Ways of Seeing: Dig out the roots of racism

In September of 2018, a 30-year-old, off-duty police officer in Dallas, Texas, named Amber Guyger mistakenly entered her neighbor’s apartment, instead of her own. Guyger’s apartment was on the third floor, but she entered the apartment of her neighbor, Botham Jean, who lived one floor above. Botham Jean was relaxing on his couch, watching TV, and eating vanilla ice cream.

Amber Guyger may have been distracted because she was upset, as she had been talking to her lover (another police officer, married to someone else), and trying to arrange a meeting that evening. She didn’t notice the bright red welcome mat outside Botham Jean’s door, which could have alerted her to the fact that she was not entering her own apartment. When she saw a Black man reclining on the couch, she pulled out her gun and shot him.

Black Americans have been killed by police in their cars, in Walmart, outside nightclubs, at their mailboxes, and this is not the first time they have been killed in what should be the safe environment of their own homes.

Remarkably, Guyger, in spite of her long hair (highlighted blond for the trial), police badge, and tears in court, was convicted of murder, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Renowned race scholar Ibram X. Kendi noted that divine intervention and Black jurors were necessary to convict a white woman for killing a Black man.

I kept wondering, how many years in prison would Botham Jean have gotten, if he had barged into HER apartment at night, and shot her dead while she was watching TV?

One of the key witnesses for the prosecution was a young man named Joshua Brown. He lived across the hall from Jean, and testified that he heard two people “meeting by surprise” and then shortly after that heard two shots. He testified that he did not hear Guyger shout “hands up,” which was an important part of her defense. Joshua Brown did not want to testify in this trial. In fact, he fled to California because he knew how dangerous it is to speak out against police, in a court of law. People disappear. People get killed.

But Joshua Brown was convinced to testify, and Amber Guyger is now one of the few police officers actually serving time for slaying a Black civilian. She is the first police officer in Dallas to be found guilty of murder since the 1970s. And just 10 days later Joshua Brown was shot dead outside his new dwelling, about five miles from where he used to live, across the hall from Botham Jean’s apartment with the red welcome mat.

Dallas police claim that Joshua Brown’s killing was a drug deal gone wrong. They say that the three murder suspects drove four hours, from Louisiana, to buy weed, and then shot their dealer. But thinking people from California to Washington, D.C., are crying foul. Among those who have called for an immediate, independent investigation are the NAACP, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, and Democratic Presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Julian Castro.

Please listen to the words of criminal justice journalist Elie Mystal: “Nobody will help us. They kill us on tape, and nobody will help. They kill us in our homes, our cars, our parking spaces, or just while walking down the streets, and nobody will help. They escape indictments and convictions, and nobody will help. When they are convicted they receive the lightest possible sentence, and nobody will help. When we take the streets we are met with military style counter-insurgency tactics, and nobody helps.”

It has been 400 years since the first enslaved people, kidnapped from Africa, arrived on the East Coast of what is now the United States of America. Most of the founding fathers, who penned the beautiful words “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal,” were slaveholders.

The notion that white people’s lives matter more than those of Black people is embedded in our national consciousness, and in all the institutions of this land. It is the responsibility of each and every white person to dismantle this false notion of racial superiority.

Have you ever found a thistle, or some other noxious plant, growing in your yard? It doesn’t work to throw some leaves on top of it, and pretend it isn’t there. You have to take a shovel or digging fork, and get in there to dig out the roots. May we find the courage and the will to do the digging.

Joanna Colwell is the director of Otter Creek Yoga in Middlebury’s Marble Works District, and is a certified Iyengar yoga teacher. Joanna serves on the Board of Directors of WomenSafe, and enjoys working with her allies to dismantle the Patriarchy. Anyone who is looking for resources to dismantle toxic whiteness is welcome to get in touch: joanna@ottercreekyoga.com

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