This is Your Notice

My headaches have been getting worse lately, and I’ve started a new medicine, Topamax. Topamax is supposed to prevent migraines when taken daily. I’ve been on it just a few days, not long enough for it to have made a difference. I hope it ends up working for me.

Getting the prescription was a weird experience. I went to my doctor with a long list of symptoms, potential triggers, and possible insights into what might be causing this problem. She listened politely for a couple minutes, then wrote the prescription. She seemed to have little interest in diagnosing the underlying issue. She said I should try the prescription for a few weeks and then we could revisit if the headaches didn’t improve.

“Uh…are there side effects?” I asked.

“Most people tolerate it well,” she said, which isn’t exactly what I asked.

I’ve been swinging wildly back and forth between hope and despair as the protests have unfolded. It’s inspiring to see so many people willing to risk Covid-19 infection and police violence to demonstrate against the systemic racism that undergirds policing in this country. It’s also awful that this action continues to be necessary. George Floyd’s death was so senseless, as was Breonna Taylor’s, and the horrifying list just keeps growing: Rayshard Brooks, Tony McDade, David McAtee, and on and on. The list isn’t new, of course, it goes back through 400 years of this country’s history.

I thought I understood that police brutality was a problem. I watched the footage of the tanks rolling through Ferguson six years ago, like everyone else. But still, I’ve been shocked. The riot gear, the tear gas, the excessive force meeting peace. It’s awful and it’s relentless.

In the midst of ongoing local protests, Springfield, Missouri is facing its own unsettling, parallel storyline. On June 9th, a man hit a police officer with his car and pinned him to a barricade. The attacker, Jon Tyler Routh, was shot by another officer on the scene. Both Routh and the officer he hit, Mark Priebe, survived the event. Priebe will likely never walk again.

At first it seemed possible that Routh was a protestor who’d gone too far, but that storyline was quickly undermined. Three days before Routh hit Priebe, a local black woman’s car was smeared with feces while she was out running in a public park. She and many others thought it was a racially motivated crime. The following day, dozens of activists joined her for her run in a show of solidarity. After his arrest for the attack on Priebe, Routh confessed to and was arrested for the car vandalism, too.

The story is confusing and sad at every level. I’m not a mental health expert, but it seems obvious that Routh is mentally ill. He was living in his car at the time of the attack, and his text messages to friends around the time of the incident, some of which have been published in the local news, are strange and upsetting.

There has been an outpouring of support for Priebe. I certainly hope that he recovers. In some cases, however, the support of him has seemed pointed, less like well wishes for his particular recovery and more like a criticism of the Black Lives Matter protests. Nowhere was this more obvious than in a statement released two days ago by the Springfield Police Officer’s Association, the local police union. In it, the union wrote that Routh’s actions were motivated by “the rhetoric in the national and local media regarding the death of a man in police custody last month in a city 800 miles from Springfield.” They meant George Floyd, though the statement never calls him by name. Instead, it refers to Floyd as “a man” or, in one case, as “a felon.”

The statement criticizes national and local media for biased coverage, which it says is causing “strife in the city we love and serve.” The statement claims that false media coverage, and the Springfield City Council’s resolution condemning the murder of George Floyd, were impetuses for the attack.

There may be a kernel of truth, however small, in the statement. It almost surely isn’t a coincidence that Routh targeted a black woman and a police officer. It seems likely that the massive, ongoing news story regarding racism and police brutality was filtered through Routh’s unstable mind and resulted in two twisted acts, one with deadly intent.  To me, that speaks to the grave need to provide far better access to mental health services, especially for the homeless. It does not in any way suggest that local media is biased, or that censoring their coverage of a global news story would have prevented Routh’s attacks.

The statement’s tone is aggressive. Here’s a paragraph that I found especially chilling:

Local media, we will call you out from now on when you purposely do things to make our community less peaceful and less safe. You have a duty to be honest, and so do we. We intend to hold you to the high moral standards we hold ourselves to, and that you are quick to pounce on when any officer, anywhere in the country fails that standard. This is your notice.

I don’t know how to read this paragraph except as threatening. Threats are scary in any context, but especially when they come from a group of heavily armed people who’ve released a statement filled with bitterness, in the midst of a period when the daily news is filled with evidence of brutality enacted by members of their profession.

After community backlash, the police union removed the statement from its public facebook page.

I have a headache.

Diagnosis doesn’t just apply to our physical bodies. There is a problem with policing. If we don’t diagnose and correct the problem, the senseless killings of black Americans will continue.

The police union’s statement is unacceptable. These are public servants, funded by my tax dollars and yours. It’s not okay that they’re threatening local journalists and elected officials, that they’re misrepresenting a high profile crime, and that they’re refusing to call George Floyd by name.

In her 2015 essay, “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning,” Claudia Rankine writes, “The legacy of black bodies as property and subsequently three-fifths human continues to pollute the white imagination.” The essay centers around imagination, it explores how black Americans have worked to capture white imagination, to try to make white Americans care about racism and its devastating effects. Rankine was writing in the aftermath of the Mother Emanuel Church shooting, in which nine black parishioners were killed by white supremacist Dylann Roof.

Rankine asks us to imagine a world where black lives matter. She quotes her friend, the poet Fred Moten, “I believe in the world and want to be in it. I want to be in it all the way to the end of it because I believe in another world and I want to be in that.”

Calls to defund the police, and fund other community services and programs to meet societal needs in its place, are a way of imagining that other world. I’m interested in defunding because of its practical impact but also because of the way that it challenges the imagination. If we can struggle to imagine a world without police, what else might we imagine? A world where children are fed? Where climate change is taken seriously?

I’ve been frustrated by some well-meaning people who’ve said, of the protests, “Let’s bring this enthusiasm to the voting booth!” The despair of this moment, and the hope, is so far beyond electoral politics. This is a destabilizing, devastating, world-building time. Elected officials, policies, and the voting booth are downstream of public opinion. Imagination—and its physical embodiment, protest—is upstream. I want us to stay upstream for as long as it takes to imagine a better world, to continue to think and argue and dream, so that no police union releases a statement like this again, so that no police officer kills a black American again.

Of her childhood, writer and activist Angela Y. Davis has said, “I learned as a child to live under racial segregation, but at the same time simultaneously, to live in an imagined new world and to recognize that things would not always be as they were. My mother always said to us: ‘This is not the way things are supposed to be, this is not the way the world is supposed to be.’”

For all of its pain and energy and terrifying momentum, this moment is only as powerful as our willingness to imagine something different out of it, and to fight our way toward that new and better world. It’s no longer enough to halfheartedly treat the symptoms. We must diagnose the disease.IMG_3120

One thought on “This is Your Notice

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