Like many across our nation and the world, I am grieving the tragic events that have once again beset our country. The shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager by Ferguson, MO police is troubling regardless of one’s position. I have been trying to make sense of it all–and I admit these shootings in our nation against our own people is increasingly hard for me to understand. I was chatting with a relative of mine who is in law enforcement and they said something that I found interesting. They stated that assumptions are being made before the investigation has played out and now the investigation is tainted.
Assumptions. They are like the operating system behind this computer program. They are running always in the background, informing the actions of the person, mostly unaware, until one takes a long hard look at them. My relative and I are operating from a different set of assumptions. People have experiences and they try to make sense of those experiences. They develop assumptions about those experiences and then use those assumptions to predict / plan how to respond to future events. Sometimes those assumptions are spot on, and sometimes, more times than we would like to admit, those assumptions are wrong.
But it is through assumptions that we act and have our being. My relative has explained to me countless times that police have to make a decision in a split second regarding their safety. Is the person a threat or not? They have to assess what is going on, observe accurately all that is going on and make a decision in a split second. That split second may be all they have between surviving a violent assault. It is not an easy job being a police officer. How aware the officer is about their own assumptions seems to me to be an important necessary skill that they need in order to do their jobs professionally and ethically.
There have been studies that have shown repeatedly that we see what we want to see. I haven’t shared those studies with my relative but it is true. We will see things that weren’t there and we will not see things that were there. Have you seen the video with the man in the gorilla outfit? We are given instructions to count how many times a basketball is passed. During the ball passing a gorilla walks their way through the crowd. Up to 40% of people failed to see the gorilla. We were not assuming that something strange was about to occur so we didn’t see it. Or when a traumatic event happens how very disparate the stories are in relating what happened. Police officers are supposed to be trained to be excellent observers of their surroundings and one would hope of behaviors in order to make those split second decisions. But even with such training, assumptions are running beneath the surface.
I tell the story of my first time in Georgia. It is not a story that I am proud of but it clearly indicates how assumptions play in our actions. This was back in the mid 1980s, I was heading up towards Dahlonega, GA with my friend Glenn. As we were driving. I am seeing these gorgeous plantation buildings with these shacks next to them. You could see through the walls better than you could through the windows. I was in total amazement. I had no idea that people lived in such poverty in the United States. I lived in CT at the time, one of the richest states in the nation. I told my friend that I needed to have a picture of these shacks because no one in CT would believe me it I told them. It was simply beyond my experience. We find a shack that had stuff strewn all over the yard and hanging from the rafters of the shack porch were these brightly colored dresses. We stop so I could take a photo. I get out of the car and I realize that this is a yard sale and on the porch was a woman with a shotgun in her lap. I hesitate and then ask if I could take a picture of her house. And she gave permission. I told this story of the woman with the shotgun numerous times but I didn’t have the photo in hand. Then one day I am going through some photos and there was the photo– the woman on the porch surrounded by these hanging brightly colored dresses. But where was the gun? It wasn’t in her lap as I recalled it. The gun was not on the floor of the porch either. It simply was not there. I had an assumption in my mind about folks who lived in the hills of Georgia so firmly planted, that I placed a shotgun into her lap. Now she may have owned a shot gun but it was not with her outside.
Assumptions change how we see the world and then we shape that world to fit those assumptions.
It is hard to fight those assumptions as well because even when we have the facts that contradict the assumptions, those assumptions are being proved true in our heart of hearts. Re-read the paragraph above about my first trip to Georgia. The assumption that I had still plays out in the very last sentence. I apparently accommodated it to fit the facts but the assumption is still being played out. I am embarrassed about it as it is not how I want to live my life. We are taught assumptions from an early age by our families, friends, and church.
These assumptions may or may not be true, that is the thing about assumptions. Just because you have one deeply ingrained does not mean it is correct. Some assumptions some people may have:
1. There is only one true religion. (Funny thing about this assumption is it is always the person’s personal religion that is the one true religion.)
