Don’t read the instructions

Whenever I buy a new device, like an external storage device for my laptop, or a vacuum cleaner, I generally decline reading the “destructions”. I find they make no sense whatsoever until I’ve been able to put my hands on the device and figure it out (to a degree) myself. it doesn’t make sense to me to simply connect parts when I can’t yet see how they fit together. I’m a Capricorn – I need to know what the destination looks like before I even start the journey, so I can focus on something while I’m traveling. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not, but it’s how I roll.

Every once in a while I screw up mightily, like the time I somehow locked the extension wands for a new vacuum cleaner inside the body of the case, and could not retrieve them. Or that other time when I made changes to the registry on a new laptop and had to reimage the whole machine. (I assumed I already knew what I was doing, because I had owned several laptops already, so how hard could it be?) And the new vacuum cleaner I just bought, that somehow has an extra piece after assembly. I don’t even want to know what that’s for, but the dang thing works. I’m using the machine successfully…although intermittently, because now that I have it, I’ve suddenly found a dearth of motivation to actually vacuum. But, I digress.

I am still just reeling over the death of Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus OH. This was a 16-year old Black girl, in a rage while fighting with some other girls in her driveway. The other girls had apparently come to call for purposes of fighting with her, probably over some typically ridiculous teen-age crisis, like a boy or some jewelry or something. She went outside and engaged. Not a good idea, but at 16, I didn’t have particularly good ideas most of the time. At some point in the confrontation, she armed herself with a knife. Also not a good idea, but one that is modeled on the daily by people 3 times her age.

The fight escalated, and she – not a neighbor, not an adult, not a bystander – called 911, asking for help to quell her attackers. By the time police arrived, things had escalated. She had the knife. She was a big girl, and she had dispensed with one aggressor, pushing her to the ground. She had another one in a clench, and was shoving her into the side of a car parked in the driveway. This is about when the body-cam video picks up. The responding officer was – I think, it was chaotic, with female voices screaming – told her to drop the knife. She did not comply. She was intently overpowering the other girl. The knife is out to her right side, and her arm draws back, when suddenly four gunshots ring out.

Four gunshots. Not one. Not two, Not three. But four. It takes only a few seconds, and a 16-year old’s life is over. She died on the scene, slumped against the car in the driveway. The officer still held his gun pointed toward her, even once he approached the body. I’m not sure if he thought there was a chance she might get up, or what, but it was clear she was not moving and was not going to be a further threat to anything or anyone. She. Was. Done.

The tragedy of this girl, Ma’Khia Bryant, is with me. It penetrates me. I expressed this to a few people last night on a Zoom call, and said that I couldn’t understand why the officer couldn’t have come up with a different solution that killing her. And he intended to kill her, because he shot her four times. He did not want, or intend, for her to get up. He said that he was protecting the other girl, but he shot in the same direction as that potential victim. He could have hit her as well, but no … he’s a marksman, it was reported. So, he knew what he was doing and did it well.

One of the participants on the call last night said that he’s had “criminal justice” training, and the officer’s actions were absolutely correct. If she had been able to stab the other girl, while he was trying something else, they might have been sued by the other victim’s family. (Huh?) I asked why he didn’t attempt to de-escalate. No time! I then asked why he didn’t have a taser or some non-lethal weapon, no response on that. I asked why he couldn’t have rushed the girl with the knife, knocked it from her hand, tackled her to at least break her focus. No, not enough time. By the time he would have made contact, she could have stabbed the other girl and his training says that he has to protect the other girl’s life. So, he had no choice.

OK, I let this go, because the purpose of this Zoom call was something other than discussing this event, but I very much wanted to come through the computer screen to slap the man uttering this opinion. But it made me very, very sad as well…he is a Black man, and upholding this status quo rhetoric made me way more than a little bit nuts.

I am still enraged over this girl’s death, and you’re going to tell me the officer had no choice but to shoot her because…if he didn’t the other girl’s family could sue if there had actually been contact with the knife? This is the decision point that you consider when you are on the verge of taking a human life? The possibility of a fucking law suit? Um, no.

