How to Save Black Lives

Black Lives Matter. Period.

The deaths of black men at the hands of police are tragedies that we as a society must work to stop.  Demands for change are appropriate and necessary. But, I worry that anti-police and anti-government protests don’t help us move forward. To me there is a difference between insisting on systemic changes and insisting that authorities are evil.

In the 1960’s governors stood in the doors of schoolhouses to keep black people out, politicians publicly advocated segregation, and law enforcement openly planned how to violently attack marchers.  There is no 2015 — or 2020 — equivalent to George Wallace, Sheriff Clark, or even the “moderate” States’ Right advocates who protected segregation in the 1960’s.  I haven’t heard governors say black kids deserve to be profiled and shot. I haven’t heard law enforcement departments say that they are content with their alienation from the communities they police.

There is no entrenched, intentional Evil in this discussion.

In 2015 when this post was first drafted NPR interviewed Constance Rice, a civil rights attorney who sued the LAPD in the 1990’s.   Here’s what NPR reported (read more at NPR):

Rice’s time battling the LAPD, and specifically captain Charlie Beck, who is now LA’s police chief, eventually led to a place where there could be trust. They worked together to reform the department.

Some of that change included LAPD officers going into projects to set up youth sports programs and health screenings, things that made people’s lives better and brought police and predominantly black communities closer together.

Here are some interview highlights:
On use of police force on minorities:

“Cops can get into a state of mind where they’re scared to death. When they’re in that really, really frightened place they panic and they act out on that panic. I have known cops who haven’t had a racist bone in their bodies and in fact had adopted black children, they went to black churches on the weekend; and these are white cops. They really weren’t overtly racist. They weren’t consciously racist. But you know what they had in their minds that made them act out and beat a black suspect unwarrantedly? They had fear. They were afraid of black men. I know a lot of white cops who have told me. And I interviewed over 900 police officers in 18 months and they started talking to me, it was almost like a therapy session for them I didn’t realize that they needed an outlet to talk.

“They would say things like, “Ms. Rice I’m scared of black men. Black men terrify me. I’m really scared of them. Ms. Rice, you know black men who come out of prison, they’ve got great hulk strength and I’m afraid they’re going to kill me. Ms. Rice, can you teach me how not to be afraid of black men.” I mean this is cops who are 6’4″. You know, the cop in Ferguson was 6’4″ talking about he was terrified. But when cops are scared, they kill and they do things that don’t make sense to you and me.”

I see police departments – especially the field level officers – struggling to figure out what to do to improve relations, to keep from being afraid of black men.

Rage and grief at the loss of black lives is appropriate. But, questioning the intention of all police officers and entire police departments feels like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. 

Ultimately, I believe we can best find solutions when we all are open to the belief that all parts of the community are acting with good intentions. (No, not everyone in all sections of the community. But, I do feel that mayors and police chiefs are trying to end the build-in prejudice.)

Long Beach Police Department Communications Supervisors circa 1980

Long Beach Police Department Communications Supervisors, circa 1980. Bryan Hawkins, Ethel Gelman, Galen Workman, Linda Trujillo, and Paul Stein.

My conviction of the human goodness of most police officers comes from my first-hand experience during my work in Long Beach.

As citizens we need to argue for the budgets for training and community building. We need to focus on programs like those Rice and LAPD developed and make sure that office holders understand that our interest is not another passing fad. Money and responsibilities should be transferred from police departments to other agencies. But, it’s critical that we as a community/country and work together.

Let’s not needlessly create enemies.  Let’s refrain from demonizing people who are trying to find ways to do better, or to simply survive their work shift.

We also need to acknowledge that situations leading to the death of unarmed people don’t always involve one-sided police action.  The black-and-white “good, unarmed angelic kids vs. jack-booted cops” story line is not always accurate. Some of the people who have been killed by police have done something illegal or contributed in some way to looking dangerous (like by pointing a “toy” gun at a police officer).  They did not “deserve” to die, and we as a community need to figure out how to train officers to be less afraid and feel less like civilization will fall if they don’t push the trigger and shoot someone the cop thinks is dangerous. But, at the same time, it feels unfair to not understand the human impulse to protect yourself when you think there is a gun pointed at you.

The deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, so many others are tragic, and the list of heartbreak seems unstoppable with George Floyd, Sean Monterrosa, Rayshard Brooks, recent victims. Even if they died in interactions with police after they were involved in some non-violent crime, deadly force was not warranted. And, many people of color who are virtuous pillars of society are stopped, treated badly, and often hurt without any justification.

