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George H. Lambert Jr.

There’s no need to rehearse here the facts of what happened in North Charleston, S. C. on April 4, the latest fatal shooting of an unarmed Black man by a White police officer.  Not to mention another fatal shooting just a few days earlier in Tulsa County, Okla. According to authorities, a White deputy meant to use his stun gun but instead fired a fatal shot. These may stand as particularly blatant examples, but the real shame lies in how familiar these stories have become.

When I began this column last October, the idea was to address a different issue every month. One month I would celebrate an episode in Black history, and in another I would try to provide a personal view of a current event, be it affordable housing or domestic violence. As it happens, these last few months have been dominated by one story—with many heartbreaking variations. That confirms African Americans’ fears of walking down the street, or driving.

Like many of this newspaper’s readers, I have been pulled over by the police and experienced the intense unease that one wrong move could have disastrous consequences. I am intimately acquainted with the awkward routine of: Officer, I’m going to reach into my pocket now and pull out my wallet and Officer, should I open my glove compartment now or would you like to do it for me? Despite all the progress we’ve made, the fact that in 2015 I still have to have “the talk” with my teenage grandson is nothing short of depressing.

A recent news item put it starkly: American police killed more people in March 2015 than the entire UK police have killed since 1900. We can debate the reasons, but I feel strongly that intellectual arguments alone fall short of addressing the underlying reality.

Like many of you, I’m “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” to quote Fannie Lou Hamer’s 1964 speech.  At times like this I fall back on three simple ideas in the hopes of moving beyond this difficult moment in our history—feel, talk, and act.

  • Just as we want White people, and especially White police officers, to understand how we feel about being treated as criminals, we can gain a tremendous amount of insight by putting ourselves in the shoes of law enforcement personnel. Imagine you’re an inexperienced White officer patrolling a Black neighborhood. What would it be like, not knowing who’s carrying a weapon or whose anger is fueled by drugs or alcohol? This is not to excuse racist behavior, let alone murderous actions, just to expand our consciousness and to understand the situation more fully. But even with this reasoning, here is why I still struggle with this plausible explanation. Based on a review by the Washington Post and Bowling Green State University researchers, since 2005, 54 officers nationwide have been criminally charged after they shot and killed someone in the line of duty. Most of the police officers were White, while most of the victims were Black. In none of the cases did a Black officer fatally shoot a White person.  
  • Talking among ourselves is important, but dialogue with people who have different perspectives is vital for truly opening minds. In the short video New Beginnings: The Road to Redemption and Recovery, the second episode of the Shoptalk Storytelling series, D.C. Chief of Police Cathy Lanier visits the M&S barbershop in the Brookland neighborhood. She engages in a candid discussion about the dynamic between the White cop on the beat and the Black people he encounters. Will their eyes meet? Who says hello first?
  • In a previous column, I recall the empowering feeling of joining protest marches in Washington and New York City. Recent events have made it abundantly clear that our work is not yet done. We need to organize, to make our voices heard, and to come together as a community. The National Urban League’s 2015 State of Black America outlines the challenges we face and the opportunities we have to make a difference. Also, let’s take a conscientious step to demonstrate more respect for each other in the African-American community. One of the “elephants” in the room is Black-on-Black crime, which must also be addressed with action and zero tolerance.

Feel. Talk. Act. These three one-syllable words alone won’t stop the killing of the innocent and unarmed in our communities and streets, but perhaps they can provide a framework for moving forward. Together. 

George H. Lambert Jr. is the president and CEO of the Greater Washington Urban League.