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THOMPSON: Chauvin trial highlights the need for change in America

April 19, 2021 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


When I was 25 years old, I had a friend, mentor and boss in a fellow named Sid Williams - an elegant and distinguished Black man - and we were like brothers from day one. I even showed up for my interview - the first time we met - wearing the exact same suit he wore. We worked hand-in-glove for nearly four years before he advised - much like a big brother - that I leave my perfect job...for a more perfect job.

But during those four years, we would meet a couple times a month after hours in his spacious corner office - four times the size of mine with a killer view of the Washington, D.C. skyline - have a few drinks and solve the world’s problems. Yeah, Sid had a private bar...more or less de rigueur in 60s and 70s corporate offices...and perhaps that helped fuel our wide-ranging discussions.

Business, music, art, sports, politics...little escaped us. Sid was a rarity...a Black man in senior management in an era when all the Black vice presidents in corporate America could fit in a hotel conference room. Like me, Sid was from the South...and we talked with amazing ease about matters of race and equality.

“Almost every Black person in America has a Ph. D. degree in justice,” he once told me. It wasn’t just the Johnnie Walker Black talking...and I knew what he meant. I’ve had Black friends most of my life - young and old, men and women - and not just acquaintances...but true friends...and I listened to how their lives were both similar to and very different from mine.

And unlike most of white America - then and now - I never backed away from Black friends and even strangers from what could be awkward conversations about the inequities that arise solely from the colour of your skin.

I know from both first-hand experience - witnessing some gravely unjust and racist actions - and second-hand from the stories of Black friends whose own experiences have variously brought me to tears or filled me with rage.

Also, I’ve heard the laughter of Black friends upon hearing a white person say something they know to be so far from the truth about racism and equal justice under the law. It is not the laughter or humour or joy...more that of mocking...questioning the speaker’s common sense  and naïveté.

Last week, amid the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the the death of George Floyd, and the death of 20-year-old Daunte Wright at the hands of 26-year veteran Minnesota police officer Kimberly A. Potter - who mistook her gun for her taser - I pondered how little has changed during my life in terms of how police engage Black folks.

In one of my early conversations with Sid, just after a young unarmed Black man had been killed by a police officer in D.C.’s Maryland suburbs, I remember him asking me if my dad had “the talk” with me about police.

“You mean, if you need help, call the police?” I asked.

“No, not exactly,” Sid responded...one eyebrow raised. “Every Black mom and dad tells his son and daughter how to act and talk and move around police...and calling police for help is pretty far down the list of things to do.”

Even today - despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary - much of white America doesn’t see or understand that police more-often-than-not don’t engage Black people the same as they do white people.

An analysis of police shootings in America since 2015 by The Washington Post shows that unarmed Black people account for 40 percent of the unarmed Americans killed by the police, despite making up only about 13 percent of the population.

White folks in vehicles aren’t stopped as often or for the same reasons as Black folks. And with the proliferation of camera phones, where once - at best - it was a question of one man’s word against another’s...with one of those was a sworn law officer...there is now verifiable video evidence.

On Dec. 5 of last year, two of the Windsor, VA police department’s three patrol officers pulled over a U.S. Army officer for what they believed was a missing license plate. Windsor - population 2,721 - is on Route 460 near Suffolk in southeastern Virginia.

The Army officer - 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario - was driving a new Chevrolet Tahoe SUV with a cardboard temporary license plate taped to the inside of the rear window as required by state law.

Lieutenant Nazario - in uniform - travelled one mile...one minute and forty seconds after the police turned on their flashing lights...pulling over in a well-lighted service station rather than along a dark highway.

He had good reason to be cautious. Ironically, Lt. Nazario’s uncle was Eric Garner, a Black man who died at the hands of police six years ago from a prohibited chokehold for selling single cigarettes on the street in Staten Island, NY.

Like his uncle, Lt. Nazario’s encounter with police was captured by several cameras, including both police officers' body cameras and Nazario's phone. The videos don’t lie...regardless of who shot them.

“I'm honestly afraid to get out,” Lt. Nazario tells the officers as they approach the vehicle with weapons drawn and order him to exit the vehicle.

“Yeah,” one officer says, “you should be.” The same officer tells Nazario he is “fixin' to ride the lightning, son,” a Southern expression for execution by electric chair.

The officer uses pepper spray four times on Lt. Nazario, and yells at him to take his seat belt off and get out of the car. Lt. Nazario - eyes tearing and breathing with difficulty - explains that his dog in the back of the vehicle is “choking” from the pepper spray.

With his hands raised, Lt. Nazario tells the officers, “I'm reaching for my seat belt,” before he steps out of the vehicle. The officers order him to the ground as Lt. Nazario stands by the vehicle and asks what's happening...why he was stopped?

The officers wrestle Lt. Nazario to the ground and handcuff him as he says over and over, “This is f***** up.”

When I realize that the wider availability of cell phone cameras is more responsible for greater police accountability than any evolution in the hearts and minds of those who wield power...I’m enraged.

A Black person in America is three times more likely to die at the hands of police than a white person. It matters little whether that Black person is famous or not, has an advanced degree or is a high school dropout, is unemployed or is a corporate CEO, the odds are the same.

Black folks have - over decades - tried appealing to consciences...reasoning calmly...marching and screaming in protest...suing in courts...all for change. Still, the random and all-too-frequent end result - unnecessary death by police - goes on.

I remember asking Sid way back then, “What’s next? Where do you go from here?” He looked at me for a long time, and in a quiet voice said, “I don’t know.”

I wanted to hear something so different from my boss, my mentor...my friend. It seems beyond tragic that today, I can do no better than repeat his plaintive answer.

America...things have to change.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.


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