Oh, Wendy.

For my non-Pittsburgh area friends, this blog post probably requires a little back story.

FB_WendyBellWendy Bell is (or was, until very recently) a very popular local news anchor.  Everyone knows Wendy, and through the magic of social media, we all know about her kids, her husband, and her take on family values. Lots of people love her, because they can relate to her.  And everything points to Wendy Bell being a Pittsburgh mom who loves her city, loves her family and genuinely cares about the people around her.

Wendy Bell is almost certainly not a Racist.

Recently, after a devastating mass shooting that killed five people and an unborn child at a backyard BBQ, Wendy took to Facebook to try to make sense of the tragedy.  Read the original post here, along with more context.  A lot of people read her original post and did not think there was anything wrong with it.  (In fairness, even many Wendy supporters could easily see where she went wrong in that original post.)  If you are one of those who didn’t see any issue, though, let me try to summarize:

1.) Making an assumption (particularly one so firmly stated as fact) that the perpetrator of a crime was a young black man is a racist conclusion.  You’ll say that it is based on statistics and history, but that’s the thing about racism.  If we continue to allow it, it is self-perpetuating.  That’s what leads to the systemic nature of racism.

2.) Taking that a step further and making assumptions about that fictional young black man’s upbringing and back story – that he has siblings from multiple fathers, for example – is even more glaringly racist.

3.) Ending with an uplifting story about the young black man working at the restaurant and making something good of his life is not just generally condescending, but blatantly racist.  That young black man might have an IQ of 150, be a student at Carnegie Mellon, and the son of two wealthy professional parents.  Using one young black man as a comparison to another (let’s remember, fictional) young black man is racism.

This isn’t the first time that she’s posted something to Facebook or said something in a public forum that exposed her white privilege.  Her comments on the University of Missouri’s racial tensions made me cringe several months ago (and unfortunately her social media accounts are disabled and I was unable to find the text online).

Again, I don’t think Wendy Bell is a Racist, with a capital “R”.  However, I do think that she is a white woman who sees the world through the eyes of white privilege.  I am also a white woman who sees the world through the eyes of white privilege.  Sometimes I make assumptions and jump to conclusions in my mind that I’m ashamed of.  But I work hard with every thought, word and action to fight against that ingrained racism and white privilege, and I’ll continue to do so for the rest of my days.  Based on Wendy’s readiness to share her thoughts with her immense audience via social media, it’s pretty clear that she doesn’t recognize how that white privilege and ingrained racism impacts the way she sees the world.

I am happy to see that most Pittsburghers agree that her original post displayed (at the very least) an insensitivity to the subject of race.  The division now is – Should Wendy Bell have been fired from her job at WTAE?  Given that it isn’t the first time that she was forced to apologize and that this particular incident was related to one of the most horrific crimes that Pittsburgh has endured in recent memory, I don’t think the station had any other choice.  She’s become too divisive to remain on the air.

I wish the best for Wendy Bell.  My sincere hope is that she finds a project on race relations in Pittsburgh to which she can devote her admirable energy and share lessons on tolerance that are sorely needed in our city.

It is not easy, but it is also not “complicated”.

michaelbrownLike so many others today, I’m sad.  Frustrated. Angry.  There’s a sense of impotence, not knowing what I can do or say that will make tomorrow better than today for the community around me.  I don’t know what else to do, so I’m going to write.

In an editorial on CNN earlier today, Safiya Simmons, a black woman married to a police officer, said that she is  conflicted on the Darren Wilson verdict.  On one hand, she is raising her son and living in a society that displays “a pattern in this country of killing black boys without care or consequences”, while on the other hand, she believes firmly that her husband should do what he needs to do to stay alive and come home to her at the end of day.  In her words, it’s “complicated”.

Being a police officer is dangerous, thankless and unbelievably self-sacrificing.  It also comes with a legal and moral obligation for discipline, objectivity and restraint when asserting your authority and in the use of your firearm.  I would guess that 99.99+% of the police force in America are great men and women with great judgement, who are worthy of our support, praise, thanks and trust.  Darren Wilson is not one of them.

Don’t make Ferguson about people who support cops versus people who don’t.  Doing so is to completely misunderstand and minimize the depth of the issue.  This is about justice for victims of cops who go too far and get away with it.  This is about a system that is broken. This is about respect for all lives of all colors.  This is rooted in hundreds of years of history.  This isn’t easy, but it is also not “complicated”.

If Michael Brown had been armed with a gun…  If Darren Wilson had fired only to disable or deter the unarmed teenager…  If Darren Wilson had fired only one shot…  If the fatal shot had been at close range while Michael Brown was within reaching (punching, tackling) distance of Officer Wilson… If any one of those things had been true, I might believe that Darren Wilson was doing what he needed to do to stay alive and go home at the end of the day.  But 12 gun shots – only one, non-fatal, at close range – is in no way simply what he needed to do.

12 gunshots and a body left in the street for more than 4 hours is a disregard for the life behind the skin color.  It is, at the very least, a loss of control and negligence in the use of a firearm that deserves the due process of a criminal trial by jury.

(This post fails to address so many other critical issues that the shooting death of Michael Brown and subsequent protests brought to light.  The handling of the protests, the numerous questionable decisions of the prosecutor, the violence in the midst of pleas for peace from Michael Brown’s family, and the underlying systemic racism that so many want to deny.  I’m going to try to spend some time over the upcoming weekend digging into the grand jury testimony, and I expect this will not be my last post on this topic.)

Community Protector or Vigilante?

ImageWe all know the basic story of the shooting of Trayvon Martin.  (If you don’t know anything about the case already, you’ve been living under a rock and I can’t rehash everything.  Wikipedia has an amazingly detailed post with cited references.)  Here’s my best efforts at an unbiased nutshell:

George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch coordinator for a gated community, fatally shot Trayvon Martin on the streets of that community.  Zimmerman cited self-defense; it was later confirmed that Martin was unarmed.  Zimmerman was tried on second degree murder charges, but found not guilty under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” defense.

It’s never quite that simple.

Trayvon Martin was a young, black man walking alone in a multi-ethnic gated community.  George Zimmerman, having noticed Martin during a drive in the neighborhood, thought that he looked “suspicious”.  He called the police.  On that phone call, he told police that the young man looked like he was “up to no good” and “on drugs or something” and seemed concerned that Martin was looking at the houses in the community.  Martin started to run away during the course of Zimmerman’s call to the police (per the transcripts) and the dispatcher told Zimmerman not to follow him.  Police were on their way.

If the story ends there, it is unlikely that it ends in tragedy.  Zimmerman did his job as a community watch coordinator.  The story, of course, does not end there.

Zimmerman got out of his car and followed Martin.

From this point, we only have Zimmerman’s statements to police to go on when it comes to what happened next.  It does seem clear that there was an altercation – which Zimmerman claims was provoked by Martin.  (Read his statement to police.)  During that altercation, Zimmerman fatally shot Martin in the chest.

Community Protector or Vigilante?

In the months and weeks leading up to the shooting, the community had experienced a number of break-ins, with suspects identified as young, black men.  From the descriptions that I have read, the entire area sounds like a powder keg ready to go off – and George Zimmerman had taken the role of leading the community protection.  Neighbors overwhelmingly describe him in a positive light – as someone who offered security.  For a man who was finishing up a degree in criminal justice with hopes of one day becoming a judge, that must have been a pretty powerful feeling.

After months of home invasions and vandalism, it isn’t hard to understand why Zimmerman took to the streets.

Where did it all go wrong?

You could argue that it went wrong when George Zimmerman decided that Trayvon Martin was suspicious based on the color of his skin.  You could argue that it went wrong when a community chose to create an armed community watch program.  I personally would argue that it went wrong when George Zimmerman got out of his car with a gun to follow a “suspicious” young man after police had already been dispatched.

Was it criminal?

At the end of the day, that’s the question.  I want to say that there’s a simple answer, but course there never is.  If George Zimmerman felt remorse for his actions, I would feel some degree of sympathy.  He made a tragic mistake and an unarmed teenager died.  Being a “mistake”, though, doesn’t mean that it isn’t still a crime.

Yes, I believe it was criminal.  Manslaughter, at the very least.  Unfortunately, in Florida, the laws are extremely forgiving when it comes to self-defense, due to the now-infamous “Stand Your Ground” law.  The law allows for an individual to use deadly force without the necessity of attempting a safe retreat if he/she feels their safety threatened.  “Stand Your Ground” laws exist in many states; in Florida it does not only apply to crimes committed in your home (as many states limit), but extends to any other location.

This post feels far too balanced.

After writing this post, I feel like my viewpoint sounds far too balanced.  The reasonable side of my brain recognizes that this case is complicated.  The truth is that I’m horrified that as a nation, we continue to kill innocent people because we make a decision based on the color of their skin.  The details are complicated, but that truth is simple.

And here’s another simple truth – we’ve set a precedent.  We’ve said that it is okay to take the law into your own hands.  We’ve okayed racial profiling (although in fairness, we okayed that centuries ago).  We’ve okayed the use of deadly force if you feel threatened.

The worst part?  Zimmerman will continue to have a permit to carry a concealed weapon, despite a history of poor decisions leading to a fatal shooting.

Side note about media bias:  It is absolutely clear that the profiles of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin were subject to extreme media bias.  In media outlets sympathetic to Martin, the photo most often used of Zimmerman showed him wearing the standard orange jumpsuit worn by those held in detention centers; while Martin was show as a fresh faced teen.  For those sympathetic to Zimmerman, photos of Martin with facial hair using obscene gestures (and sometimes photos of OTHER young black men, because apparently accuracy doesn’t matter) and Zimmerman in a suit and tie dominated the visuals.  The saddest part of that, though, is that it matters – that by changing what photo we share, our perception of who Trayvon or George are changed.