Radical Proximity Takes on the Presumption of Guilt

Radical Proximity Takes on the Presumption of Guilt

Over on The Lively Tradition, Tom Schade has perfectly set up the topic on my mind this morning: if we’re only to address concerns in our immediate neighborhood, among people who share our values and dreams, where does that leave anti-racism?

Happily, Politywonk is old enough — and concerned enough — to remember the 1970s, and what African-Americans asked of Caucasian allies once the major Civil Rights victories were in.

What they wanted was help forming citizen review boards to supervise local police departments.

This has done some lasting good. For instance, did you know that the police chief in Sanford, Florida was fired for mishandling the initial response to the 911 calls from the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman altercation? He was. He deserved to be, and he was.

But since Reverend Al Sharpton can’t be everywhere, and not every victim family has the strength, dignity, and assets of the Fulton-Martin family, we have to each, in our own neighborhoods, take vigilance.

From my old days doing this work, here’s what I recall. The key level where racism works is indeed in how the police respond to an incident. They are overloaded, underfunded, and now, with all this Homeland Security militarization, completely distracted. What combination could more naturally force them to rely on their “instincts”?

And how can we overcome these socially-taught “instincts” that white English-speakers covered with blood just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, victims of some African American and/or non-English speakingmiscreant?

Or victims of their own hormonal imbalance — the old “boys will be boys” — which somehow only applies to white boys, so far as I can tell.

This is not an isolated problem. Here in Vermont, still one of the whitest states in the nation, our prison population is heavily black. Our police chief here in Burlington is a good man, with the most female officers of any urban force in the nation, but still, this is what’s happening.

So here’s what I propose:


First, let’s use Radical Proximity, my name for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s guide to social justice, to each turn our eyes on our own communities, and work with anti-racism allies to get this solved. If done right, it will help overcome the informal self-apartheid in which we live, which will, in itself, move anti-racism forward. (See my comments yesterday that my union local neighborhood will be mostly Nepalis, not Caucasians.)

Then, let’s take the hard-line fairness embodied in mandatory sentencing, and put it where it belongs: mandatory charging. Yep. When a cop finds a youth driving over a golf course late at night, no matter who it is, they have to charge them with criminal trespass. When a caller identifies two people fighting, the cops have to haul them both downtown, no matter how they’re dressed, funded, etc. If they want to lawyer up, let them do so after being charged.

Third, of course — all though this apparently doesn’t happen — even if it’s a Stand Your Ground state, all gun deaths must be forensically investigated immediately and properly. Yes, forensics is a murky science, but there are basics, and they were not done in the death of Trayvon Martin. And there were witnesses who never got called.

And finally, equality often dies in the sealed rooms of grand juries and inquests, where well-intending citizens and professionals have a chance to apply their own racism in sorting out what happened in all these altercations. So there need to be community watches at this level, to see who is being charged with what, and call attention to inequalities. (Politywonk learned about this while protesting reinstatement of the death penalty way back when.)

During the mid-1990s, Politywonk had the honor and obligation of serving as a Unitarian Universalist parish minister in the neighborhoods where Boston’s legendary community policing program was being developed. As much as many police officers hated the residency requirement then imposed on Boston Police — preventing them from living in suburbs and driving to work — it gave them a personal connection with the folks living under the scourge of high crime. I don’t advocate that now, because the arguments over it would totally drown out all other options. But we who live in mixed neighborhoods can be joined by people who care, to bring that kind of eyes, ears, hearts to what happens. And folks who live in de facto white neighborhoods have a special obligation to be sure our own neighbors — and their kids — get charged when they break laws.

This suggestion comes from the many hard workers trying to end domestic abuse and violence. In analyzing the ultimate “reluctance to charge” situation, they recognized that what we call discretion — even forgiveness, that generally lauded religious value — is actually all a conduit for social prejudice. Let’s apply to ALL victims of violence — including property crimes — the same learning. Yes, it will cause a rethink of what police departments buy and pay for: less military hardware (sorry, gun dealers) and more social work training, more officers on more streets, more forensic scientists, properly trained and certified.

Unitarian Universalists have always supported science. It is the opposite not only of ignorance, but also of wishful thinking. Let’s get busy. Let’s get local. Let’s get it done.


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