Listen, Speak, Act

We are again dealing with another tragic incident of excessive use of deadly force by police against a Black man, this time firing seven shots into the back of Jacob Blake.

The danger in repetitive unconscionable conduct is the numbness that it can produce. Numbness is an emotion we, as a society, cannot afford. Numbness is an emotion I, as a White man, have no right to feel. Numbness is a manifestation of complicity.

After this most recent shooting a Black friend implored me to say something because “they are not listening to us.”

How can we ignore the agony of an unheard scream? If we have an ounce of humanity in our souls, we must hear and heed our Black fellow Americans’ pleas for change and for justice.

I know all too well the temptation to rationalize each incident and fall prey to old prejudices: “Why didn’t these Black men just heed the police?” “The people who were shot are hardly angels.” “The police have a difficult job.” “We must maintain law and order.”

None of these purported justifications are anything of the kind.

How can the failure to heed a police command without putting another life in danger justify an execution? Do we believe such force would be used or offered as a justification for shooting a White person?

What does the acknowledged and accepted difficulty of the job of the police have to do with the incidents we are talking about? I have friends who have served as police officers, rode in a cruiser with one of them for a night shift in a dangerous neighborhood (sufficient to fully appreciate the danger and courage involved with the job) and carry a great deal of respect and appreciation for good police officers — even as my Black family members remind me that I am privileged to have experienced only highly professional encounters with the police. But the cases under scrutiny by and large are not cases of weapons being drawn in dark alleyways with an officer or civilian life on the line. They are examples of over-militarized police, appearing to lack the degree of training and discipline we would expect of elite soldiers utilizing the same weaponry in combat, and all too often seemingly believing they are immune from the consequences of their actions — at least in the case of Blacks.

How does anything but race differentiate the treatment these supposedly non-compliant unarmed Black people receive from the treatment armed White militia receive at the hands of the police? Were water bottles and thanks handed out to any of the unarmed protestors in Wisconsin as they were to the armed people guarding an auto dealership?

It insults our intelligence to focus only on law and order while ignoring the legitimacy of the pent-up anger and frustration boiling over in our society. Someone wiser than me pointed out that if we do not hold the NRA responsible for every shooting, how can we hold the Black Lives Matter movement accountable for every act of looting?

No one I know, and certainly not I, excuse looting and rioting. But greater danger lies ahead if we do not listen to and address the legitimate frustration and outrage at persistent social injustice and inequities in the name of law and order. And there is even greater danger ahead if we encourage, empower and legitimize armed people of any race to take matters into their own hands. There are very few greater threats to law and order than an angry, armed mob. And I would guess almost none strikes greater terror into the hearts of Black Americans.

I am sickened by the parallels to the behavior I saw in the late sixties and early seventies when over hyped, testosterone fueled White male teenagers I knew talked big about going “downtown” to “stop the N*****s (their words, not mine)” from coming into White neighborhoods in the event of a riot. I was disgusted then and I am disgusted now by seeing a hyped up, armed teenager, kill and maim people with a rifle in the name of protecting property. Kyle Rittenhouse allegedly shot people lying on his back because they were trying to apprehend him – after he allegedly shot another person. A jury will decide whether he was meeting deadly force with deadly force.

And the police let him pass. We need not imagine what would have happened to him had he been Black.

What should White allies do?

Listen, Speak and Act.

Our Black fellow Americans are hurting. Badly. We must listen.

What I now understand and should have understood long ago is that every bullet that pierces the spine of a Jacob Blake pierces the spines and spirits of all Black men and women. While White people may abhor what they see, Black people are outraged and terrified. They know in ways White people are privileged not to know that Jacob Blake can be – is – each of them, their sons, fathers, brothers or friends. These killings add to a continuing PTSD for Blacks, which may sometimes subside, but never truly goes away. Psychologically, our Black brothers and sisters are left permanently scarred from these incidents.

I was struck by the words of Mayor Warren of Rochester in the aftermath of the disclosure of the events
leading to Daniel Prude’s death. She spoke of the city’s failure to assist a person so in need of
compassion and help. Her words struck a resonant chord with the theme of Bryan Stevenson’s “Just
Mercy”– our troublesome and increasing willingness to suspend compassion in the dispensation of criminal or social justice.

When Doc Rivers says, referring to the Black experience in America: “we keep loving this country and this country does not love us back”, we should be heartbroken. These are our fellow Americans and in many cases friends and colleagues. They have fought in our armed services to protect our nation. They have patiently believed in the best of our ideals and the exceptionalism we have claimed in our conduct, despite the reality gap as it has pertained to them.

Martin Luther King, Jr, speaking in 1963 dreamed of a day when police abuse and racial violence would end. He said in his speech given during the March on Washington “We can never be satisfied as long as the [Black American] is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” Almost six decades later this dream remains unrealized.

Speak out. Get engaged. Demand change. There will be differences of opinion as to the type and degree of change required, but we must not allow those differences to immobilize us. The status quo is unacceptable. Giving in to numbness is unacceptable. Turning our backs on our Black fellow Americans is inhumane.

Benjamin Franklin is quoted to have summed it up perfectly: “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”

There is no choice in the matter if we believe in American exceptionalism and hope to honor the ideals that we believe make our country great.

About the Author:

Jon Greenblatt is the Co-Founder and Chairman of Legal Innovators. He is a retired International Disputes partner of Shearman & Sterling LLP for over 30 years. Jon and his Co-Founder and CEO, Bryan Parker, launched Legal Innovators to change the way the law approaches hiring, pricing, diversity and inclusion in today’s junior legal talent. Contact Jon with questions or comments and share your thoughts with our community on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn