Do Lives Matter, Social Media, and Finding our Collective Humanity?

July 8, 2016

Honestly, I did not expect to post something so soon. I arrived home the other day, after a wonderful writing retreat with some dear friends, while making some new friends. I even took the scenic route home (which was what this next entry was supposed to be actually about).

But, in the end, I visited with some friends—while hearing about the brown bear that wandered through my neighbor’s yard, and caused my little hunter (Chloe) to try and saddle up for the hunt.  I am still curious what my other beagle “the couch potato” did through the whole ordeal?  I’m guessing howled from behind the safety of my fenced yard.

Not again!!

And then…I woke up this morning. Even though I was on the writing retreat, I knew of the shootings of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, both at the hands of the police.  I was saddened and shocked and disheartened to learn of the shooting (& killing) of police officers while at a Black Lives Matter protest march going on in Dallas. I was left speechless, and once again troubled in a way that so many others shared and felt over the last few days.

I wandered solemnly and reflectively through Saturday largely avoiding social media and the news channels. I attended to matters in my home—some reading, some thinking, and just hanging out with the dogs.  I periodically checked in with Facebook, but just as quickly, often I would leave again.  I saw some posts that were simply filled with anguish and such a profound sense of sadness; others were filled with blame and righteous indignation.  I saw other posts where people were trying to talk and begin to sort things out somehow. And of course, I saw challenges about how all lives matter, blue lives matter, and the like…completely seeming to miss the pain and anguish of so many other people who posted to social media.

In truth, lives matter period—we all can agree on a conscious and subconscious level to that fact!  But, can we not hear each other’s pain, anguish, grief, and fear?  Can we not admit that the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling—captured on film—as they died, ought to trouble us all??  Can we not agree that the deliberate sniping and ambush of police officers attending to their duties protecting a peaceful protest against the police ought to trouble us all??

But has gun violence become so continual, so business-per-usual, that it does not shock us anymore. Has the defensive posturing of political parties and pro-black-lives-matter and pro-blue-lives-matter become so deafening in our defiance that we cannot hear each other in our moments of confusion, anger, and grief? I think we’re all tired and hurting.

Fears and Lived Experiences

But I fear that we are losing our humanity, and the ability to recognize the humanity in others.  And that is a terrible fear to contemplate.  So many talk show hosts, and news anchors have said that we can say black lives and police lives both matter—without being exclusive to one another.  Many have said on social media and in the media that we can hold both of these statements, sentiments, and truths to true at the exact same moment—without exclusivity.

I am not going to quote stats at you, for they are plentiful and readily available from a great number of sources—usually instantly searchable through Google.

But you have to want to read them, understand them, and accept them as truth—and someone’s lived reality.
You have to want to hear uncomfortable and unpleasant truths and very lived experiences of “those other peoples” are not the same as your lived experiences.

Perhaps most importantly, you have to be willing to hear other people whose lives and histories are different from your own.
I was most moved by an African-American woman’s social media post about how she and the cop were both tired, and it had been a rough couple of days for them.  But in that one moment—they shared each others humanity, compassion, and understanding—and they hugged.  In that one moment the understood and felt pain for each other.

It is too simple to say, “If you’re not doing anything wrong, and obey orders—then there should be no problem with law enforcement.”  It is too simple to say that “These men and women rush towards the danger, when others run away.”  It is too judgmental to say “Why doesn’t Black Lives Matter worry about crime in their own neighborhoods and cities” as Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani did on Sunday’s “Face the Nation”—completely tone deaf to what is going on, and people—actual people are going through and hurting—while living in fear of those who swore to protect them.

It is too easy for Giuliani to lecture Black Parents they need to teach their children to respect the police—and no one interrupted him.  Thus once again silencing the point of Black Lives Matters discussion.

