On Friday July 10, at 7:22 a.m., Steve Julian, the host of KPCC’s Morning Edition reported the following, “About 20 minutes ago a Color Guard in South Carolina lowered the Confederate flag at the state capitol, stretched it out, rolled it up, tied a string around it. That flag no longer flies.”
In the summer before my sophomore year of high school, my family moved from Orange County, California, to Nixa, a small town in Southwest Missouri. I started at Nixa High School two months later. A few new realities hit me too slowly. In reviewing these facts twenty years later, it seems as if they would have been immediately obvious. But, as a 15 year-old, I remember them striking me in the chest as sharp realizations. I confronted them first in US History class:
· This is not California. I am living in a new state with a different capitol and a different history.
· Missouri was divided during the Civil War.
· Nixa was in the South.
· There is a Civil War battleground a few miles from my house.
· I have classmates wearing Confederate flag t-shirts. I have classmates who display Confederate flags on the back windows of their pickups.
It had never dawned on me before that moment to think that much about the Civil War, our nation’s history of slavery, or Civil Rights. My family had moved to the South and I hadn’t even realized it.
The battle of Wilson’s Creek took place on August 10, 1861. The battlefield lies 9 miles northwest of my family home. According to the Civil War Trust, “This Confederate victory buoyed southern sympathizers in Missouri and served as a springboard for a bold thrust north…. Wilson’s Creek, the most significant 1861 battle in Missouri, gave the Confederates control of southwestern Missouri.”
I was living 9 miles from a battleground that decided the fate of the new state in which I was living, making my new hometown a part of the south. And I had no idea.
This is the definition of white privilege. I moved to an essentially all white school in the middle of nowhere and I never once thought about my safety.
I was living in Israel on September 11, 2001 and was out of the country for the first months of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Living in Israel at this time meant living smack in the middle of the Second Intifada. We listened to bombs exploding as we fell asleep at night. When I finally returned home to the US in May and I approached the passport counter, I remember feeling very American. And, I surprised myself when, looking into the eyes a uniformed Border Control agent, what I felt was incredibly safe. Throughout my life, when I have looked at law enforcement officers, I have felt safe.
Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman, was pulled over on July 10, 2015, for failing to signal a lane change. And then the situation “escalated.” The truth is: “escalated” is a euphemism for what happened next. Let’s be clear here, at this point, the encounter between Sandra Bland and State Trooper Brian Encinia should have been over. Bland had been issued her traffic citation and she should have been free to go. Instead, Encinia asked Sandra if she was ok. She told him she was irritated. She said she was changing lanes to get out of his way and now she was getting a ticket and she was irritated. Actually, what she said was, “I am a little irritated.”
Encinia then asked Bland to put out her cigarette. She said, “I’m in my car. Why do I have to put out my cigarette?” He said, “Well, you can step on out now.”
You can step on out now.
And then the officer who pulled Sandra over proceeded to threaten her with a stun gun, “I will light you up,” he said. “I am going to drag you out of there.”
And then he pulled her from her vehicle. He handcuffed her. She said he pushed her to the ground. She was charged with assaulting a public servant. Bland was arrested and taken to jail. In released video footage from the jail, we see her emerging from the bathroom after changing out of the long dress she was wearing into an orange jumpsuit. As she sits down on a bench, next to the folded mattress and blanket she had just been issued, we see her wiping her eyes.
I wonder: At what point did her outrage mix with blood chilling fear?
Three days later, she was found dead, strangled in her cell with a trashcan liner around her neck. Her death is being investigated as a murder.
Why? How? How in the world is this possible? In the United States. In 2015. How? How is a woman threatened with a stun gun, pulled out of her car, handcuffed, and arrested? For failing to signal a lane change.
On November 22, 2014, a man in Cleveland, Ohio, made a call to 911. The caller reported seeing a person, he thought it was a juvenile, holding a gun, he thought it was fake.
