Events seem to be overwhelming us. Each day there is a new headline, a new body count, a new video that documents what is happening on the streets of America. Not streets in some distant state from yours, but your state. It has been so constant, and deceptively subtle in it’s escalation, that we have become desensitized to it. We are disoriented. We can’t tell if up is really up or if down is really down. We no longer recognize the landmarks on our horizon. We are in a graveyard spiral.
Graveyard spirals are a phenomena that take place in aviation. It happens when a pilot who can manage to fly pretty well when the weather is clear, finds himself in bad weather. While these pilots may be great pilots on a bright sunny day, when it is easy to see where you are going, when the clouds surround the plane and everything suddenly looks the same, they do not possess the skill to fly the plane using only the instruments.
When everything looks the same, and the pilot becomes unable to determine the plane’s orientation by the information right in front of him, the pilot becomes susceptible to sensory illusions that result in spatial disorientation. In plain language, the pilot can’t tell if they are flying right side up or upside down. They don’t know if they are 5 feet off the ground or 30,000 feet high. The pilot has lost the judgment necessary to determine the orientation of their aircraft because their brain cannot process the information in front of them.
The graveyard spiral happens incrementally at first. The changes in orientation happen so subtly that the pilot’s mind adjusts to the new “level”, but the new level isn’t level at all. Ultimately, when the pilot finally becomes alarmed enough to try and right the plane, he engages in a series of banking turns to the left and to the right. But the brain is still adjusting, and it is misinterpreting what attitude the plane is flying on. Eventually, the pilot thinks he is flying level, but in fact he is in a constant left turn. Every rotation the plane loses altitude, and in the end the pilot flies the plane straight into the ground. Willingly. Believing he was doing the right thing during his entire, inevitable descent.
As a society, it seems we have become disoriented. We can’t see the landmarks we trust anymore, and the landmarks we can see we don’t trust. We aren’t understanding the information in front of us. And in some cases, we can’t even bring ourselves to look at the information that might lead us to answers. We keep doing the same thing and expecting everything to be OK. Even though we can’t see where we are going, the pilots of our plane, the people who lead us and make our laws, they tell us we are all going to be just fine.
But we aren’t. We are flying ourselves straight into the ground. And it seems the further we fall, the faster the plane seems to be going down. And we keep looking out the window and just hoping for the best. It would seem the graveyard spiral is inevitable, and nothing can be done to return the plane to normal flight.
But that just isn’t so. There IS a way to pull the plane out of the graveyard spin. the pilot has to consciously decide his brain is lying to him. The pilot must consciously decide to seek a familiar horizon, rather than giving into the powerful and wrong instincts his brain keeps telling him is fact. And if no familiar horizon can be found, the pilot must consciously decide to look at the hard data on the instruments in front of him, and ignore the illusions he thinks he sees. He must be disciplined and determined in maintaining this course of action until the plane has safely landed at it’s destination.
That is what we must do as a society. A culture. A NATION. We must consciously decide the illusions are brains are telling us are fact are actually dangerously false. We must look at the data and facts in front of us. And we must find the discipline, the determination, THE POLITICAL WILL, to right the plane by using true facts and data we can measure.
The data we must address is disturbing. Just as the nation is reeling from the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, a report was released from The Center of Policing Equity. What they found validates the experiences black Americans say they encounter with law enforcement.
The Center for Policing Equity readily admitted that gathering data was a difficult task. Despite President Obama’s call for better reporting by police departments on use of force incidents, police departments have been largely reluctant to comply. What they did find in the data that was available speaks to a profound anti-black disparity.
The study found that the overall mean use-of-force rate for all black residents was 273 per 100,000, which is 3.6 times higher than the rate for white residents (76 per 100,000) and 2.5 times higher than the overall rate of 108 per 100,000 for all residents.
For those who were arrested, the mean rate of use of force against blacks was 46 for every 1,000 arrests, compared with 36 per 1,000 for whites.
This data alone tells us we aren’t flying the plane right. But if we are going to change it, we have to see it. If we are going to change it, we have to be able to say it. Voluntary disclosure on use of force by law enforcement agencies clearly isn’t working. It is time for Congress to make such reporting mandatory and timely. We need to see the landmarks around us. Refusing to see them just hastens our descent toward the ground.
We also need to address the reality of the law enforcement officer’s day-to-day experience. Law enforcement, by the nature of their jobs, come into contact on a daily basis with the most violent, most mentally disturbed, most deceitful and dangerous people in our society. A steady, unrelenting, year after year, immersion in seeing people at their worst absolutely HAS to impact their ability to interact with a normal citizen who just happens to be having a bad day. If they are part of a policing culture, that for what ever rationalization they are clinging to, embrace a systematic unequal policing of their community, then the people who they perceive as posing the most risk to them begin to all look demographically similar. This can easily cause an officer to become hyper-vigilant in situations that do not actually pose the risk they fear. Because don’t kid yourself, cops are scared too. They are humans too. They just want to go home safely every night. And the vast majority want to go home unharmed after having done no harm. There must be a way we can help police officers break the routine of seeing the worst. We need to find a way for police officers to regularly have positive interactions with the community they stand as guardian for. We have to do better by law enforcement. They deserve better.