My colleague on the conference last night also defended the officer’s actions, saying that he assessed the threat, and did the best thing for all involved. Really. It wasn’t the best thing for the girl who wound up dead. It wasn’t the best thing for everybody that witnessed that. It wasn’t the BEST thing for anybody, even him. He’s going to have to live with that.

This officer read the instructions: when perpetrator has weapon and threatens another citizen, shoot to kill in order to neutralize or eliminate the threat of the weapon. One size fits all – weapon present, they won’t comply, shoot. So that is what he did. There was no room for thought, no training involving alternatives or de-escalation or non-lethal weaponry. Just. Shoot. That’s what the instructions say, and that’s what he did.

My point is…this outcome was made possible by the same folks who brought you throwing people to the ground brutally because they talk back to you, shooting people multiple times because they make you chase them, running people over with your car because you can’t catch them when they run, and shooting people inside their cars because they have a gun they are legally authorized to carry. See a weapon, fire your weapon. Get them before they get you. And here’s the premise of all of it – your life is worth more than theirs. Every time. No questions asked.

When we are talking about Black Lives Matter, the emphasis of that is…sometimes they don’t. I cannot help but wonder, and yes believe, that if the officer in Columbus OH had responded to a scene with a group of white girls fighting in their driveway, even if one of them had a knife, this would have been handled differently. We have all seen perpetrators taken into custody alive following their shooting multiple victims, stabbing domestic partners or neighbors, armed with assault rifles, machetes, bigger knives than what this girl had. Taken alive.

There were alternatives in this situation, but the responding officer did have the motivation, for whatever reason, to explore those. If somewhere in his implicit bias he had determined this girl’s life was not really worth risking his own, that was the decision point. Was he conscious of that? Absolutely not. But that is where it starts, way deep down, in the perceptions we have that assign value and “rightness”. That is the pinpoint of where that girl’s death became inevitable.

I don’t know how we can change any of that. Implicit bias is a real thing, no matter how much we deny it, since it’s so sub-conscious and happens before we have cognizance to attach to it. But it rules us. It is the result of centuries of being told thing, of having our perceptions shaped by things that may or may not be true. And we have to root that out. It’s messy and uncomfortable, but we have to root that out, or humanity is going to die. Not today, or tomorrow, but what makes us human will not exist at some point. The thing we are so proud of, our ability to reason and make complex judgements and improve, that stuff that separates us from other life forms…that stuff will fade away. The species may survive, but we will not be humans. We will be something else, and I don’t know if that will be a better thing.

Where I get into trouble with some of this is making the judgement that implicit bias is based on fear. Ma’Khia Byrd was a big girl. She was a big, Black girl. The officer, as detached as he appeared, was making all sorts of judgements based on his implicit bias, and he could not relate to a big, Black girl who was so enraged that she wanted to stab another girl. And…she was ignoring him, didn’t respond to his orders to drop the knife. She was non-compliant. So, back to the instructions…if they are not compliant, and you can’t see any way to make them compliant, take charge of the situation and shoot them.

A 16-year old girl – or boy, for that matter – who is at that level of rage, that level of emotional distress, cannot hear “Drop the knife.”. She probably didn’t even register that police were on the scene, and the officer was behind her. I contend that had it been a white girl, who would seem more familiar to him, he would have felt more connected and related and would have done something different. A knife is not a distance weapon, so he knew that HIS life was not in danger (which is the battle cry of officers who shoot in other cases). But somewhere in his mind, he’d started from the implausible point of knowing that he couldn’t reason with her, because she was alien to him. I can’t say for sure that she was sub-human to him, but she may as well have been from another planet, because he did not feel a human connection with her. I contend that he very well might have, and probably would have, if she had been white.

I could have been Ma’Khia Byrd, as could any number of my friends. I have been that enraged, not able to see or hear anything, all of my senses shut down except for that laser-beam focus on the object of my rage. Police officers cannot be expected to be social workers, or psychologists, but they should also not be allowed to use deadly force in a one-size-fits all methodology. They knew it was a girl-fight as soon as they arrived. Ma’Khia’s 911 call had implied that as well. Why would you even get out of your patrol car with a gun drawn, rather than a non-lethal weapon? But again, the instructions say…if they have a weapon, shoot them if they don’t comply.

