Originally posted to my blog at PaganSquare; but since so many other Patheos writers are addressing the issue, and since I promised in a comment that I would write about it myself, I figured I ought to share.
I was twenty-one when I took a Greyhound across the country into Maine. It was a long and brutal trip, and I was travelling from BC; so I was on the bus for five full days. Needless to say, on Day Five, when I went through Niagara Falls and Buffalo, NY, I was exhausted and hoping to get some sleep, so I pretended that I was sleeping and guarded the seat beside me jealously.
But the bus was really crowded; packed like sardines. And so eventually, because I present like a tough cookie but am actually a marshmallow, I invited a young man to sit beside me.
He stared at me for a long moment; then blinked slowly. “Are you sure?” he asked me.
Not sure why he was hesitating, I shrugged. “Well yeah, of course,” I said. “The bus is packed; you gotta sit somewhere.”
Still eyeing me warily, he offered a polite thank you and a ghost of a smile that winked out almost as soon as it had appeared. He stuffed his bag in the overhead compartment and sat in perfect silence, not looking me in the eye once. When we reached the city terminal, he retrieved his bag as quickly as possible, careful not to touch me or let anything fall on me or even look at me too closely, then nodded once in a quick, jerky way, said “thank you” again, and offered that same odd smile.
“You’re welcome. Have a good day,” I nodded as he made his escape.
I was mystified by his odd behaviour. It was almost like he was afraid of me. I couldn’t figure out why.
I was almost in Maine before it hit me. I was a young white woman, about five feet tall, obviously travelling alone. And he was black.
This isn’t something I think of where I’m from because in Western Canada in the interior of British Columbia, we just don’t have a lot of black people. But I don’t mean to suggest that we’re not racist. We have a lot of First Nations (Native American) people and a lot of Pakistani immigrants in my area. I remember my friend Bobbi Thind’s little brothers getting beaten up for their Sikh dastars. I remember the sneering, disparaging commentary about “lazy, drunken Indians living off of the government dole.” Does it matter that the dastar (commonly called a “turban”) is a required article of faith, and that our First Nations are almost always small, independent governments within the Canadian border? Why would it surprise me that a young black man might be leery of me when these things go on in my hometown every day?
Highway 16 is one of our major cross-Canada highways. It runs through most of the northern parts of the provinces as Highway 1, called by some “the” Trans-Canada Highway, runs through the southern parts. There’s a long stretch of it in Northern BC between Prince George to Prince Rupert known as the Highway of Tears. Young women have disappeared from this highway in numbers that rival the Green River killings; but the police have done a lot of nothing, because most of the victims are Aboriginal. I don’t believe it’s a conscious hate; but most bigotry isn’t, is it? I think they justify their lack of action because they perceive First Nations women as having a nomadic sort of lifestyle based in their poverty; and they don’t. Most First Nations people never venture far from the lands that belong to their band. Which is unfortunate for them, because to our national shame,clean running water is still a luxury on many Native reserves. Which doesn’t surprise me, since a great effort was made to shove them into the most marginal of our marginal lands more than a century ago.
It’s not just in the United States that people are getting shot by police who shouldn’t be. It’s happening in Canada too. It’s a similar story of escalating violence, but in Canada, the common denominator usually appears to be mental illness and poverty rather than race. Which is yet another minority group who is subject to a lot of prejudices.
I wrote an article a few months ago about how a book I read opened my eyes towards a few things that are wrong with our society. One of the things that comes to mind is that we train our soldiers to kill by reflex. You see, statistically, we don’t like killing each other. Despite all of our posturing, we have strong internal resistances against it. Archaeologists of the American Civil War have found numerous single-shot rifles with multiple slugs loaded in them. Maybe that was battle hysteria. Or maybe it’s because the man carrying that gun didn’t actually want to shoot anybody. He loaded his rifle, raised it to his shoulder, pretended to fire and jerked his shoulder back (unnoticed in all the noise and the smoke,) brought it down, and did it again. One man did this ten times in a single battle.
None of the experts truly realized this until World War II. By the Vietnam War, we had changed the way we trained our soldiers. Instead of training them to be defenders, we trained them to shoot as an automatic reaction to stimuli. The necessity of war, we said. We need to increase our kill ratio against the enemy. So we teach our soldiers to reflexively pull triggers without thinking about the situation; and in a crisis, your brain automatically defaults to whatever plan you have prepared because adrenaline banishes critical reasoning. The results have been very effective at increasing our kill ratio; and very devastating to the psyche, as more and more of our troops come home psychologically wounded than ever have before, making PTSD a household “word.”
This is the current reality of modern warfare because everybody trains their soldiers like this. I have no words for how terrible I think this is. I respect our military for taking this horror upon themselves and I am sad for them. The final indignity, of course, is that our governments seem to do everything in their power to avoid taking care of them after we’ve used them so horribly, and social condemnation often follows them as well. The Canadian government has been particularly horrible in these outrages as of late; in an effort to pad their general revenue to imply a surplus, they’ve been robbing from the veteran’s programs, including PTSD treatment, and even veteran’s gravesites! But that’s another issue . . .
Now we are training our police officers in “paramilitary” programs. Instead of telling them that they must defend the citizens, even at the cost of their own lives, we tell them that they must defend their own lives against a society of potential perpetrators. And then we teach them to shoot people as an automatic, reflexive reaction.
Is it any surprise that innocent (and mostly innocent) people are getting shot, when they shouldn’t be? We’re training our police officers to do this. We’re training them to distrust all of us; to look at everyone suspiciously and expect trouble in every direction. Of course they’re going to react without thinking; that’s exactly what we teach them to do! Of course they’re going to defend themselves vehemently when challenged or questioned; who wants to believe that not only has he killed someone, which is terrible enough, but that someone was innocent of any wrongdoing? Of course they’re going to react based on unconscious assumptions; and consciously or unconsciously, North America is still racist and prejudiced.
This is where we are. We need to teach our police officers how to be peacekeepers again instead of soldiers. And until we adjust both their training techniques, and our attitudes, more young men are going to get shot for walking while black; more mentally ill people will be shot for acting oddly; and more Aboriginal women will disappear without anybody seeming to give a damn.