I admire the loyalty law enforcement officers have for one another. It is very reminiscent of the fraternity that those who have served in the military feel for one another. This is a totally unrelated story, but perhaps it will help illustrate the point I want to make. Not that long ago, the first women earned their Ranger tabs in the US Army. For any woman who has ever served in any capacity, this was a watershed moment in the history of the Army as well as in the evolution of women’s equality. In the wake of that event, there were many current and former male Rangers who were incensed that women had been allowed to enter their hallowed ranks. They firmly believed that the women had assistance from the instructors in the Ranger training program as well as from the officers who wanted these women to be successful. They thought they had evidence to prove it. I remember having a conversation with a very close friend who is a member of the media and was working the story as a freelancer. She told me the evidence these guys thought they had. I told her why I thought it was not valid criticism, and then I said something that to this day surprises me. I was shocked when it came out of my own mouth, and I was shocked at how passionately I felt about what I said. What I told her was, “You know, these guys maybe right, and these guys might be wrong. But I can tell you for a fact I am going to stand with my warrior sisters until you present me with evidence so incontrovertible that I can find NO other reasonable explanation for it. They are my sisters. They deserve my loyalty and it WILL NOT waiver. And I WILL NOT allow these **insert colorful description of sexist rangers here** to diminish the tremendous thing these women have done,”
Now, I know that is wrong. I knew it was wrong when I said it. To be who I want to be, I have to accept a truth that might not be convenient to my world view. But my loyalty overrode my sensibility. I think that law enforcement community sometimes suffers from allowing loyalty to override sensibility when they are responding to these repeated occurrences of lethal violence against black folks. They do not want to believe one of their own might have made a bad decision, and even if they did make a bad judgment call, they put their life on the line everyday and deserve their colleagues in law enforcement to stand at their side. I get that. Truly I do. But that inflexibility shuts down dialogue. If law enforcement as a community doesn’t allow for the self reflection necessary for progress and improvement, it doesn’t allow the people who feel more besieged than protected to have any hope that things might change.
Lastly, I want to address escalation. Because I think we can all agree that events seem to be happening at a pace that is so bewildering it is stupefying us. Before we can get our heads around one act of senseless violence, another one that is even more shocking, even more epic in scale occurs, and we stand bewildered and stunned into inaction. Our country is drenched in weapons of mass destruction.
We have people clinging to their assault rifles and wrapping themselves in the Second Amendment. They tell us they need these efficiently lethal killing tools in case they have to rise up against a tyrannical government. But here is the thing, not everyone experiences oppression simultaneously. Weak minds resort to violence as their last option for social change. As disturbed and twisted as the motivations of that shooter in Dallas seem to people thinking more clearly, he had clearly embraced the logic that he was using his Second Amendment rights to strike out at a government he felt was depriving him of his liberty and his life. I am not in ANY way endorsing, excusing, or condoning his actions. They were heinous. and wrong, and served no constructive purpose or higher goal. But I think it is important to remember that when people talk about using their AR-15 assault rifles as a check on the power of their government, they are talking about killing cops. They are talking about killing soldiers and assassinating politicians. They are talking about opening fire on a crowded room of innocent citizens that they find somehow threatening. DALLAS is what solving political problems with violence looks like. So if you have a white-knuckle grip on your assault rifle, and elevate yourself with self-righteous talk of standing against an unjust government, the “they” you are talking about are your community cops, the soldiers who put their lives on the line, and anyone else you alone have decided to become judge, jury and executioner for. And those folks are our neighbors, our families, and our friends. You call them heroes when they are gunned down in the street by a madman you can’t relate to, but you are reserving the right to call them targets if things start going a way you don’t like. So really think about who it is you say you are ready to declare war on to “take your country back.” That “they” isn’t anonymous. “They” are the servants of your community.
And I think it is terribly important to note that in Dallas, it wasn’t a good guy with a gun that stopped a bad guy with a gun. The police were armed, geared up, and fully trained. And they were also woefully outgunned. It took a robot deploying a claymore explosive to take the shooter down. In case you aren’t familiar with a claymore, it consists of ball bearings packed in with explosives. It discharges in a forward arc, and anyone caught in the blast area is shredded to pieces. The Dallas Police Department had to deploy military-grade explosives to take down the shooter. What will the NRA tell us next?? The answer is more guns, let’s throw in some grenades and claymores…and hey, if you aren’t wearing next generation body armor you can only blame yourself for dying in a mass shooting. We can’t live in a world where one man, with a broken mind and a twisted agenda, can inflict such mass damage in mere seconds. It just doesn’t make sense.
Decades ago, gunshots in the streets of Dallas changed the trajectory of this country. Once again, the nation mourns the consequences of gunshots in the streets of Dallas. Children being slaughtered didn’t give us the will to change. Slaughtering black people exercising their faith in their church simply because they were black didn’t give us the will to change. Slaughtering members of the LGBTQ community as they danced with joy didn’t give us the will to change. Countless black people dying for simply having the misfortune of an encounter with the police hasn’t given us the will to change. Will slaughtering cops in the streets of Dallas just because they were white people wearing blue give us the will to change? Will it? WILL IT?
I don’t think we have much longer before our plane hits the deck. We won’t see it coming, but it will surely come.
It’s time to start having some painful conversations. It is time to hear things we don’t want to hear and to say things we are ashamed to say. It isn’t easy to correct a graveyard spiral. but we no longer have any options. And I fear we are running out of time.
Our eyes must see. Our minds must open. Our hearts must soften.
This is how we right the plane.
Peace and Love, Yall