Joe Jone's response to the events that transpired on March 24 and the current state of community and police relations…
It was our Cherokee brothers and sisters who coined the phrase, “don’t judge a man (woman) until you’ve walked a mile in his (her) shoes.” I can’t seem to get this proverb out of my mind. It has settled there like a dull headache that no medicine can cure, no elixir can relieve. This pain arrived after watching the video of five boys, ages 12-14, who were detained and ordered by officers from our Grand Rapids Police Department to get face down on the ground on Francis St. SE in response to a neighbor’s report that there were a group of teenagers walking the neighborhood who were armed with a gun on the afternoon of Friday, March 24, 2017. As you may already know, the boys were not in possession of any firearms and were cleared of any wrongdoing. They were innocent.
There were a number of squad cars on the scene as well as a number of officers who were present. Some of the officers pulled their firearms and pointed them at the boys from a distance, following proper protocol. As I watched this scenario unfold on video, I couldn’t help but to shed tears. The optics were agonizing, but the voices of these boys and a parent is what produced the most excruciating level of pain. The voices encapsulated pain, demoralization, empathy, reverence, and the raw emotion of fear. There were also other voices, voices that belonged to the responding officers. Their voices were calm, assured, measured, flustered and supportive.
Subsequent to the events of March 24, the community began to ask questions and provide expectations from the City and our Police Department in response to the incident. Consistently what stood out was the request for an apology from the officers involved to the boys who were detained, as well as their parents. An apology. An “I’m sorry.” A “my bad.” Dr. King once said, “the time is always right to do what is right.” Well, I want to suggest that apologizing for the events of March 24 is the right thing to do and doing it now falls into the category of “proper protocol.”
I, Joe Jones, have never walked a mile in the shoes of a law enforcement officer. In fact, growing up in Detroit I had a fondness for police officers. Several of them, including my favorite, Sgt. George Taylor, served as coaches on my Little League baseball team. I remember giving thought to being a police officer, yet realizing that they had a very difficult job to perform. I also remember these same officers and many others availing themselves to my friends and I in my eastside neighborhood. They made it a point to affirm us while at the same time provide a stern warning of what could happen if we engage in any form of illegal activity. We had dialogue. We had relationship. We treated each other with dignity and respect.
It’s accurate to say that Grand Rapids has a highly regarded and decorated police department. I happen to know and respect many of the men and women who put on the uniform. I know it can’t be easy stepping into hostile situations on a regular basis. All I can do is empathize. To empathize with someone means to feel for, identify with, or put oneself in someone else's shoes. There goes those shoes again.
What makes empathy the most impactful is when it is reciprocated, when it is also given as a response. I don’t believe the community, in particular communities of color, expect anyone who isn’t of color to really know what it feels like to experience implicit bias, prejudice, racism, inequitable treatment, and discrimination based on the color of your skin. In fact, I want to suggest that the very best course of action when interacting with someone of color during a stressful situation is to practice empathy. It’s okay to feel for, identify with, or put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It doesn’t indicate any form of weakness or lack of authority, it actually indicates that you accept someone for who they are.
So, we too as people of color can say with great assurance that you shouldn’t judge a man (woman) until you’ve walked a mile in his (her) shoes.
Dr. Donna Hicks wrote a book entitled, Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict and in it she introduces a list of 10 Essential Elements of Dignity and the 10 Temptations to Violate Dignity. One of the ten essential elements that has always stood out for me is entitled Acceptance of Identity. It simply says, “Approach people as being neither inferior nor superior to you. Give others the freedom to express their authentic selves without fear of being negatively judged. Interact without prejudice or bias, accepting the ways in which race, religion, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, age, and disability may be at the core of other people’s identities. Assume that others have integrity.”
That last sentence, “assume” that others have integrity. I guess if there was ever a time in which “assuming” was a good thing it would be now as we are in the throes of trying to find common ground in this space of community and police relations. Let us remember that this division, this tension isn’t something that has evolved over decades. No, the complexity that exists in the relationship between the police and communities of color dates back centuries, to the 1600s. King Solomon declared that there was nothing new under the sun. This anxiety in our community has history, a deep and dark history. The kind that can have lasting and devastating effects on the hearts and minds of a people for generations. Empathy and an openness to learn about this history could go a long way to bringing authentic and meaningful change to the current dynamic.
My hope, my desire, my focus is to continue to engage in the work and the heavy lifting of creating a more equitable, a more just, and a more peaceful Grand Rapids. This is not a solo project. There’s no way the Grand Rapids Urban League could do this work alone. This requires an all hands on deck approach. I believe in the collective and collaborative spirit of our city. If ever there was a time to compare shoe sizes and actually attempt to walk a mile in the other’s shoes, it’s now.
President and CEO
Grand Rapids Urban League
and Second Ward City Commissioner
for the City of Grand Rapids