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A Sickness Like No Other

America is gravely ill. The source of our affliction has plagued this land for more than 300 years. It’s a white disease, but it is like no other sickness. It infects whites but kills blacks.

It is why George Floyd is dead, and why Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Sean Bell, Ronald Madison, Tony Robinson and so many others are too. The disease caused one life to be taken for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill. Another for illegally selling cigarettes. Another for failing to use a turn signal. Another for holding a “dark object” suspected to be a gun that turned out to be a cell phone. Another while walking home at night. Another while heading to a grocery store to buy food in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

It’s hard not to see a pattern. On June 17, 2015 Dylann Roof shot and killed nine people, all African Americans, at a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He was taken into custody to face trial. After arresting him, police bought him Burger King.

That same year a Memphis, Tennessee police officer shot and killed 19-year-old Darrius Stewart. His offense? Riding in a car with a broken headlight. He was not given fast food. His life was taken. Over a broken headlight. Darrius Stewart was unarmed and black. Dylann Roof was heavily armed and white.

It’s impossible not to see the pattern unless you close your eyes to it. The massive nationwide protests in recent days in hundreds of cities and towns all across our country are a cry for justice for George Floyd. But they are also a cry for justice for so many others and a reaction to decades and generations of accumulated grievance over racist police brutality, abuse of power, unjust and discriminatory enforcement of the law, and glaring and persistent social and economic inequalities.

One treatment for the disease is true accountability for police misconduct and penalties for brutality that are both swift and stiff. A more intensive therapy involves reversing course on police militarization and rethinking the way our society handles conflict resolution and crisis response and promotes public safety. How about unarmed peace officers patrolling neighborhoods, serving as the eyes and ears of the community, calling in social workers or mental health professionals to help with disturbances whenever possible and only summoning armed reinforcements when there is no other recourse.

Those are needed treatments. Curing the disease requires rewriting the social contract between Americans to emphasize and ensure social justice and equality along with economic opportunity and security for all. Good jobs, full bellies, decent housing, quality schooling and equal justice under the law are cures. Getting to the cure means overcoming more than three centuries worth of American history, starting with the establishment of white-skin privilege laws in the late 1600s that set the stage for the African slave trade. Generations later Jim Crow pursued slavery’s aim through different means. So do today’s police brutality and mass incarceration. Different symptoms, same disease. Same result too, whether by noose or by knee.

As a white man, I am not at all sure what are the best things I can do to help combat this plague. But I know this. We all have two choices: Fight the disease or be complicit in longstanding and ongoing crimes. America is sick and we have it in our power to make our country well.

Mike McCabe

June 9, 2020

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