It was 50 years ago.
Whenever Americans talk about race, people can get uncomfortable. We don’t want to feel like we’re part of the problem, and we try in our lives not to be. But talking about it can be painful because it reminds us that there are experiences we can’t fully understand because they haven’t happened to us.
In this half-century-old speech, you can hear the anger and disgust in Malcolm X’s voice. And it’s amazing that he could’ve been saying this last week.
What he’s talking about rings so true to us in 2015. In a democratic country “of the people,” we expect police to be on our side, working with us. But recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere can shake a person’s belief in the system. Malcolm X’s faith in it was certainly shaken.
So let’s make this stop already.
When Malcolm X gave this speech, he was speaking about an awful experience that his audiences had seen in their own lives. They’d seen it over and over and for years — it’s not like this just started 50 years ago.
Maybe things are more fixable than they seem.
Really, it’s hard to know how often someone is assaulted by a cop because it often occurs away from the cameras. On the other hand, there have to be thousands of cops that have great relationships with their communities. How much progress have we made, if any? We can’t know. We just know that it should not happen ever, anymore, not once.
But, heartbreakingly, what Malcolm X described does still happen.
It’s a turning upside-down of fairness, with the victim being the only one to suffer if investigations by law enforcement conclude that the attacker’s actions don’t merit prosecution. When no charges were filed against Ferguson’s Darren Wilson or against NYC’s Daniel Pantaleo, who took Eric Garner’s life, we were stunned all over again. How can this be fair?
We can only wonder why so little has changed. Maybe it’s because, while things have gotten better in broad strokes, power on a local level — being less visible — can more successfully resist change. It can get away with holding onto old abusive cultures while the rest of the country moves forward.
Our news media are no help, more interested in drama than a solution.
On one hand, it’s important that these stories get told, and more news coverage is a big help.
But the way media frames it all by oversimplifying people’s positions is so dangerous. Reducing the problem to the police-versus-the-world may make great TV, but it’s doing real damage to our country and getting us nowhere.
There are two different cultures that see two different things.
Given what an intense job they have, it’s no surprise that police don’t want to be put in the position of not standing by each other, even when they don’t agree with what a fellow officer has done.
But because of the unique demands of their jobs, and shared experience, police inhabit their own culture that can prevent them from seeing what everyone sees as so obvious. And at the same time, they’re baffled by what we can’t see that’s so clear from their perspective. Cops who would never be involved in situations like these feel insulted and underappreciated.
Being a cop must be really hard. You wonder why someone would go into that line of work. Some for power, sure, but probably far more to do something good.
We know we need police. We just need to be clearer as we speak out against police brutality that we can see the difference between the officers who see themselves as part of their communities and the cops who see themselves as above the people they’re charged with serving.
And we need to partner with the many cops who surely want to see this brutality stop, beginning with the understanding that life looks different from different sides of a badge.
We need to stop arguing and start figuring this out.
50 years ago.
Here’s Malcolm X’s prescient speech.