By James Farr
Summer 2016, July to be specific. Much like many I know, we were frozen watching coverage of three brothers having contact with law enforcement and trade words for bullets. I was on vacation with my wife. What should have been a few happy days in the Mile High City, I found myself in deep sadness and weeping — a deep bellowing cry.
My heart sank.
I was vicariously traumatized and bruised. The homicides of Delrawn Small, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were on loop for days in a world in which people would rather capture cellphone video of violence, than use their mobile device to summon for help.
The string of deaths began on the Fourth of July, when Small was fatally shot by an off-duty cop in Brooklyn early Monday after a road-rage incident quickly intensified. Sterling was killed early Tuesday by Baton Rouge police officers responding to a call about an armed man. A gruesome video showing the 37-year-old Sterling pinned to the ground before he is shot by one of the two arresting officers went viral, inciting outrage on social media and sparking protests in the Louisiana capitol. Then, on Wednesday night, Castile was shot multiple times by a police officer in Falcon Heights, a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, after the 32-year-old was pulled over in a routine traffic stop for a busted taillight.
In that moment, I wasn’t thinking about how to process it. I was flat out heartbroken. As clarity set in, I realized of the hundreds of thousands of contacts that police have over the past several years… we’ve seen 20 to 30 incidents looping, constantly playing, and forwarding a narrative advancing the concept, “There are dead Black men laying in the streets and you may be next.”
That’s terrifying and paralyzing to think that everyone can be the next victim. Who are these people perpetuating the loop? And what do they have to gain by looping our demise? I didn’t know what I could do or if I did, would it matter.
Later, I would hear the phrase “L.O.V.E. is the answer.” I viewed the film “Walking while Black: L.O.V.E. is the Answer” and it would challenge me to open up my heart and consider reconciliation. But before I could consider its solutions, I have to take you back into my journey, that at times was filled with anxiety and anger.
From Ferguson, to Baltimore, to Los Angeles, to NFL football games, the issue of police brutality and racial profiling has ignited a national debate and a grassroots movement for reform. Pasadena, where I live, is not immune to this problem. A recent incident — the unwarranted and brutal beating of Chris Ballew by two Pasadena police officers — has triggered a local campaign to address the Pasadena Police Department’s use-of-force practices and policies and to engage John Perez, the new police chief in constructive discussion.
I decided to attempt to learn about him as a person. Would he, as my media colleague Sgt. Cheryl Dorsey says, give us “company speak” and “circle the wagons” to spin narratives to serve and protect his rank and file?
Would he be full of smoke? Or, would he step up and get this smoke from a community experiential lens? More about the formation of our relationship later.
On a trip to D.C. visiting the MLK memorial, I came across this quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” In keeping with his prescient admonition, I am determined to create and maintain dialogues within and across communities that will promote actionable steps followed by sustainable change.
In short, I am elated to have had the support of the late Rabbi Marv Gross, Pastor Lucious Smith and Adjoa Annang, along with other leaders of the local Jewish and African American communities as their example of unity has made King’s call for love, understanding, empathy, and mutuality all the more received. It is incumbent upon all of us, regardless of our particular subjectivities be they varied by ethnicity, faith, sexual orientation, etc., to realize that a threat to one is a threat to all.
The time for action is now and the particularity of the moment is critical. In the age of the 24/7 news cycle, where new topics trend across social media as ephemeral crisis du jour, the one consistent that has maintained has been the all-out assault on not only the Black body, but the Black psyche, both in a collective sense.
After spending literal days reviewing the Ballew case, after incessant viewings, following countless interviews, the video, the imagery, the injustice has been seared into my psyche. I worry, not just for myself, but for others who occupy similar identities — like my two young children, who will inherit a community and world, in which they are born suspects.
As recently as this past summer, I was stopped on the train for having fallen asleep en route to my destination. I was awoken by the jarring shoves of transit security, which after the Oscar Grant homicide, in the Bay Area, were especially troubling. Instead of choosing to de-escalate this particular officer saw fit to perceive a sleeping, Black male body as somehow inherently criminal and troublesome.
Thankfully, experience and maturity were on my side, as I knew my rights. The transit officer seemed far less interested in pursuing me as an imagined threat after I began recording and told him he was accosting me for no good reason. Though I was able to de-escalate the situation, others ignorant of their rights are rarely as fortunate.
At the very least, they are trafficked through the criminal (in)justice system, railroaded by innocuous offenses on their rap sheets. At worst, they don’t make it out alive to tell their stories. We cannot let the abnormal become normalized. Blackness is not a crime and to conflate the two when coupled with the callous disregard of power-tripping authority becomes a game with potentially, and too often, fatal consequences.
Unfortunately, every Black man of a certain age has a police story. Seemingly without fail these encounters with authority are trappings of Black adulthood. Judged by our color and stripped of our humanity, these narratives become all too common, and as mentioned, the exceptionality of certain cases only lies in the fact that sometimes they are recorded on video. Without question, however, they are recorded and registered in our memories. Scarred by this psychic trauma, the rewatchings, reairings, and seemingly looped videos of wholesale executions of our Black brothers only serves to personalize perilous potentialities.
“What if that had been me? That could have been me.”
With my own independent journalistic efforts through The Conversation.Live, I am able to affect change through meaningful dialogue and constructive conversation. This speaks to the power of agency when located squarely within a chain of like-minded change agents. Though I never saw myself as an agent provocateur prior, it is a label which I proudly now wear. It’s more than a role, but a responsibility I bear and in which, I take tremendous pride.
I once saw myself as only wearing the family man hat as a loving husband and devoted father. Others who have noticed my activism have now labeled me an independent journalist, filmmaker, author and agent provocateur. I have happily accepted the flattery and challenge my colleagues to answer the call to action similarly.
We all have certain strengths, motivations and roles we can play to offset the evils of injustice. This is not a “me” thing, but a “we” thing. We are a community united and together, only acting in informed unison, in synch and in step with the mutuality of our ultimate objectives for a better tomorrow, can we expect things to change. Agency on the individual level, naturally lends itself to agency on a collective one. Famed rap artist and activist Tupac Shakur once said, “I may not be the brain that changes the world, but I will spark the one that does.”
This is directly in dialogue with the aforementioned MLK Jr. quote which I used to open. Despite the apparent juxtaposition Shakur’s assiduous and intensive community-building efforts are often overshadowed in the popular imagination by his “gangster-rapper” persona. This alone is a virulent reduction of his multivalent layers, manifold.
Back to Chief Perez. In our many conversations, he showed up vulnerable, open and willing to listen. At times, our discussion turned contentious, he was willing to go down the pathway of some critical and uncomfortable dialog. Often admitting, “We can do better.”
Perez wrote me, “…. In today’s environment, it is clear to me there is a societal disconnect in finding a balance on critical issues such as policing in today’s world. James Farr has been very critical of policing practices across the country as well as in Pasadena. However, our community is fortunate that he has contributed his efforts in developing connection points so we can have the difficult conversation as a community. His approach to facilitating discussions has been helpful for many to believe the right questions are being asked, regardless of how difficult it is. He has ensured these questions are answered and I appreciate his willingness to be involved in a productive manner, focused on bettering our community.”