It has happened again.
Another unarmed young black man, shot dead by police. Not on a sidewalk, this time, or on a playground, or outside a convenience store, or behind the steering wheel of a car.
Stephon Clark, 22, died in his grandmother’s backyard.
If your first reaction is to temper these facts with a rationalization, like “What was he doing at the time?” or “Let’s weigh all the factors that were in play,” or “Hmmm. He must have been up to something suspicious for that to happen,” don’t. If you are tempted to simply place him in a category without seeing him fully, as the flesh-and-blood being he was, don’t.
Instead, take a deep breath—something Stephon Clark is no longer able to do. Let yourself see him as a father of sons ages 3 and 1, who had friends and family members who loved him and hopes for what the future would look like. Then, consider again the crucial detail of where his life ended.
In his grandmother’s backyard.
On March 18, just one week before the March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C. and its sibling marches across the nation (including Sacramento), police encountered Stephon when they were responding to calls about someone breaking windows. Video indicates they issued no warning, Stephon made no threats against them, and there was no evidence that he had committed a crime. Yet, police shot 20 rounds at him.
Here are the questions with which we must grapple:
How do police officers enter communities of color? What are their assumptions about what they will encounter? Are they assuming they are more vulnerable than they would be in a white community, and does that lay the groundwork for their reactions? Do these assumptions blind them to what truly exists?
Are they entering communities of color such as Stephon Clark’s prepared to shoot first, and ask questions later?
These questions are about perceptions and the implicit biases that can impact how we react to a host of situations. They are not confined to law enforcement.
When educators bring preconceived notions and biases into schools and classrooms, we don’t see all our students as the individuals they are. Therefore, we may overlook a student’s talents and fail to nurture his or her potential. These assumptions cause us to funnel black and brown students into the School to Prison pipeline at an alarming rate, by meting out discipline that pushes them out of classrooms and into the criminal justice system.
When police officers bring similar assumptions to their jobs, the consequences can be deadly.
I recognize that some of you may be offended that I’m writing about this. Some people take the position that anytime we talk about and analyze police shootings in communities of color that appear to be unjustified—or question police actions in general—we are delegitimizing all law enforcement and criticizing all officers.
But none of us, no matter what professions we are in, including education, politics, business, and law enforcement, are above being asked to challenge our assumptions, improve our practices, and evolve.
At the March For Our Lives—fueled by the anger and fears of students—activists made the connection between gun control and school safety and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Although Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos want to arm more educators, students rightly oppose this approach, as does the overwhelming majority of NEA members. It would do nothing to enhance our schools as places of discovery and learning. Bringing more guns to schools in our already heavily armed nation is not the answer.
What students are calling for is a much more comprehensive approach that looks at the root causes of violence, the use of deadly force by police in communities of color, as well as student, school, and campus safety. You can be part of this movement by participating in the April 20 Day of Action. More information is available about the events on that day, the 19th anniversary of the mass shooting at Columbine High School, at Protectourschools.com.
Clearly, we can’t wall our students and schools off from the daily, lived experience of violence in communities across America. NEA provides resources on how to talk with students about tragedies, but these resources cannot address the larger societal trauma: Not a day goes by without an incidence of gun violence, or without a painful reminder of one.
This week, prosecutors in Louisiana announced they would not charge Baton Rouge police officers who in July 2016 fatally shot Alton Sterling, an unarmed black man they encountered outside a store. Sterling’s death came a day before the fatal shooting of Philando Castile, also an unarmed black man, during a traffic stop in a Minneapolis suburb. In that case, the officer was acquitted in the death of Castile, a school cafeteria worker. The messages we are sending about the value of black lives are too loud to ignore.
At the March For Our Lives, Andra Day sang her empowering anthem “Rise Up.” Students are rising up, moving mountains, and forcing us to look at reality. They understand that we cannot fix what we refuse to see.