Bus Rides in Troubled Times

Last week I was riding the bus home from an appointment at the Cleveland Clinic. There was an empty seat next to me. A black man with back pack boarded and sat on the edge of the seat next to me and quietly said, ”That’s okay” as I edged over an inch to make room for him to settle in. Meanwhile, another black man across the aisle saw all of this movement, looked at me, and shook his head. In our eye contact I’m not sure what I saw. What I felt, however, conveyed the impression that what I did was racist. It felt like he was saying I was afraid of my seat partner or deplored him or didn’t want any touching no matter how innocent.

I am a former history teacher and know that up until recent years a black man would have gotten in trouble sitting next to a white woman in some states. The idea of the races mixing was inviting the images of a black man and white women in a sexual relationship. Even without that, a person of color would be subject to exclusion and ridicule at best and physical harm at worst. But when you ride the bus in any large city these days, it is unavoidable; races and genders will mix. What I saw as polite bus etiquette someone else saw (I’m guessing here) as yet another example of a white person feeling elite and superior.

Cleveland is in the midst of a trial involving the police in a car chase that ended with an unarmed black man and women’s death. The city is alertly waiting for a verdict. Thirty one year old officer Michael Brelo is charged with voluntary manslaughter. A dozen officers will be testifying in support of Brelo. If Brelo is acquitted, the city may protest. What starts out as an appropriate response that starts out peacefully often ends with violence from young people, both inside and outside the community, looking for retaliation and revenge. This is the scenario that played out last week in Baltimore.-1a8d7f08269f8b45

The tide seems to be turning. Citizens around the country are taking a harder look at police departments. They want more accountability. After Ferguson Missouri people are becoming aware of the unfairness and inequities in our justice system. Investigations are showing that police often respond unfairly to “driving while black” and “felony running.” We are hearing so many stories of this in our personal lives and seeing more on TV. It is becoming more apparent that there is systemic racism in our police departments and that citizens want a “rush to judgment” in order to feel safe and comfortable. This rush has lead to over 300 sentences being overturned due to new DNA evidence and photo evidence from passing citizens. Years of imprisonment of innocent people have wasted countless lives not to mention millions of dollars.

We all know that police have a most difficult and dangerous job. We hire them to possibly give their lives for people they don’t know and sometimes even people who hate them. They have to make split second decisions without complete information. They have thankless jobs.

Yet, we can’t afford to rely on prejudices and stereotypes to rule our justice system. Standards must be raised for being hired as a police officer (in some places the only requirements are that you must be 18, graduated from high school and have no misdemeanors). Police need to tone down the overly heavy handed parts of their presence and get rid of guns and cars that are discarded from the military. Officers and their stations need to be part of the community with small satellite stations in each neighborhood. In one city they use gondolas for these easily visible safety zones. More training on sensitivity needs to be installed and more women officers need to be hired. Women have proven that tense situations diffuse more often because their more effective methods of communication. And last, like with teachers, citizens need to respect the job our police do for us. They are demoralized now and that can’t be good for anyone.

In the meantime, Dave and I are discussing what our personal plans are when the verdict comes down in the Michael Brelo case. I don’t expect violence under my window, but I do think I may not be riding the bus for awhile.