Call to Action Assignment

My brother is dead. His silver, special lead-lined casket cascaded through the water as the soft rains sent ripples in the ocean. My brother is dead.

About a week ago, I received some hate mail on Facebook messenger: my brother deserved to die. My brother deserved to die because he is white. That is what she wrote to me. I blocked the person; she was a former creative writing student of mine who, up until a year ago, would post historically accurate research of Irish discrimination in America.

I know the protests will die down. I also understand what George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s family will spend the next several years fighting for; I know the nasty tricks that will be used to discredit them and keep the police officers out of jail. I know their wrongful death suits may possibly unravel. I know because I’ve been there.

I know what it is like to have panic attacks when I see a police officer or a police car; I shake, my breathing quickens, I am about to hyperventilate, my pulse skyrockets, I sweat, I fear. 

My brother is dead. I spent the next five years being pulled over by cops and harassed, spat at, pulled out of my car, frisked and worse, yelled at – being the worst kind of criminal on the planet. “What did I do, officer?” “I don’t need to tell you.” Of course not, because I didn’t break any laws. I also know if I were black, one of those times, I might have also died. Being white didn’t save me from being harassed and assaulted by police officers and denied the ability to take action against them during my family’s wrongful death civil case, but it did keep me from being murdered at the hands of law enforcement.

It didn’t stop my brother’s murder.

I believe systematic racism exists, and I could spend the next couple of pages listing all the examples through history, but that won’t bring my brother back to life, it won’t bring George Floyd back to life or Breonna Taylor’s.

Yet, according to my former student, it is because systematic racism exists; my brother deserved to die. I don’t think that is the message we want to send. We should show solidarity and not division.

Like Breonna, my brother never committed a crime; however, he was targeted because he was different: diagnosed with bi-polar disorder years earlier, he was in a manic phase, with a long red-beard; full mountain man look.

The police officers didn’t murder him, but they also did not follow proper protocol. Five hours after the woman who agreed over the phone to rent my brother an apartment called the cops and lied about his trespassing, they took him into custody by dragging him out of his place of employment – a church. Instead of taking him to the emergency room for a psych evaluation or to the police station for a proper booking, they drove him straight to jail.  

The guards accidentally murdered him while having their kicks – induced hypothermia via forced cold water from high powered fire hoses then physically beating him.

My brother is dead, and even though per capita more black people die at the hands of law enforcement, it doesn’t mean my brother deserved to die.

My former student, who now in her early thirties, still called me Momma T, still came to me for advice, still when feeling creative would ask for a writing assignment, called me racist this past week because of what my demands are:

  1. A four-year criminal justice degree for ALL police officers before being admitted into the police academy.
  2. Stop training police officers that citizens are the enemy, and it is an us vs. them world out there.
  3. Psychiatric evaluations for guards, wardens, and officers to stave off those who would abuse their position of authority.
  4. Overturn Qualified Immunity

These have been my demands since my brother’s murder. They will always be my demands; I will not waver; I do not believe they make me a racist; in fact, these changes could help curb some of the systematic racism.  

I am not protesting on the streets; I am protesting through words and letters to our congressmen and other government officials.

My brother is dead, and he didn’t deserve to die. Nor do all the other victims of color or other unique qualities that make someone different.

Based on my experience, I strongly feel that it is crucial to recognize privilege, but understand that recognizing it is different from pretending one has not suffered, has not experienced injustice.

What can we do, we can set forth a multi-layered call to action. As a teacher, the ways we can engage our students would be to discuss the following actions and then give them a “pick one” writing option post discussion. 

  1. Recognize that systematic racism exists and is hurtful to minorities.
    1. Write letters to politicians demanding changes that include one or more of the following and/or other elements you feel strongly about to help stop Systematic Racism.
      1. Create a national curriculum and board for police officers.
      2. Stop the current overzealous standardized test practices. 
      3. Stop the gerrymandering of district lines.
      4. Stop the redlining practices that are still in existence today.
  2. Recognize our privileges and our injustices
    1. Write a narrative that includes all or some of the following:
      1. What are your biases, and how do/why do you believe you have them?
      2. Describe your privileges.
        1. How are your privileges different from someone who
          1. is of the same race.
          2. is of a different race.
      3. Describe and give examples of injustice.
        1. What injustices do minorities suffer?
        2. What injustices do Caucasians (the majority) suffer?
        3. What are some of the similarities and differences?
      4. How/ why are those with disabilities – physical or mental considered minorities who suffer systematic racism?
      5. Explain with examples how pretending one has not suffered; one has not experienced injustice no matter the race be harmful to stopping Systematic Racism?

