African descent have been oppressed for 400 years. There’s no silver bullet for that, no easy two word slogan, as resonant as “Defund Police” sounds when chanted. 

Defining problems specifically should come before solutions are delineated. It will take a while for us to fix this mess, even if we can manage to work patiently together on complex long term solutions. 

But this week has shown that there’s a new will shared among many different kinds of people to get started with “active and energetic efforts”, and where there’s a will there’s a way. Recent polls show that Black lives do matter to almost all of us. All over the world this week, many of us have made it clear that we demand racial justice as well as peace, and the time is now.