Video images released after the fact show a 12-year-old boy, Tamir Rice, playing with an airsoft gun. When I saw the video, that is just what I saw. A boy playing with a toy gun. He reminded me of my nephew. What happened next is horrifically unimaginable. Except it was very real. Cleveland Police officer Tim Loehmann and his partner arrived on the scene.
One one thousand. Two one thousand. Bang.
That is how long from when Loehmann arrived on the scene to when he shot Tamir Rice dead.
He was a 12-year-old boy.
When I first saw the video, I was sure it was a time-lapse reel. I was sure the footage had been accelerated. In fact, I tried googling the unaltered original. But, no. What I was seeing was unedited, real. A police officer pulling up to a scene, jumping out of his car, and shooting a child dead.
Minutes later, Tamir’s 14 year-old sister came running up. She saw her brother lying dead. She rushed to him. Police tackled her to the ground and put her in handcuffs. I cannot even begin to imagine the trauma she experienced at the hands of law enforcement that day. 14 years old. 12 years old. These children were b’nai mitzvah age.
When I first saw the video of Sandra Bland’s arrest I started to cry. What if that were me? I was breathless, shaking, imagining the fear she must have felt, face slammed into the ground. I’m sure I would have been angry and defiant and outraged. And so incredibly scared.
But, of course, this would never happen to me. Not in a million years.
This is my white privilege. I am free to drive my car. And, if I do something wrong, I may or may not be pulled over for a traffic stop. And, if I were to get frustrated at a stop, I can easily imagine it being excused. And, I would drive away.
In a conversation about white privilege, a colleague once challenged me with the following: Privilege means believing that you can work the system. Any system. That you can talk your way out of things, that you can negotiate, that you can change an outcome. And you can do all this with a feeling of confidence. And safety.
A recent poll shows that 55% of Californians and 85% of African-Americans in California believe that “blacks and other minorities do not receive equal treatment in the criminal justice system.” A 2015 report by a police department in California found that blacks were stopped twice as often as their driving age demographic representation, and that blacks and Latinos were searched at three and two times the rate of whites, respectively.
This summer I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me. The book is composed as a letter, from Coates to his sixteen-year-old son. He writes the book in response to his son’s feelings of despair when he learns that the police officers responsible for Michael Brown’s death and for subsequently leaving his body to roast for four hours in the summer heat on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Missouri, would go free.
Coates describes the moment like this:
That was the week you learned that the killers of Michael Brown would go free. The men who had left his body in the street like some awesome declaration of their inviolable power would never be punished. It was not my expectation that anyone would ever be punished. But you were young and still believed. You stayed up till 11 p.m. that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, “I’ve got to go,” and you went into your room, and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay.
Coates reveals a heartbreaking truth. He goes on to explain:
What I know is that when they loosed the killer of Michael Brown, you said, “I’ve got to go.” And that cut me because, for all our differing worlds, at your age my feeling was exactly the same. And I recall that even then I had not yet begun to imagine the perils that tangle us. You still believe the injustice was Michael Brown. You have not yet grappled with your own myths and narratives and discovered the plunder everywhere around us.
Each time a police officer engages us, death, injury, maiming is possible. It is not enough to say that this is true of anyone or more true of criminals.
In reading Coates’ letter to his son, so full of a father’s raw feelings of fear and love and loss and anger, I couldn’t help but think of my own ten-month-old daughter.
You were born eight days before Tamir Rice was shot dead. You came into this world filled with promise and future. In your first seconds of life, I held you to my chest and you looked into my eyes, and I thought, “I know you.” And know you, I did. My heart burst with a love I could not have imagined possible and such feelings of hope.
In the weeks after you were born, a family friend, who is African American, told the following story to your mom: Her 10 year-old son was playing in the backyard and he jumped the fence to get his ball back when it flew over into the neighbor’s yard. When she saw her son, walking along the back of the house, head framed by his hoodie, she went ice cold with fear. She sat him down. “You cannot jump fences,” she said. You never know who could see you and what they could think. Maybe your white friends can jump a fence to get a ball. But you cannot. Ever. He looked at her. Afraid, confused, amused. What could possibly happen to him for jumping a fence?