2 thoughts on “Call to Action Assignment

  1. Rebecca Boyd

    Hello Marianne. I admire your courage in sharing this very sad and personal experience. I’m so sorry about what happened to your brother. I have a brother with mental illness too, and I have often thought about what would have happened to him if it wasn’t his family who intervened during one of his difficult times, and instead a stranger or the police. As you are well aware, not everyone is sympathetic to people with mental illness, some people are ambivalent, and some are hostile. Unfortunately the criminal justice system (ie police and prison) has been a dumping ground for many people who actually need mental health services. One question I have is why is your brother’s race an issue? Was your former student trying to say that your grief over a (white) brother killed by the (white?) police is not equivalent to grief over a black person killed by the police?
    I am sincerely sorry for your loss, especially the tragic circumstances. I agree that the police and all members of society would benefit from training in empathy and recognizing people with mental illness. Also, despite the misconceptions about the mentally ill committing heinous crimes (ie Virginia Tech, Newtown), in fact they are usually the victims of crimes not the perpetrators. You may already be familiar with these groups but here are a couple working to divert the mentally ill from the criminal justice system:

    I admire that you are channeling your grief by advocating for change. As a teacher you are on the frontlines and I bet you can identify students who are having mental illness issues. I know you will never stop missing your brother, but I hope your work to change the system in his memory gives you some degree of peace.

  2. Simone L

    Hi Marianne,

    Thank you for sharing your story here about the loss of your brother. It is completely unacceptable for police officers of any race to mistreat persons with mental disabilities of any race. And, it is unfortunate that some people misconstrue resistance to systemic racism with relishing the accidental death of a White person at the hands of police – this is NOT what racial justice is about! I imagine a different scenario to the one that occurred with your brother: instead of the police showing up to the woman’s property and to the church where your brother worked, a community response team arrives which includes a trained mediator, a social worker, a mental health counselor, a nurse or EMT, and community members familiar with the neighborhood. So many 911 calls are actually for non-violent disputes or very minor crimes that could be handled by professionals trained specifically for these kind of situations without resorting to lethal force. Perhaps, in lieu of this, requiring police officers to earn a BA in crim justice would make better cops, but I’m concerned that this might not change their mentality much… after all, as you know, it’s folks in Congress, our well-educated politicians and judges, as well as prosecutors, who molded the criminal justice system into the entity that it is…

    Your four demands represent a direct opposition to the massive criminal justice system that has enjoyed a bloated budget and near impunity for decades. I am not surprised that the police are trying to intimidate you into silence, but please don’t give up! I know my words won’t bring your brother back, but my goal – like yours, to fight with the pen – is not to let any wrongful death, your brother’s or George Floyd’s or Breonna Taylor’s – be in vain.

    Finally, I like your writing prompts, as they are indeed very action-oriented and call for deep reflection. Especially in regard to naming one’s privileges… this can be hard for many people to do because the idea of having privilege is seen as being elitist and somehow thinking that you are superior to other people. But as you know, privilege comes in many forms, not just race, and even folks who may think they don’t have privilege actually do. As a Black female, I may not have race or gender privilege, but as a literate, college-educated, middle-class, able-bodied person, I do have these, and other, privileges, and it’s important to name those privileges to understand the complexity of life in US society and how we are not all equally affected by the -isms and -phobias, even those of us within the same race/gender/etc. I think a lot of community/trust building and scaffolding and modeling peer response with your students would be helpful before introducing these writing prompts, to help students to talk and write about these sensitive and controversial topics in a meaningful way and to help them deal effectively with disagreements with peers when they occur. My apology for this ridiculously long reply, but I’ve been reading books like The New Jim Crow lately, as well as reading for our course, so issues of race and justice and writing and community have been on my mind a lot! Take care.

Leave a Reply