Still, I don’t see that the solution is to scream at police that they are bigoted storm troopers. We need training and programs to integrate police into the communities they serve. We need to show them how to feel less frightened and more skilled in ways of controlling situations involving black men they don’t know. We need to clarify exactly what the police are supposed to do and maybe get the police out of non core law enforcement duties.

I wish/hope/believe that with training and mutual outreach we all can get along.

Note: this post was originally drafted in 2015 after a black man was killed by police. I did not publish it then because I thought I didn’t need to add my voice or perspective. I need to publish this updated commentary now, five years and too many deaths later.

 

Posted in Social Justice | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Meditations on The Thin Blue Line

It’s been 40 years since my dispatching days at Long Beach Police. Have things changed?

I remember working the day shift and wondering why whenever a certain officer radioed that he was going to investigate a suspicious subject on his own initiative, a unit or two would immediately go to his assistance. He didn’t ask for back-up, but units who were supposedly busy magically cleared and showed up at his side.

The Thin Blue Line in California

Unit 7 — or was it Unit 21? some details fade — was rarely alone with someone he stopped. Other units investigated people and wrote tickets without other cops joining them. And, the officer wasn’t small, old, or otherwise weak. But, he always had another unit volunteer to be with him.

When I asked why Unit 7 always got a back up, I didn’t get an answer. Finally, when I was no longer the distrusted rookie, I was taken aside and given an explanation. Other officers knew that Unit 7 was a “black glove specialist” who would beat the African Americans he stopped. These other officers would check out with him to make sure that he didn’t go too far.

At the time I didn’t believe the explanation. I was an idealistic 21 year old from a liberal family. It didn’t make sense to me that this guy’s fellow officers, sergeants, and commanders would let him get away with chronic excessive force and devise work-arounds to keep him somewhat in check instead of telling him to stop or disciplining him. I wasn’t sure what the real answer on his backups was, but before I got too insistent on the truth I was transferred to the swing shift when the only time I heard him was when he was turning off the radio at the end of his watch.

The night we dispatched a lieutenant and some select units to his house to negotiate his safe armed, drunken exit from his home after a violent domestic dispute rekindled my unease at the special handling the department gave him.

By then, I had a couple years experience dispatching and I understood that police officers felt compelled to stand beside other officers, no matter what the other officer was doing. The social code was that it was cops against the world.

Only the cops, sticking together, were going to keep civilization safe. Even if you beat “suspicious” black people or beat your wife, you were one of the Saviors.

That meant you never ticketed another cop, reported something they did wrong, or saw anything different from what the official report said. If you broke the code, the bad guys would win and civilization would fall. Better to look the other way occasionally than to risk societal collapse.

The officers I knew in Long Beach ran the gamut in intelligence and sensitivity, and I was surprised by the diversity of political and social opinion. Most were honest, fun loving, dedicated, and hard working.

Home of the free because of the brave

But, all of them treated the Thin Blue Line as inviolate. Even us civilian dispatchers were a lower class of animal (although they wouldn’t give us a traffic ticket… probably because they knew if they crossed dispatch they’d be assigned nothing but junk calls for the rest of their lives).

One of my friends recently went on a tear, asking how so many aggressive racist people could be working in police departments nationwide. Didn’t they give pre-hiring psychological tests to weed out the racists?

Yes, of course we do.

But, one of the systemic problems we have not addressed is the mission and training we give the police.

We let police departments hire only non-crazy, non-racist recruits. But then we send these young, eager people to the Police Academy where we train them for months on battlefield survival techniques. We build up their pride in being officers, in being together, in upholding The Law. Basically, we indoctrinate them in the importance of the Thin Blue Line.

We make police officers raring-to-go protectors of society. Then we give them social service assignments like dealing with confused crazy people, moving messy homeless encamped on upper-class streets, and herding somewhat rowdy protesters.

We teach the officers that they are standing up for civilization against evil. But, most of their job is dealing with human weakness.

police at a riot

Of course, they cannot rely that their next call will be best handled by deescalation and understanding. There are real bad guys out there. Robbers, murderers, rapists,… cop killers. Being Officer Friendly has its limits outside of the elementary school classroom.

Right now I believe the United States is getting the police officers and departments we are asking for. What we are telling the chiefs and trainers we want.

Punishing “a bad apple” caught on video isn’t going to fix the problem. Yes, some officers are guilty of crimes and should be charged. But jailing individuals is not enough.

We need to work together to determine exactly what we want from our police departments. Do we want them to be Public Safety departments? Do we want to charge other, maybe new city agencies, with the responsibility for many non-criminal problems? What do we want the officers to do?

Let’s honor the officers who we have trained to hold The Thin Blue Line. But, for our souls’ sake, let’s find a different model for the police in 2020 and train our officers to that new standard.

