There Has to Be a Better Way
Updated: Jun 16, 2020
I heard a knock on the door and opened it to see my 10-year-old neighbor standing on my front porch in tears. “My dad was just killed,” he said. It took a moment before my mind was able to comprehend the words that he had just spoken, but as I looked across the fence at his family and saw the pain in their faces and heard their desperate cries, it began to sink in. Caesar, my next-door neighbor, the father of 5 boys, was dead.
It was 10 years ago, but that memory is etched in my mind. When pain pierces your heart so deeply, you don’t forget it.
Over the years, I had spent so many hours with three of Caesar’s boys in the after-school program that I ran as they worked on homework, persisted through the trials of learning to read, challenged me with difficult questions from their curious minds, laughed their way through silly games, and made their way into my heart. I watched them play in football games and attended their awards ceremonies at school. When they moved in next door to me, my affection for them only grew as we chatted over the fence that separated our patios.
Caesar’s loud voice carried through our windows as he told his stories with great enthusiasm and maybe a little embellishment. He playfully teased me as I walked through my front gate, and he watched over our apartment when my roommates and I were out of town. Caesar had a presence about him that you couldn’t ignore. He was bold and confident. He was funny and boisterous. He was loyal and compassionate.
Above all else, Caesar loved his boys. He never hesitated to pause one of his elaborate stories when one of his sons needed attention. “Yes, my love,” I’d hear him say. He boasted about their accomplishments as he beamed with pride, and he held them to high standards, teaching them to work hard and take responsibility. Just a few days before that knock on my door, Caesar had told me about his hope for his sons. He didn’t want them to make the same mistakes that he had in the past. He wanted more for them. He wanted them to do better. They were getting ready to move to a new home and have a fresh start.
But he never got that chance because one day in December, while Caesar was driving in his Suburban, he had an encounter with the police that he never walked away from. When the lights began to flash behind him, he pulled into a Walmart parking lot, perhaps hoping that the bright and busy space would provide some protection. He’d been stopped by police enough times just for walking around in brown skin and a shaved head to know that anything he did might be perceived as a threat. As the officers asked Caesar to exit his vehicle, he reached down to unbuckle his seatbelt, and the bullets began to fly.
That’s what led to the knock on my door with a ten-year-old boy trying to make sense of why his father was dead. That’s what led to groups of people protesting on the street pleading for answers and justice. That’s what led to a mother starting a non-profit calling for greater police accountability and being met with resistance every step of the way. That’s what led to a family scrambling to pick up the pieces of their shattered dreams. That’s what led to 5 boys never being the same again after experiencing such trauma and its lingering effects.
Something inside me was awakened that day. When you stand that close to tragedy, it’s hard to look away. This experience was out of the realm of any that I had had before. I’ve never personally felt that my life was at risk in the presence of a police officer. I’d been taught that they were the good guys, the heroes who risked their lives to protect ours. But I had also seen in my neighborhood that is made up mostly of people with brown skin that their experiences with law enforcement are often not the same as mine. I had listened to their anger that was driven by fear, and now I understood that fear a little better.
For the first time in my life, I joined with others as we walked up and down the sidewalk, holding signs and calling for police accountability. I still felt disoriented as I tried to make sense of these conflicting realities, but I knew that this wasn’t right. This was not the way that it’s supposed to be. This father was doing everything he could to give his sons a better life. He should not have lost his own while trying to follow an officer’s orders. I know these situations are complex and it may have been a mistake, but it was a costly mistake and one that happens too often. What I’ve tried to teach to my kids is that when you make a mistake, you take responsibility, you do what you can to make things right, and you learn to do better.
We have to do better.
That call to do better is not an attack. It’s an invitation to an honest conversation about what needs to change and the collaboration to make it happen. It’s a desperate plea from families in mourning and people of color who just want to know that they have a right to life. It doesn’t seem like that’s too much to ask, but something stands in the way. In order to address how to do better and move toward some type of reform, there has to be a willingness to admit that there are some things that have gone wrong in the first place. It can be difficult and uncomfortable to admit that we have a problem, but there has to be a better way.
We can hold the tension of the good and the bad that exist in the same space. I feel that tension as I look at the police officers in my life who are living up to their call to serve and protect, those who are willing to confront their own bias and who are training others to do the same. I have deep respect for the difficult job that they do. We have to find the balance in honoring what’s good while also calling out the dangers that still plague the system.
There are systemic problems that go deeper than just policing that need to be addressed. These problems have their roots in the racism and economic injustice that have always been present in our country. There are many people who have been working for many years to come up with solutions, none of which will be simple or quick, but it’s time that we listen and start making changes.
I believe that there has to be collaboration between law enforcement, community leaders, civil rights advocates, and legislators to figure out where to go from here. There has a to be a willingness to listen to those with whom we disagree or misunderstand. There has to be a willingness to believe the stories of people of color and validate their feelings of fear and inequality. There has to be a willingness to understand the difficult job of police officers and to believe that not all are the enemy. There has to be a willingness, on all sides, to lay down the labels of good guys and bad guys in order to see our shared humanity.
It’s time to lament the countless lives that have been lost. It’s time to take an honest look at the issues that divide us. It’s time to acknowledge the problems in the system. It’s time to work together to figure out a better way.
As I said, the solutions for how to move forward are neither simple nor quick, and there are so many different ideas out there about what’s best. These are some of the leaders I’ve been listening to about the issues in our justice system and the possible solutions…
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy, Equal Justice Initiative (EJI)
Dominique DuBois Gilliard, Rethinking Incarceration
Theresa Smith, Law Enforcement Accountability Network (L.E.A.N.)
These are some articles I’ve read with different perspectives on the issues…
There is a Playbook for Police Reform
Bryan Stevenson on the Frustration Behind the George Floyd Protests
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