Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ferguson Missouri, (Just my two cents)

In 1992, as Los Angeles burned in response to the Rodney King verdict, I wrote a letter to the editor to the paper in my little hometown. I was just a kid really. Full of ideals, a sense of fairness and justice, and a desire to change the world. My letter expressed my outrage at the idea that police officers were acquitted after beating a man, on camera, in front of the entire world. I was so proud of myself in that moment. I stood up for something. Something that was important to me.

Later I heard another side of the story. Rodney King was driving like a madman eluding the police in a high speed chase. He was on parole for a previous robbery. He had a long history of criminal offenses. Did he deserve to get beaten like he did? By my viewing, no, he didn’t.

But I wasn’t there. I only know what I saw.

Why is this important?

The answer lies in the idea of critical thinking. How do we arrive at what our personal “truth” is? It’s a combination of our upbringing, our values, our experiences, our parents, and a thousand other variables. Sometimes these things make us quickly rush to judgment and jump to conclusions. At our worst as human beings we get emotional, pick a side, and dig in deep. And God forgive you if you disagree. We have names for those who disagree with us. Both sides. You’re a bigot, a racist, an idiotic liberal, a hippie, a tree-hugger, a nazi, an uneducated republican, a dumbocrat.

And on and on it goes..

But can we get back to me for a second??

Sweet home Chicago. I lived in the city for 18 years. It’s one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. I’ve had beers with black friends on the south side of Chicago in one of the worst ghettos in this country. I’ve had beers many times with my numerous cop friends in the Irish bars in the city. I saw more crime than I could ever care to remember perpetrated in the black neighborhoods in Chicago. I saw some cops do some very dirty and dishonest things. Mostly though I saw and befriended, and drank and lived and died with a lot of good people from all races trying to do the best they could in a complicated and difficult city with a hundred years of difficult race relations baked into its history.

Most of the people were good though.

But here’s a story I’ll always remember.

2012 and I’m a psychologist working on the south side in a pretty tough neighborhood. I’m busy with white clients, black clients, and everything in between. One day my buzzer rings and I come to the door. It’s an old friend of mine who is a police officer. A white police officer. He’s with a black kid who is about 16. His pants are hanging low on his waist and he looks pretty pissed off.
I have no idea what they’re doing here.

My cop friend explains to me that he picked the kid up for suspicion of a robbery. The kid told him to go fuck himself. He wanted to smack the kid around. The kid wanted to smack him around. Both of them had deeply rooted ideas about what the other one stood for. This came from a lifetime of socialization, personal experiences, parenting, geography, and a million other little things that lead them to jump to conclusions about one another.

Yet there they stood..

My friend asked me for help. He knew I was a psychologist and knew that there was something about this kid that was worth saving.

He asked for my help. I agreed. The three of us sat down and talked. It didn’t go perfectly, but we all came away with a much deeper understanding of where the other was coming from. No cops, no thugs, no psychologists, but three people that actually took an hour to talk. The kid agreed to come back. I worked with him for two years. When I left Chicago he was enrolled in junior college. He hadn’t been arrested since the day he first came to my office. He was studying criminal justice.

“All cops are racist pigs”

“All young black kids are thugs”

No… Not from my experience. Not even a little bit. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten as a psychologist was that each person is an N of 1.

But mostly I’ll base this on the fact that a cop who cared brought a kid to me who was going nowhere good in a hurry. Perhaps my sample size is too small, and I’m overlooking larger social and cultural forces that go way beyond this.

But I don’t think so..

Back to the critical thinking though.. I don’t know what happened on that fateful day in Ferguson Missouri, and neither do you. You believe what you believe because of a number of social forces, your upbringing, your education, your experiences, etc.

But you weren’t there.

Our justice system ruled on the case. Perhaps they simply weighed the evidence to the best of their ability and made their decision. Perhaps they were wrong. Perhaps there is racism and favoritism baked into the system.

Perhaps, perhaps, and perhaps.

But you weren’t there.

What’s one person to do you might ask? A lot. An awful lot. Maybe you can take a chance on someone like my cop friend did. Maybe you can volunteer at a school in a neighborhood that needs some help. Maybe you can do something as simple as broadening your social circle to include people of another race, religion or creed. Maybe you can start purposely and carefully challenging yourself to argue and debate the opposing side of an issue you are absolutely certain you are right about.

That’s critical thinking. You don’t have all the answers. Neither do I. Neither does anyone.

But in the meantime let’s try and be good to one another.