I do not, and let me underscore this–do not hate cops, first responders, firemen, EMTs, border patrol agents, and those who are public servants and have chosen that profession to help others, protect, and serve the public. But let me be clear—they have chosen to work in those professions and I along with others are grateful to them.  But one cannot choose skin-color or race—they are labels.

I have friends, high school classmates, and know many others who are in these professions—so I do not say this lightly or flippantly.  I like many other people of color have been on the receiving end of pre-judgement, threat-assessment, and quite frankly fear by those in charge of the situation who are armed and often have back-up there, on the way, or a mere call away.

I cannot and will not claim to understand what Black males, Hispanic males, or even other Native American males go through in interactions with police, deputies, or State Troopers. I will not claim to speak for all Native Americans, or people of color in general, I can only speak from my experiences.  I can only speak from my perspective as a defiantly proud Mohawk-Seneca man who has had troubling and problematic experiences with public servants who are armed.


In one incident, now almost twenty years old, I was pulled over by a deputy. I was living in Rochester, New York. I was a college student, and I was driving to a celebrate a number of months of sobriety with family and friends in a park. I had been in a DWI wreck a number of months before; I am grateful to this day that no one was hurt, and sincerely wish I had listened to so many others who tried to help and asked me not to drive that night in my drunken state.  But that is not the point with this example.

As I was driving through the park to the pavilion where my friends, family, and others were waiting on me and others to celebrate our sobriety—whatever amount it was, I saw a Sheriff’s Deputy pull a u-turn, and pulled over immediately—knowing that it was likely me—as I was one of three cars on the road (the deputy and the other car he was following were the only two on the road).
After the deputy pulled me over, I waited.

Then I waited some more, and now my friends and others at the BBQ were starting to watch—to see what was going on too. I started to get out of the car—and over the speaker—the deputy told me to get in the car, and keep my hands visible on the dashboard.  I did.  But then ten minutes went by.  And then it was approaching twenty minutes; and finally another deputy pulled up behind the first one.

Finally, we’d get to whatever I had done wrong, and I could join the bbq. But then as I looked in my rear-view mirror, I saw both deputies approach my car with weapons partially drawn.  I understood immediately, having just gotten out the army a couple of years before—I was being viewed as a threat.  Not only did I tense up, I became angry really quick, because I had done nothing wrong—that I knew of.

But knowing I was being viewed as a threat—I made sure my hands were very visible on the dashboard.
We walked through the usual early questions—where was I going etc.? I explained I was going to a picnic to celebrate my sobriety with friends and family—over at the pavilion where all those folks were watching us. I was asked for my registration etc.  I asked if I could move to retrieve the requested items from my glove-box and wallet.  I still understood I was viewed as a threat.

I saw both deputies (one on each side of my car) finally holster their weapons. Then I breathed again.  I provided the document requested, but since I don’t have a poker face—everyone can usually see if I am clearly pissed off.  And those in the park also know that I don’t back down, or hide my frustration and anger well at all—they admitted later, they were nervous for me.

Finally, I asked, “What am I being pulled over for?”  The original deputy told me that I “had an improper displayed registration tag, and that was why he pulled me over.”  I looked at him just dumbstruck.  Then I asked, “why did you call for backup?”  His response is seared into my memory, “Well, you’re a big guy—and I wasn’t sure I could handle you one on one.”

There it was – the fear.  I barked at the deputy who I said had embarrassed me in front of family and friends, who had wasted my time, that of his colleague, all over an improper displayed car registration tag. Now I was very angry.

I proceeded to suggest to him that the sheriff ought to fire him, because of his fear about his job, and donate his salary to the DMV who could then afford to buy decent glue for the registration tags he was so worried about—that he had to call for back up. I heard the other deputy laugh, and the deputy at my car simply said he’d be right back—and I could see he was embarrassed and probably angry himself now.