2. There is not enough to go around, so get yours before anyone else.
3. Those people are destroying America. (those people is whatever the group du jour is. For Westboro Baptists they are Gays, for Tea Party folks they are the undocumented and Obama, for anti-abortionists it is Planned Parenthood, For Democrats it’s the Republicans and the reverse is true.)
4. Racism is a thing of the past. (If only those Socialist Liberals wouldn’t keep bringing it up.)
There are assumptions being played out in Ferguson. These assumptions didn’t start with the shooting of Michael Brown. And that is another assumption that is being made by some people, that this shooting is an isolated event that has no contextual environment in which it grew into being. My relative wants me to keep this event separate from the hundreds of unarmed young black men who were shot by police across this nation. There are reasons for attempting to separating out each individual event. Some of these reasons are good ones. One good reason is that there may be some unique aspect of this case that would be lost when forced into the conglomerate of all the others. Some are not so good.
There are also reasons to look at this horrific event in the context of what is happening in the United States. As another blogger wrote: “There are reasons why white gun’s [sic] rights activists can walk into a Chipotle restaurant with assault rifles and be seen as gauche nuisances while unarmed black men are killed for reaching for their wallets or cell phones, or carrying children’s toys.” There are assumptions of who is dangerous and who is not. Whether we want to agree or not, being white in the United States in 2014 still carries privileges. One of these privileges is carrying an automatic rifle into a Chipotle or a Target and not being seen as a threat despite the fact that all of the mass shootings in recent history have been committed by white men. That is some powerful assumption we are carrying and they are tilted towards perceived race.
Since 9/11 there has been a steady increase of militarizing our police force. There is also an assumption at work here–what is it? My hunch is that the assumption is that United States is now a battlefield. Many cities are applying for federal grants to purchase military grade equipment in preparation of possible terrorist attacks on our soil even in small rural communities where the biggest threat is the pumpkin festival being rained out. They are using this equipment in SWAT offenses for drug raids, storming houses with a no-knock search warrant in full military garb. They have used it in ICE raids of factories where suspected undocumented personnel may work. When the police are militarized it is small leap of thought to begin seeing towns as battlefields to be conquered rather than homes to be protected. Ferguson is one such community that has militarized their police force and the pictures show they have turned their town into such a battlefield. But they already saw their town as one long before the shooting of Michael Brown, long before the riots after the police responded with nonchalance and disregard of this event. Is it any surprise that increased militarization of police increases the anxiety level of the citizens.
When you treat people like they are enemy combatants, you are going to get enemy combatants. People do not respond well when their personal safety is threatened. When peaceful demonstrations are met by militarized police, what is the assumption the police are operating on? The assumption is not that demonstrators are going to remain peaceful. It is an agitation towards violence. When police tell demonstrators, like they did last night (8/18/2014) that they had to return home, and the demonstrators attempt to do so only to find the way home is blocked by different police, and so they dutiful turn around as told and go back, to be met again by the first group of police telling them to turn around, this is an invitation to escalate. And it did. The assumption is that the demonstrators are the enemy and not the police officer’s fellow citizens, an assumption that the trapped citizens couldn’t refute by their failed attempts of compliance. And the police would not listen to them when they asked how can they get home when roads are blocked. Such a response was considered non-compliance and arrests ensued.
I realize that I am operating on a set of assumptions as I write this piece. My assumptions tell me that our government is moving towards a police state unless someone speaks up and stops it. My assumptions tell me that there is fear of the other in this country against one’s documented status, race, class, sexual orientation and gender identification, and religion. Prove me wrong.
Set aside fear of the other and begin listening to one another, without judgement, without critique, just listen to the very real pain people have experienced here. We all share that pain. Set it aside to listen to someone else fully attending to them. America, prove me wrong and rise up to your ideals of Liberty and Justice for all.