As I’ve grown older, life seems to be filled with so many deja vu moments: some joyous and others painfully familiar. Such is what happened recently when I read about a sheriff’s department in Mississippi under investigation after a series of disturbing reports of violent interactions with Black men, including two that were fatal and two separate instances of deputies allegedly shoving pistols into men’s mouths. In one of these encounters, the deputy fired his weapon, wounding victim Michael Corey Jenkins so badly that his tongue had to be sewn back together, and he still has trouble eating and talking, according to reporting by the Associated Press.
What’s so re-traumatizing is the similarity of this incident to a workshop I facilitated in 1990 in front of about two hundred or so residents somewhere back East. A young Jamaican student, Tomas, shared with me on stage how he had been stopped by a deputy who questioned him by placing a gun in his mouth. After he sat down sobbing, within seconds, the town Sheriff stood up and addressed the audience boasting how much his department was here to serve and protect its residents. The audience applauded and gave him a standing ovation as the Sheriff took his seat waving. For a moment, I was paralyzed, not knowing where to go from here. As a Chinese American person born poor in the flatlands of Oakland, California, I knew all too well, not only how dangerous this moment was, but also how easily I, too, could become the next target.
As I stood there with what seemed like forever, there was a part of me that knew that if I didn’t say something, I would be betraying the young man who had so bravely shared his story and all those like him who have been silenced and violated, abused and terrorized. And so, I blurted out, “Sheriff, come on back here. You forgot something.” The Sheriff, as well as the audience were stunned. The silence was deafening, as well as the fear of not knowing what might transpire next.
As the Sheriff sheepishly stood next to me (pretending to not look afraid), I also asked the young man to join us. I turned to the Sheriff and asked, “Sheriff, don’t you want to know the name of the deputy?” The Sheriff was shocked at my question. He hadn’t even thought of asking this question and neither, I suspect, did most of the audience. He hesitated and then said, “Of course.” However, because of confidentiality and for legal reasons, he needed to ask Tomas after the workshop.
My second question to the Sheriff was if he wanted to know how the gun incident affected Tomas. He thought about it, and then nodded reluctantly. “Ask him,” I said. I did this so that the Sheriff could model for the community what is needed when one truly listens to someone who has been traumatized or oppressed. I also did this for Tomas, because this was the part of the incident that he had internalized – that part of himself that was still stuck in that dark, lonely night. You see, I was taking Tomas back to the scene of the crime. By having him tell the Sheriff and the community his story, it would help break the isolation and the horror of feeling so alone with his experience. It would also give a face to what happened – only this time there would be witnesses, and he would have his chance to speak and to be seen. It would help “break the silence” and the doubts that he carried about what happened.
To help ease Tomas into sharing, I said to him, “I know this isn’t easy for you, but you need to go back there, to that night with the deputy to take back what was taken from you.” Tomas trembled for a moment and then told the audience how frightening it was and how he thought he was going to die on that night. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. He also shared how nervous he still gets whenever he sees the police now and that he has had nightmares since that night. I asked the Sheriff to repeat what he heard and how he felt. Afterwards, he said, “It must have been really frightening.” At that point, Tomas had tears in his eyes and so did the Sheriff. I shared with the audience, “This is what racism does – it changes your life. As you can hear in Tomas’ story, that experience is with him today as if it were yesterday, and until he is believed and something is done about it, he will never be finished with that night and neither will this community.” Tomas nodded, looking down at the floor.
I then asked the two of them if they would be willing to get to know each other. They both agreed. I then asked Tomas if he would be willing to have the Sheriff over for dinner. He laughed because he didn’t think the Sheriff would come. I asked the Sheriff and he agreed. Tomas was surprised. I then asked the Sheriff to imagine he was driving to Tomas’ home and all the neighbors were looking out their windows wondering why he was there. I asked the Sheriff if he was nervous yet and he said, “You bet I am.” The audience laughed. I then told Tomas to imagine that the Sheriff was ringing the doorbell and that he was slowly walking towards the door. I asked him if he was nervous and he said, “Yeah, I am. Wouldn’t you be? No Sheriff has ever come into our house. In fact, no white person has ever come to our house.”
From there, they both looked at each other laughing, because it was true for the Sheriff, too – no person of color had ever come into his home. I shared with the audience that maybe being courageous is also being scared. I also shared with the Sheriff that if he never went to Tomas’ home, then he and Tomas would never be able to heal over what had happened with the deputy, and that if the Sheriff didn’t see that justice was done with the deputy, Tomas would tell his community. The consequence is that when the police department needed his community to support them, then they would probably not be there for them. The Sheriff nodded and so did Tomas. They shook hands and hugged and the audience applauded them both, many with tears in their eyes.
I chose to have the two of them meet for dinner because food often is a way for different cultures to connect. Coming into Tomas’ home was a way for the Sheriff to risk coming out his comfort zone and into Tomas’ community – a place where Tomas was more in control and could define the environment. The other significance of their meeting was to find a way for them to begin a dialogue that rarely happens between law enforcement and members of the community. Often the relationship is crisis oriented and adversarial, at best.
It is important to note that I followed this suggestion up with a much broader request – that the Sheriff follow through with his investigation of the deputy – to bring justice to what happened. The ramifications of his action or inaction would ripple out into the community in terms of future support or indifference to the words: Serve and Protect.