I was not issued a ticket, but a warning and suggestion that I use some tape to properly display the tag.  I was told I could go and enjoy my bbq, and by the way congratulations on the sobriety. I told him to seriously consider another line of work—if he was that afraid of me that he called for backup—I was a college student.  All of that drama over a simple matter and registration tag.  But to this day, I haven’t forgotten what I felt when I saw two deputies coming down the sides of my car with weapons partially drawn out of their holsters.

That sadly, would not be the last time in my life.

Driving Home From a Funeral

In a slightly different context many years later, I was followed from my community of Akwesasne (Mohawk territory/reservation) to my front door in Oswego.  I had driven to Akwesasne for my uncle’s funeral, and to visit with family.  I had decided to take the long way home—along the St. Lawrence, to Interstate 81, and finally Route 104 to Oswego. It was a nice drive most times, except for this trip.

I was somewhere along the St. Lawrence, the middle car of five cars in a row.  Out of nowhere, a green and white border patrol SUV appeared.  With little warning, he suddenly starts passing the cars—I thought no big deal—he’s going somewhere else in a hurry.  Little did I know that it was behind me.  He forced his vehicle into the row of five cars, directly behind me.  I thought, hmm, this is going to be interesting.

I knew I had done nothing wrong, that everything checked out on my car, and I ignored him—figuring if I saw lights, I’d pull over.  Nothing proceeded to happen most of the way to Interstate 81.  But as quickly as he had appeared, he pulled off and disappeared.  While certainly odd, I paid no attention to it really—it was merely a curiosity to me.

But the curiosity deepened, when I finally jumped on Interstate 81 South.  I hadn’t been on 81 for more than a couple of minutes, when a NY State Trooper suddenly appeared behind my vehicle.  Rather closely I might add; I thought surely I’d be pulled over now. But nothing.  So after a few miles, I decided to see what this was all about—and sped up—thinking he’d pull me over.  The trooper did not.  So I slowed down to fifty-five (in a sixty-five zone)—the trooper slowed down, but never pulled me over.  So I simply set cruise between sixty-five and seventy—and kept checking my rearview every so often all the way to route 104 for the flashing lights (that never came).

I exited in Mexico, turning right on route 104, west towards Oswego and home.  I thought it had been strange that a border patrol and trooper had followed me most of the way home, but I didn’t see one behind me, so I thought I was good.  And just as suddenly as the other two had appeared, a new trooper pulled in behind me—and just like on 81-S, I sped up and slowed down, and then set cruise most of the way home.  Now I was very curious and a little pissed off once again.

For pete’s sake, I had attended a funeral and visited with family—but when you’re Mohawk from Akwesasne, you’re always presumed to be trouble of some sort—I guess. I could spout off on the political realities, legal problems, and historical issues that surround our communities and engagements with law enforcement—especially Border Patrol from a strictly analytical framework—but that’s not what this entry is about right now.

This was not the first, nor last time, I have felt harassed by law enforcement for visiting family, friends, and my own community as a Mohawk who happens to live and work in Oswego.

But this last trooper, he quite literally followed me to my front door.  As my dogs barked joyously inside—because I was home, and I unloaded my two bags from the trunk—this trooper circled my block-not once, but twice.  Now I am angry—so before I went inside—I walked to the middle of the street intending to stop the trooper and ask what the hell was going on.  As the trooper turned towards me, he simply looked at me from behind his sunglasses, and proceeded to gun the engine and take off up the street.

Interestingly to me, he blew off the stop sign at the end of the street, turned the corner and sped away.  To this day, I have no idea what it was all about.  But again, I can tell you I felt anger, I felt a little fear, and I definitely felt harassed by the power of the badge.  Even as I write and remember this, I can feel a surge of anger—especially at the mysteriousness of it all—I had merely attended a funeral for my uncle.

One Person’s Lived Reality

I have encountered variations of this suspicion with TSA, Border Patrol, and law enforcement since 9/11.  I have had problematic interactions with border agents too many times to count—as many Mohawks have endured. I have known when I have been watched suspiciously by law enforcement at a number of events professionally and personally over my last thirty plus years on this planet.