Posted in Social Justice | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

written by William Shakespeare
directed by Joseph Haj

Ashland, OR
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2020): Jeremy Gallardo (Snug), K. T. Vogt (Robin Starveling), Cristofer Jean (Francis Flute), Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2020): Jeremy Gallardo (Snug), K. T. Vogt (Robin Starveling), Cristofer Jean (Francis Flute), Ensemble.
Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Oh dear! I really didn’t want my last comments on this COVID-19 affected season to be anything but positive. I had hoped that I would see more plays later in the year that I could sincerely applaud. Unfortunately the virus shut down all but two weeks of the season, and what I saw opening weekend is all that is written in the books for 2020.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the fourth of the performances I saw during the two-week season and it, unfortunately, was a forgettable bit of onstage busyness.

Midsummer at worst is a fun romp. At best, the audience is unexpectedly engaged by evil fairies or some special vision offered by the director. This Midsummer was a fun romp.

Keeping track of who was who and whom they lusted after was too much work. I enjoyed the emotions and acts scene by scene. It’s a Shakespeare comedy, for God’s sake. Just sit back and watch misdirected love, magic, and pomposity. You know that it will all turn out all right in the end.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2020): Ensemble (the Mechanicals). Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2020): Ensemble (the Mechanicals).
Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The set is simple, people wander through it as various characters, and I didn’t sense too much difference between the groups. The stage itself is bare and without energy. The costumes are overdone symbols of something. They didn’t feel like they were designed for this play.

The acting was excellent, no surprise. I thought Lauren Modica (Hippolyta and Titania) and Jonathan Luke Stevens (Lysander) stood out as lust objects worth fighting over (even if they weren’t for each other). In fact, most of the cast gave good scenes and deserve praise for their performances.

But, ultimately this Midsummer gives support to the jaded theater goers who haughtily say that, “I don’t need to see any of his comedies again.” It’s a well-acted fun romp but not a distinctive fun romp.

Ozdachs rating:
Play Rating 3 out of 5 Syntaxes



Posted in osf, plays | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

“Copper Children”

written by Karen Zacarias
directed by Shariffa Ali

Ashland, OR
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

The Copper Children (2020): Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
The Copper Children (2020): Ensemble.
Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Copper Children has much going for it: an under-told, important story, a talented playwright who entertained and educated us with Destiny of Desire, and an experienced and immensely talented cast. Unfortunately, this world premiere wasted its assets and delivers an evening that is a moralistic plod which fails to create drama or feelings.

The play tells the story is of white Catholic orphans from New York who get sent out west for adoption by good Catholic families, good Mexican Catholic families. The families are already treated badly by the Protestant Anglo corporation bosses and other city residents. When the kids show up for distribution to the Mexican families, the authorities step in and give the children to white families.

The plot focuses on one Mexican family who has had several miscarriages and infant deaths caused by the pollution of the copper mine where everyone works. The wife is desperate for a child, and she and her husband are salt-of-the-earth good people. They’re perfect candidates to adopt a child. The Catholic adoption workers place a child with family only to have the girl forcibly removed and given to a powerful white family.

Along the way we learn about the terrible life orphans in New York have. We understand that matching these children to new families out west is a good thing. We see the New York nuns send the kids west.

For this play, the orphans are represented by a puppet girl. The use of the puppet and simple, but expressive set, by Scenic Designer Mariana Sanchez are creative highlights of the show.

Unfortunately the puppet is given more character than the human actors on stage. Most are cardboard cutouts of good or evil. Charles Mills (Rex Young) as the mining company manager is a one-dimensional waste of acting talent. The Mexicans and the nuns are all over-the-top good — or at least good without engaging depth.

One character, Lottie Mills (Kate Hurster) as the manager of the company store and wife of the mining manager starts to be written as a good Anglo. In an early scene she seems to be trying to give Margarita Chacon (Caro Zeller), our would-be mother, a break on something Margarita is buying the the store. Lottie hides the deal from her pure sociopath husband and treats Margarita as a fellow human. But, in later scenes Lottie inexplicably switches into being the leading racist, making sure that the white New York City orphans don’t get placed with Mexican families. We learn that Lottie has also had problems having a child and she winds up with our puppet girl, but the change in Lottie’s attitude really isn’t understandable.

Father Mandin (Eddie Lopez) is the one character who develops any depth.

Although not a major player, Lopez’s priest slows down the pace and deals with the people on stage as if they had complexity.

He himself seems to ponder, have concerns, and may even have internal conflict.