My dear sweet, little girl this is what I want for you: To grow up in a country where every child is allowed to be a child. To make foolish mistakes and live to learn from them. To play with a toy. To jump a neighbor’s fence. To fetch a lost ball. To walk down the street holding candy and soda. To wear a sweatshirt. To feel safe.
What Coates is trying to get through to his son is that the shooting of Michael Brown was not an isolated event. Nor was Sandra Bland being pulled over, nor her arrest. Tamir Rice’s murder was not a fluke of the system.
TIOH’s Social Action Vice President, Heidi Segal, who has had an extensive law career working within the criminal justice system, worked hard to impress Coates’ point upon me. She explained:
Discretion is a necessary feature of our criminal justice system, and when exercised properly it can even promote a fairer and more just result, as opposed to a system that has mandatory sentencing. I think that the problem with our system is that there are so many points where discretion is exercised, and it generally goes unchecked and with no transparency. This is where racial and other biases come into play. “And that is where the impact can be both immediate and tragic – like Michael Brown and Sandra Bland, and also more subtle, long-ranging.
What Heidi is describing is systemic and institutionalized racism.
One month ago, on August 19, I arrived at Ebenezer Baptist West Church in Athens, Georgia, along with 25 others marchers. That day, I took 32,000 steps for justice, walking 15 of the 860 miles that separate Selma, Alabama, from Washington, D.C. I joined a contingency of almost 200 Reform Rabbis who helped make the journey, carrying a sefer torah, a Torah scroll the entire length of the march. The Journey for Justice was focused on issues of education, economic inequality, youth, voting rights, and criminal justice reform.
Throughout the day, I marched with the President and CEO of the NAACP, Cornell William Brooks. After the walk, I had the chance to share dinner with Mr. Brooks, and he shared the following story with our table: One night, I was driving home from work and a police car pulled me over. I stopped and immediately rolled down my windows, turned on the light in my car, put my wallet – driver’s license and insurance card up – on the dashboard, and put my hands on the wheel, as I always do when I am pulled over. The officer came up to my window and asked, “Why did you pull over?” I answered him: “I pulled over because you pulled me over.” Then he asked me, “What are you doing out here?” I answered: “I’m driving home. I’ve worked a long day and I’m exhausted. I’m just trying to drive home.” The officer looked back at me, “I’ve worked a long day too. And, I’m just trying to drive home too.”
And that is when Mr. Brooks realized: The officer had not pulled him over. He was so conditioned to a police car following him to detain him, that he had pulled himself over.
There is a problem with racial profiling in this country. In this state. And, what I have learned is that people of color have millions and millions of stories that sound a lot like Mr. Brooks’. Heidi Segal continued her explanation:
It all starts with an officer’s discretion in pulling over or stopping an individual, the decision whether to search that person, the decision whether or not to arrest them, the decision to charge, the decision of what the charges should be – infraction, misdemeanor, felony, the decision to ask for bail, the decision to set bail, the decision to take the case to trial or offer a plea bargain, and what the sentence should be. And even later, what happens to them when they get incarcerated, when they will be released, and the conditions set on them. It goes on and on. The point is that once you are in that system, you are at the mercy of these unchecked discretionary decisions.
It all starts with an officer’s discretion. Listen to that statistic that I shared with you a few minutes ago, once again: A 2015 report by a police department in California found that blacks were stopped twice as often as their driving age demographic representation, and that blacks and Latinos were searched at three and two times the rate of whites, respectively.
And so, even if we, as individuals, hold firmly to a belief that we, individually, have transcended racism as we understand it, we are still responsible. We have to make real and deep changes to transcend the privilege that is automatically extended to many of us, and join together in dismantling the systemic and institutionalized racism that permeates too many areas of the social and legal fibers of our country.