This is the policing system today. It’s not just Ohio, or Georgia, or Wisconsin, or Colorado. It’s everywhere. It’s the nature of the beast, because we are generally more concerned with protecting property rather than protecting lives. Whole lives, not just bodies, but whole lives. If someone is at that level of rage that they can’t see or hear a police officer’s orders, they need some kind of help with that. A bullet is not going to help that, especially if they’re dead. But quite literally, that was not his job. That is not what his instructions say.

So whose job is it? Well, basically , we don’t really care. The issues that produce that kind of rage, and the cultural idiom that says if you have a dispute with another teenager (or sometimes an adult), you posse up with your BFFs and pay them a visit so you can beat them up is a little problematic. But that starts way back in a culture, way back in time, and you can’t hope to resolve that on the spot with a gun.

Recreating the educational structure is where some of this needs to start. In pre-K, in elementary school, show these kids something different about how to resolve conflict. Programs that interrupt the class-to-class-to-class routine with things like yoga, and meditation, sound almost silly, but there is data to show improvement when those programs are implemented. Restorative justice methods are also showing transformation in some of most violent of schools. It will not be instantaneous, and may take a couple of generations to see obvious results, but if it’s continued I believe it would be worth it.

Implicit bias training, or not really training but reorientation, is also essential for adults. For adults of all races, ethnicities, abilities. We have to start getting to that pinpoint of decision, where our actions begin, where outcomes are really defined…before we even know it. Nailing down our nearly instantaneous judgements, that someone is “other” and not like you, and therefore not as good as you…that’s where it starts. If we can just get a split second between the stimulus and the response…a paper-thin interval…we might have a chance at becoming more aware of what we’re doing.

That paper-thin interval is how it works for me. Me, who has been a short-fused explosive device of mass destruction since I was a teen. There was NO space between stimulus and response. I was all reaction, all the time. I’ve got a bit of an interval these days, however, with a few exceptions, though…when my heart is involved, when I have been betrayed, when the hurt is blinding…I am entirely reactive. I will say, however, that I manage to avoid those situations more than I used to, so that’s another aspect of the transformation. But that’s another story…but I will say that my therapist has job security, for as long as she wants it. But, as usual, I digress.

So, I am not feeling hopeless about these kinds of situations, where young Black people lose their lives for being…young Black people. I am not feeling hopeless because I truly believe there are ways out of this trend, ways to rewrite the instructions, ways to keep another family from having to bury their child. But I am so very, very sad about it, because it’s going to take some doing, and I don’t know if our collective machinery is up to the task. It’s going to take some money, and a lot of effort, and a lot more willingness to change all this. We’re going to have to be incredibly uncomfortable, and incredibly persistent. We can’t give up and proclaim our efforts a failure after one or 5 or even 10 years of trying. We have to agree this is the best shot we’ve got, and stick with it, like you stick with raising a child even after the first time they break something you love and tell you they hate you. If you love them, you stick with it.

And there’s the rub. If you love them, you stick with it. Does the country love Black people enough to stick with us? We’re kind of not feeling that right now. We’re kind of feeling like the rules are different for us, and they’re somebody else’s rules anyway. We’re kind of feeling invisible until you need to shoot us, or shoot our kids, or our friends and wives and husbands and mothers and fathers. We’re having a hard time figuring out why you can’t understand how badly you’re hurt us, and how badly we grieve all the sweet talk you gave everyone so long ago that said things like life, liberty, pursuit of happiness. We are not feeling that – not feeling free, not feeling particularly happy, and you’ve been taking our lives for a while now. So what gives?

OK, maybe the big bright one, lower right, would be far enough away?

Published by annzimmerman

I am Louisiana born and bred, now living in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Fortunately for me, I was already living in NC before Hurricane Katrina decimated my beloved New Orleans. An only child, I now feel that I have no personal history since the hurricane destroyed the relics and artifacts of my childhood. As I have always heard, c'est la vie. My Louisiana roots show in my love of good coffee, good food, and good music. My soggy native soil has also shown me that resilience is hard-wired in my consciousness; when the chips are down (or drowned)...bring it on.

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