I get it—they have a tough job, that can cost them their lives in a moment.  They have to be on alert all the time, and they are mostly well-intentioned people trying to protect a community and citizens who may not like them or appreciate what they do for a living—and go home safe at night.  But they did chose to do this line of work too. I understand their humanity, and are human too.

The last few days—it has been said over and over that they (the police) are just human beings doing a very tough and dangerous job.  But so were the Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and so many others—they were human beings too.  They were someone’s relative, someone’s friend, and someone’s co-worker—whose skin was a different color.

When we begin to look at other groups—the numbers are just as high, or higher in some cases. For Native Americans, incarceration and being killed by police are as high or higher than Black Lives—but this isn’t a comparison of who has it worse.  It is a fact.

Here are some other facts: 26 officers killed so far in 2016 (up 44% from 2015) according to USA Today; and according to Huffington Post and the Washington Post 512 people have been killed by law enforcement, and of that Philando Castile is the 123rd black person killed by police.  As many have written, spoken about, and contemplated this weekend—we clearly have a problem in American culture.  There is even commentary from abroad—including a warning not to visit America due to this violence among us.

Yes, in one week alone five officers and two African-American men died by violence—and we can, should, and ought to grieve about both Black Lives and Blue Lives, period.  But look at those numbers—123 black persons to 26 police, or 512 persons to 26 officers—how do we fix that as a country, as a people, and as human beings?

I really liked some of the analogies that many posted on social media today—when you diminish/counter the statement #Black Lives Matter with #All Lives Matter/#Blue Lives Matter; both are in fact correct and worth consideration—and–Can. Exist. At. The. Same. Time.

But, it’s like going to a doctor with a broken bone, only to be told that all bones matter—but the one the needs healing is the broken one that hurts.  Another interesting post on social media was Occupy Democrat’s—the question is, do you see others as human beings too?  Here’s another picture that has gone viral today–that encaptured the tensions between communities.

I won’t end with my usual single question tonight—tonight, I have too many of my own. I am too tired, too spent, and too worried about our relationships in this country; and dare I say the world at the moment. I am tired of the same old rhetoric, the same old promise that we will talk, educate, and learn from one another—it is simply happening too often and too much for mere talk and education to accomplish this quixotic task of race relations in America that lay before us.

I will close with one thing that starkly stands out to me in this long entry tonight.  I try to be self-aware as a human being.  I have already said that I defiantly proud about who I am as Native American man. I am as proud of my service as an infantryman in Korea, Fort Stewart, and the NY National Guard during the first Gulf war and conflict.  And I love what I do as a college professor—teaching about Native American and American history and culture; and more importantly raising questions with my students, in public talks, and yes, here on my blog.

Bear with me just a little longer.  I want you to try and picture me in your head.  Am I tall, short, heavy, skinny, short haired or long-haired, dark skinned as a Mohawk/Seneca man?  These are after all words on a page—not an interview or taped talk.
There can be no denying we have certain images that come to mind as Americans when we think of what Indians may look like.  Do you have that image in your head now?

Can you picture me as an Indian—defiant and angry—did those words come to your mind?  Or was I peaceful type and the tree-hugging sort of Indian in your imagination–with a lot of tough questions tonight? What am I to you as a Mohawk/Seneca man?

Got it? (Now scroll down to see what I actually look like).

Here I am…a light-skinned Indian (Mohawk/Seneca), a veteran of the Army, who graduated UB with my doctorate (now a college professor), and a big guy at 6’2”, nearly 300 lbs.

Did you have your mind made up as you read that I was angry with police and deputies–thus constructing an image of what I must look like in your head?  What was your first thought you realized I looked more like a white guy—than whatever you imagined about me as an Indian?  Does this reveal more about me or you?

Find the humanity in others.

Kevin J. White
Toronto, CA