The Copper Children (2020): Caro Zeller (Margarita Chacón), Eddie Lopez (Father Mandin), Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey (Gloria). Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
The Copper Children (2020): Caro Zeller (Margarita Chacón), Eddie Lopez (Father Mandin), Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey (Gloria).
Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Maybe that’s it. Aside from Father Mandin, The Copper Children is populated by walking/talking symbols and not people. The one-dimensional all good/all evil roles fit the Telenovela melodramatic format of Destiny of Desire. As a pointed comedy, Destiny made its statements with silly characters. We laughed while we also absorbed the social truths sprinkled in the script.

But, Copper Children is advertised as a drama. There is no wink-and-nudge smirk at the stereotypes shown on stage that entertained in Destiny. Instead, we are bludgeoned with one-dimensional moralism delivered via incompletely written characters. The experience just isn’t fun, absorbing, or good theater.

The play educated me on on some evil bits of our American history. I learned about copper mining in the West and the corporate greed and white racism that devastated the Mexican workers and their families. Still, a few paragraphs in a history essay would have reached me more effectively.

The Copper Children should be so much better. Zacarias picked a moment with the action, people, and dilemma primed for exploration. But, as written on opening night, Copper Children piles on guilt without growth or involvement. My wild hope is that Zacarias will use the COVID-19 OSF shutdown to add dimension to the characters and either subtlety or humor to her moral imperatives.

Ozdachs rating:
2 out of 5 Syntaxes

Posted in osf, plays | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

“Peter and the Starcatcher”

story by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
adapted for theater by Rick Elice
music by Wayne Barkerr
directed by Matt Goodrich

Ashland, OR
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Peter and the Starcatcher (2020): Preston Mead (Boy), Grace Chan Ng (Molly). Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Peter and the Starcatcher (2020): Preston Mead (Boy), Grace Chan Ng (Molly).
Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

I didn’t grow up watching, reading, or otherwise being infused with Peter Pan lore. Sure, I knew that there was a kids’ story about him and fairy we clapped for named Tinkerbell. But, when I walked into the theater for Peter and the Starcatcher I didn’t remember anything about lost boys, Mrs. Darling, or any plot.

My ignorance ultimately didn’t keep me from applauding this very fast-paced comedic prequel. But, it took me a while to figure out who people were and why I cared. For much of the first act characters popped up and took roles that most of the audience apparently recognized from Peter and Wendy. Those in the know enjoyed the fresh take on the characters and appreciated the skill of the backstories. On the other hand, I was left a little dizzy at the rapid-fire, sometimes very broad or very obvious activities on stage.

The moments of juvenile humor didn’t help my struggle to get into the play. Fart jokes –even when executed with the supreme skill of K.T. Vogt — start me looking for the exit.

Peter and the Starcatcher (2020): Cyndii Johnson (Ted), Grace Chan Ng (Molly), Preston Mead (Boy), Dan Lin (Prentiss). Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Peter and the Starcatcher (2020): Cyndii Johnson (Ted), Grace Chan Ng (Molly),
Preston Mead (Boy), Dan Lin (Prentiss).
Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The second act was much better for me. There was more word play and no farts. Moreover, by then I’d figured out who was who and had some sense of their motivation. That let truly enjoy the comedic acting gems on stage.

Throughout the performance, even when I was dazed by the early comings and goings, the cast gave perfectly-timed, strong moments. Preston Mead (Boy) has a sense of presence that’s for days. He was innocent one moment and determined the next. I kept checking the program trying, in vain, to find the Equity* asterisk that would have explained his experience in developing character in a basically fluffy piece. Michael Hume (Captain Scott) was a sometimes stuffy, sometimes knowledgeable, caricature who was just believable enough to support the story. Very fun.

I was especially happy to see Brent Hinkley (Smee) be differently ridiculous than I have seen him before. And, wow! — James Ryen (Black Stache) was simply fun.

This is another OSF production where I feel that each actor should be separately praised. Molly, the boys, the crew members, the teacher, the other lords — everyone fit in and zinged the story along.

One of my favorite moments is a scene of mermaids, and the gaudy, but appropriate, outrageous by costume designer Melissa Torchia were a real treat. Those items of apparel doth definitely proclaimed the maids.

By the end of the second act I was hearing and understanding and immensely enjoying every moment. There’s so much inventiveness and witty words, I would like to see Peter and the Starcatcher a second time. It’s may be a romp, but it is a head-spinning romp.

I saw the play opening night, and some of the rushing and frenzy of the first act could be related to that excitement. After some performances, the timing and clarity may improve and draw in people not steeped in Peter and Wendy lore. For the show I saw Act I was 3 stars while Act II was 5… so

Ozdachs rating:
4 out of 5 Syntaxes

Posted in plays | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment