by Robert Wood, Social Media Advisor – Prison Scholar Fund

In this era of tense race relations and political polarization education and a will to understand each other makes it possible to find common ground. On September 26, 2016 as I watched two very polarizing politicians debate, Hillary Clinton – the democratic nominee for president and Donald Trump – the republican nominee, I was amazed that they both concurred that the shooting death of an unarmed Black man in Oklahoma by a police officer was deeply troubling. It was a recent event which had occurred in the last few days prior to the debate and I was glad to hear both candidates address the significance of the issue involving police brutality in our great nation. The problem is more prevalent in Black and inner city communities and is often dismissed when people who don’t want to talk about it or minimize it  by pivoting to the Black on Black violence which constantly takes place in America’s inner cities (at the current time especially Chicago) and other urban areas where it’s induced by a powerful cocktail of drugs, criminal activity, and poverty. Within 24 hours of the presidential debate where the latest issue of police brutality was addressed by both candidates CNN reported that a Black man was killed by police in San Diego, California – my hometown.

That report brought the issue of police brutality directly to the forefront of my mind. Since I have family members who like myself are Black men I immediately cringed when I heard the CNN tease for the story. When they showed the picture of the deceased I did not recognize him and although I felt sympathy for his demise breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn’t a friend, associate, or family member. As the story was reported I observed something that stood out to me: the national media (at least CNN) did not attempt to criminalize or demonize the deceased. They did mention that his sister had called them due to him walking around disoriented and immediately released a still photo of what may have played a key role in the officer’s decision to use lethal force. It was not a clear case of a justified shooting or an unjustified shooting on the part of the police officer. When they spoke of the guy’s (Alfred Olongo) disorientation and the call which preceded the incident letting law enforcement know Olongo may have been endangering himself you would think the police department would send a specialist and not a regular police officer to deal with the issue. While one of the officers involved chose to use a taser, the other opted for the lethal option due to what he erroneously perceived as a lethal threat that turned out to be a vaping device. In this instance there were immediate protests due to the constant killing of Black men in this country by the police when situations don’t necessarily justify it or are extremely questionable. Some police officers and politicians always say it’s justified and that’s simply not true, especially in situations where un-armed individuals are killed like the Black man recently killed in Oklahoma. Donald Trump, a self described law and order presidential candidate said that instance was deeply troubling to him and if a person doesn’t have the temperament to a be a police officer maybe they should consider a different career alternative. Hillary Clinton said she’s deeply disturbed by the trend of violence against Black men by police officers in this country when it’s unjustified and the offenders face no repercussions.

Indeed there is a Black on Black on violence epidemic in this country which police and politicians point to as if that justifies the problem of police brutality. In reality police are held to a much higher standard and righteously so. They have voluntarily accepted the duty to protect and serve the rights of all people in the United States of America regardless, race, religion, or any other issue which could cause bias. That includes people in high crime communities where their services are often needed the most, and unfortunately where they are feared the most. Rather than politicians and law enforcement dancing around these issues perpetuated by a very small percentage of reckless officers they should make it a point t research viable long term solutions.

Why is this issue so important to me now?

I’ve previously had a friend we called Bootsy who lost his life to a questionable police shooting around 1987 in San Diego, California. Whether or not it was justified I don’t know. More recently once they showed Alfred Olongo up close on CNN news I realized that was a good friend of mine we called Snake. It’s very sad and unnerving to me which is what drove me to write this article. When Snake and I met we were incarcerated together at the Federal Correctional Institution in Lompoc, California. We became friends very quickly because we knew many of the same people in San Diego. He told me that him and his brother had been abducted when he was nine years old and forced to become child soldiers in Africa, which is where he came to America from. He was a flawed man like myself and we did some time together, however, he was a good friend, a caring person, and he valued human life very deeply. He had a great sense of humor and often made me laugh. During the time we spent together one of the things we had in common is that we were both trying to turn our lives around. Sadly he lost his life to an unfortunate, but all too familiar situation.

It was very ironic to me that after living through the horror of being a child soldier and getting asylum in the world’s greatest nation, he carved out  a life in America’s finest city and was killed by one of the very people tasked with protecting him and all other people in the United States of America. I won’t attempt to determine whether or not the killing of my friend was justified. He was my friend and I’ll miss him either way. I will say that this political and racial polarization in our country over asking for justice in these instances is must stop. Before I go any further let me note that justice doesn’t always mean one side or the other is right. It means justice in each and every situation as we strive to eliminate this grave problem. As I watch the news I see people upset about others exercising the constitutional right to protest these shootings. That’s ridiculous. This is the United States of America. We have ten amendments to our constitution called the bill of rights which include freedom of speech and the right to assemble to address grievances. We also have a real problem with police brutality where Black men are concerned in this nation. That problem is constantly disclosed through the increasing prevalence of cameras and transparency within in our society and it must be dealt with.

I hope in the near future rather than dancing around and simply debating the issue we will apply our knowledge of best practices, hiring practices, and community policing practices along with human psychology to the situation and find solutions to this critical and divisive issue in the United States. With all that we face as a nation in the way of global opposition to our way of life, our security, and our very existence as a nation we can ill afford to let critical issues like this continue to divide us. Through knowledge, strong collective will, and definitive action we can easily deal with these issues instead of allowing them to continue to divide us and make us ripe for our conquest or demise. I urge every American to think of the bigger picture and understand why internal conflict while we deal with serious 21st century threats, such as terror, nuclear arms in rogue nations, and a renewed cold war with Russia, is counterproductive to our health as a nation. We are the United States for a reason. We are the sum of every race and culture on Earth working together to thrive. Although flawed, we are the greatest nation in the history of humankind and must work hard to keep it that way. Our biggest strategic asset is our diversity. Through education and interaction on both sides of this critical issue we can gain an understanding and through that understanding we will gain the will, resolve, and solutions to this serious problem and any others we may face. God bless America – All of America.

Robert Wood, our Social Media Advisor, is a volunteer for the PSF. His Tweets can be found on Twitter, @prisonscholars, account under the hashtag #RLW_PSF. He can be reached via any of our social media outlets or emailed at the following address: rlw@prisonscholars.org.

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