How do we begin to change a shockingly broken criminal justice system? We stop the encounter before it starts.
In the state of California, Reform Jews from over a hundred congregations, in connection with Reform CA, are working to pass AB 953, a piece of legislation that will respond to the problem of racial and identity profiling, as well as call on law enforcement to have more transparency.
This legislation will make it illegal for law enforcement officers to profile someone not only based on race, but also based on gender identity, national origin, religion, and sexual orientation.
This legislation will require peace officers to be transparent about the date, time, and location of a stop. The reason for the stop. The result of the stop (even if it resulted in no action). Finally, officers will be asked to report what they perceived the race or ethnicity, gender, and approximate age of the person to be.
I discussed this notion of transparency with a sheriff’s deputy. He explained to me that public perception of law enforcement in our state is skewed. He explained that this sort of profiling is not occurring. AB 953 will build trust between the community and law enforcement. We will be able to see real data regarding those points of discretion Heidi taught us about. From the very first moment. And, if there is a problem of profiling, this bill gives our state the ability to respond to it. It calls for the formation of a non-partisan Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board, which will review and respond to these issues.
This bill has already passed the Senate and is heading back to the State Assembly. Now all we need is for Governor Brown to sign it into law. But, our governor is wavering. He needs to know that this law matters to us. One of the action steps I want to invite you to take today is to fill out a pledge card, pledging your support to learn more about this bill, and, hopefully, to take the concrete action of making a phone call or sending an email to our Governor, asking him to sign this bill into law.
The other invitation I have for you is to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book and join me and an activist I met on the Journey for Justice, Keshia Thomas, in a conversation about Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, criminal justice, and the goals for the Journey for Justice in October. Keshia and I are still settling on the exact date because, after 45 days and 860 miles of marching, Keisha Thomas is taking her last steps into Washington DC as we speak. And so, even though we began planning as she marched down rural roads of Virginia, we still are working on setting an exact date. If you don’t know Keshia Thomas’ story, remember her name and google her later or ask me about her during the luncheon. She is not a speaker you will want to miss.
Here is what I have left to say, a message I have, in fact, been delivering all along:
In his sermon on Rosh HaShanah, the thirteenth century rabbi Ramban questions why Torah calls Nissan (the Hebrew month in the spring during which we celebrate Passover) the first month and it calls Tishrei (the month we began yesterday) the seventh month. Ramban explains that Nissan is indeed, the first month of the year, when you look at the world through the prism of the Jews. The exodus from Egypt, which happened in Nissan, marks our people’s real beginning. It is the beginning of our story.
Rosh HaShanah, on the other hand, is the beginning of the world’s story. It celebrates the birth of humanity, the totality of existence, the world. Throughout time, Jews have marked this new year, the universal day one, as the first day of our New Year. Our own story of redemption has a part in the mix, but it is not at the forefront.
Our tradition has always been clear: On Rosh HaShanah, our responsibility is to see our own existence in a global context. This is the time we are meant to look outward in order to look inward. This is the time to see: The world’s story is our story. Our neighbor’s narrative is our narrative. Our brother’s plight is our plight. Our sister’s struggle is our struggle.
And so, today I mourn the loss of twenty-eight-year-old Sandra Brown, who was excited to start a new job at Prairie View A&M University, and Tamir Rice, a sixth grader at Marion-Seltzer Elementary School. I highlight the story of Ta-Nehisi Coates and the tears of his son Samori. I tell my own story and I hope, make space for you to imagine yours.
On this, the day in which Jewish tradition invites us to look at ourselves and the world around us and recommit ourselves to the tikkun, the repair, of them both
On this, the day on which we celebrate another 364 opportunities to wake committed to healing…
On this day, I declare: Let 5776 be a year of tzedek, a year of justice. Let 5776 be the year we take collective action. Let 5776 be the year that everything begins to change.
Shanah Tovah, may this be a good year for all of us.
 Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, 11.