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Why Are We Still Holding Candles?

By GRR Editorial Committee

So·cial jus·tice (noun):

1. justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society. Oxford Languages

2. fair treatment of all people in a society, including respect for the rights of minorities and equitable distribution of resources among members of a community

One of the biggest obstacles to achieving social justice is a belief that life is a zero sum game. You’re either for me or against me. You’re either a winner or the loser. If an opportunity lifts you up, it must somehow keep me down. The tendency to assume that any step toward justice for someone else means a loss for you is a myth that needs to be put to rest.

Instead, consider this parable:

A man dies and is given a tour by St. Peter. They first stop at a banquet hall. The hall is filled with people sitting around a long table that’s overflowing with gourmet food. But any conversation is drowned out by sounds of wailing and despair. At first, the man doesn’t understand. But then he sees that instead of hands, each guest has long forks and knives attached to their wrists. The utensils are extremely long, so when the guest bends his elbow to bring the fork to his mouth, the fork instead extends beyond his head. There’s no way to get the delicious food into his mouth. Despite having an abundance of food in front of them, the guests are starving and emaciated.

“This is Hell,” explains St. Peter.

The pair next stops at a second banquet hall identical to the first. The man sees the same long table, the same gourmet foods and an equal number of guests. These guests also have utensils attached to their wrists. But there is no wailing. There’s only laughter and happiness. The guests are healthy and content. The man is confused and looks to St. Peter to explain how the same situation could produce opposite results.

“This is Heaven,” St. Peter says. “In Hell, everyone starves as they try to feed themselves. In Heaven, everyone feeds each other.”

Back here on Earth, we desperately need to shake ourselves from the zero-sum math that’s literally killing us. The polarization gripping our country has seduced us into thinking that if you don’t think as I do, we can’t work together. If you don’t share my values, you must not have value. If you get your way with social policies, I will lose all I hold dear. It is this fear that allows us to be manipulated. It is fear of each other that prompts a heavy handed response to the slightest perceived threat.

The past decade has brought endless news coverage of police using deadly force in situations that should never have ended in death. Being a police officer is arguably one of the most challenging jobs someone can hold in our country. Officers undoubtedly face dangerous situations and hostilities we can’t imagine. But they are also being bombarded with messages of fear. Their training teaches them to address threats with military strength rather than de-escalation. Too often, the law enforcement culture also teaches explicit and implicit bias.

Last year, 1,176 people died at the hands of law enforcement. According to The Guardian, in 2021, police killed 1,145 people; 1,152 in 2020; 1,097 in 2019; 1,140 in 2018; and 1,089 in 2017. Presumably, some of these events were unavoidable. Police face a level of violence and aggression most of us never have to imagine. Protecting themselves and others in the event of a shooting can sometimes be an understandable response. But not all of these deaths fall into this category.

The Guardian goes on to explain that,

“In 2022, 132 killings (11%) were cases in which no offense was alleged; 104 cases (9%) were mental health or welfare checks; 98 (8%) involved traffic violations; and 207 (18%) involved other allegations of nonviolent offenses. There were also 93 cases (8%) involving claims of a domestic disturbance and 128 (11%) where the person was allegedly seen with a weapon. Only 370 (31%) involved a potentially more serious situation, with an alleged violent crime.”

Police are too often trained to use deadly force when less lethal tactics might be effective. Fear sometimes makes them act too quickly to a perceived threat. Police have a very tough job. But they also carry the responsibility to do better. Lives quite literally depend on it.

Not all of the people cited above were people of color. But an element of racial discrimination has long permeated all aspects of our country’s justice system. Consider these excerpts from Bryan Stevenson’s contribution to the 1619 Project:

“The United States has the highest rate of incarceration of any nation on Earth: We represent 4 percent of the planet’s population but 22 percent of its imprisoned. In the early 1970s, our prisons held fewer than 300,000 people; since then, that number has grown to more than 2.2 million, with 4.5 million more on probation or parole… And central to understanding this practice of mass incarceration and excessive punishment is the legacy of slavery.

The 13th Amendment is credited with ending slavery, but it stopped short of that: It made an exception for those convicted of crimes. After emancipation, black people, once seen as less than fully human “slaves,” were seen as less than fully human “criminals.” The provisional governor of South Carolina declared in 1865 that they had to be “restrained from theft, idleness, vagrancy and crime.” Laws governing slavery were replaced with Black Codes governing free black people — making the criminal-justice system central to new strategies of racial control.

Hundreds of years after the arrival of enslaved Africans, a presumption of danger and criminality still follows black people everywhere. New language has emerged for the non-crimes that have replaced the Black Codes: driving while black, sleeping while black, sitting in a coffee shop while black. All reflect incidents in which African-Americans were mistreated, assaulted or arrested for conduct that would be ignored if they were white. In schools, black kids are suspended and expelled at rates that vastly exceed the punishment of white children for the same behavior.

Inside courtrooms, the problem gets worse. Racial disparities in sentencing are found in almost every crime category. Children as young as 13, almost all black, are sentenced to life imprisonment for nonhomicide offenses. Black defendants are 22 times more likely to receive the death penalty for crimes whose victims are white, rather than black — a type of bias the Supreme Court has declared “inevitable.”

Inequality in who gets punished and for how long isn’t just an abstract idea that unfolds elsewhere in the country. In Granby, a 2017 Equity Task Force was charged with looking at issues of racial inequities in our school district. Consisting of educators, parents and students, the group found that in the prior year, 62.5% of all Black males enrolled in Granby schools had been referred to the main office for disciplinary issues while only 17.6% of all White males had similar disciplinary referrals. Among Black male students, 21.4% received In-School Suspensions compared to only 3.6% of the White Male students in the district. For reference, in 2017, Black males were only 3% of the Granby Public School student population. The full study can be found here.

We watched George Floyd die three years ago, at the start of a long, exhausting pandemic. In the interim, more than 3,000 more people have died in police interactions. The call for reforms must compete with so many other horrors and injustices. It can be overwhelming. But it cannot be defeating.

Later this month, we’ll hold a vigil for George Floyd and the countless others whose lives ended during police encounters. We will hold candles, or hold hands (now that we finally can), or bow our heads in remembrance. This act may not change much. But it will sustain our solidarity, our commitment and our hope. It will remind us that silence cannot be our final response. Justice is not a zero sum game. We will gather together to feed one another and keep our hope alive, because as Bryan Stevenson also writes, “Hopelessness is the enemy of justice….and there is much work left to be done.”

We hope you will join us on the Town Green (across from Grass Roots Ice Cream) on Sunday, May 21st, at 4:00 pm to remember all victims of racial injustice. Details can be found on our website. Registration is requested but not required.

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