Day after day, I wake up to one mind-numbingly tragic shooting incident after another, immediately followed by politicians and civic leaders giving their speeches. The give their inevitable soundbites, standing in front of makeshift flower-laden memorials, about stopping the epidemic of violence in America. They always talk about the need for better police training, more police officers, gun control, more prisons; in short, the rhetoric dances around the symptoms, tacitly avoiding any mention of the true root causes of these tragedies.
I stand with both American police officers and citizens who are victims of senseless brutality and killing. Each group also must contend with being part of a system that pits one group against the other, defining an agenda of division rather than the unity which must exist for our nation to truly solve these problems. Every time there is an incident of violence, we either blame one group or the other.
We talk symptoms.
Political and civic leaders don’t speak enough about the root causes that create the conditions for this violent behavior.
Environment is a major factor in determining the behavior and decisions that people make. Police in a highly toxic and unstable environment work under great stress and are prone to overreact and make poor judgments. Citizens living in these conditions often do the same. Ask any soldier in a war zone about reacting to persistent danger. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not limited to the stress of the battlefield alone. An environment of chronic violence or toxic stress can also lead to PTSD. Regardless of the cause, PTSD often generates impulsive, destructive overreaction.
I applaud the vast majority of police who work under difficult circumstances and dedicate themselves to their job. I also applaud the vast majority of responsible law-abiding people residing in areas of great adversity, often struggling simply to survive. In fact, I am surprised at how the vast majority of police and civilians manage to function effectively and decently under such miserable conditions. To approach these problems without focusing upon the deepest root causes is a disservice to both police and the communities they serve.
Every sociological and psychological research study that I have ever come across concludes that environment is a major factor in determining outcomes. If the goal is to change behavior and have people take responsibility, then we must change living conditions in order to change behavior. Some of the factors that can alter the environment are affordable housing, healthcare, prenatal care, day care, better education and a living wage, thereby changing the causes and conditions that result in crime, poverty, and addiction.
Government ensuring that all citizens are provided with good housing, safe communities, equal education and healthcare rights, frightens people who have been conditioned to be afraid of the word “socialism” or the phrase “welfare state.” Article 1, Section 8 of the United States Constitution authorizes Congress to raise taxes in order to provide for the common defense and general welfare of the people.
The term “general welfare” is part of our Constitution.
The Black Lives Matter movement is not saying that only black lives matter. It implies that all lives matter, including black lives, which historically have been at an extreme disadvantage in America. I recently received an email from a friend in Ghana, a 20-year-old student: “I look around here in my country and we don’t live in constant fear of being killed, but out there in America our brothers’ and sisters’ lives are at risk. Our great-grandfathers were taken away from us to America; now they are being killed for nothing.”
There are many people with different agendas who very cleverly misdirect our attention by pointing fingers, blaming, scapegoating and pitting one group against the other. When we blame the police or groups of citizens categorized by class, race, ethnicity or religion, we justify our prejudices and hatred. If we agree that all lives matter, then let us come together in a spirit of love and compassion to create conditions where all people have the opportunity to live and thrive in a secure, happy and safe environment.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “An enlightened society is that which is willing to uplift its lowest.”
The fundamental values and morals common among the various major belief systems are rooted in the notion that all lives do matter without exception. It is not limited to only those who are of the same faith, race, or ethnicity. I truly am my brother’s keeper. We are morally called to work together to create a more loving, compassionate, and peaceful world. “All Lives Matter” and “Black Lives Matter” are not mutually exclusive statements. We allow people in seats of power to divide us and pit us against each other because of their own self interests.
Are the powers of fear, greed, and hate stronger than the power of love, forgiveness, and empowerment?
The answer is in our hands. Trying to understand why people engage in unlawful or violent behavior is not the same as justifying that behavior. We try to understand a person’s behavior in an effort to understand what factors make a person act in a certain way. We do this to deepen our understanding of what makes us tick as human beings.
In the real world, problems and solutions are often not reducible to one simple equation; there are shades of grey. Wherever you are on the political spectrum, there is some truth and validity to your position. Beneath the surface of all our differing opinions and views is one common denominator that defines us all: our humanity and natural inclination to thrive. Once you decide that only your “team” has all the truth, you shut down the dialectic and dialogue that could truly and substantively address and solve problems that we all share.
Of course there are those who will rightfully say that reason doesn’t always win the day. There are sometimes circumstances when self defense is necessary. There exist abusive police, hardened criminals, and other people or groups who would do us harm despite our efforts to solve differences peacefully; they need to be challenged forcefully at times. We need to be very cognizant that there are also other entities that need to take responsibility, including polluters of our environment, cheaters and scammers, hate mongers and war mongers, and perpetrators of corporate greed and deception.
Let us not leave the responsibility of these people out of the public discourse. We are all players in the same game and we all need to take responsibility, no matter where we are on the economic spectrum, no matter our race or ethnicity. These issues stand a better chance of being resolved when we employ our natural gift of reason in order to collaborate, negotiate and communicate.
Addressing the troubling symptoms that manifest in our society, rather than working together intelligently to prevent the development of these problems at the root, only perpetuates the seemingly endless cycle of frustration and despair regarding America’s social ills.
Our lives are a journey. Along the way there are obstacles, challenges and adversity, as well as joy, love and fulfillment. We derive our values and truths from our own experiences, both good and bad; yet when we are able to step outside of our own experiences and into the shoes of others, we leave judgmental thinking behind and walk side by side, together, with empathy and compassion.
Jeff Grande taught history and sociology to inner city students in Hartford Connecticut for over 35 years. He is now retired and remains committed to improving the lives of young people.