On the evening of November 6th, I attended a training workshop on the utilization of the nonviolent communication approach to addressing the racism happening in Macomb. The overarching theme for this event, which I believe was the 4th in a series but my first time attending, was about active and reflective listening. After a series of activities and sharing, the Macomb chief of police decided to share that he was happy to report that everyone in his small group had to think back 25 years to remember a time when they were disrespected, and that it reflected on how great of a place it is to live in Macomb.
Of course, this event was happening because it is not a great place to live for many people, particularly for people of color, religious minorities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, or anyone outside of the majority demographic.
After the event was completed, I decided that I would share with the chief of police how I felt in reaction to his comments. I walked up to him and politely asked if I could speak with him. I indicated that I would like to share with him how I felt in reaction to his comments. He agreed to listen, so I shared that what he had shared in the group felt like he was dismissing the very real and very frightening experiences of many of the people in this room. I indicated, that, to me, he was suggesting that he feels safe and welcome here, but that he was ignoring the fact that so many other people this evening shared exactly why they didn’t feel safe here.
The chief immediately attempted to dismiss my feelings by suggesting that he was only speaking on behalf of his small group, and that he believes that people just need to learn how to move on with their lives. I expressed that for him, it may have been 25 years since he felt disrespected and so he has the ability to “move on”, but that for many of the people in the room, including myself, we don’t get to just move on because we face disrespect, discrimination, and hatred thrown at us every single day.
The chief of police then decided to take another angle, sharing about how he understands what it is like to be treated differently and experience discrimination. I, of course, was curious about how this could be considering he is a white, straight, male in a position of power, so I asked him to share with me his experiences. He shared that he had to ask a family member to stop introducing him as a police officer because people treat him differently once they know that he is the police. I nodded my head and did my best to reflect back how he feels uncomfortable when people treat him differently once they find out he is a cop. I asked him to reflect on how it must feel for a person of color who is not able to just not reveal their race because they cannot take off their skin color in the same way he gets to take off his badge, gun, and title.
Once again, the chief of police pivoted the conversation, and suggested that people who are treated poorly should just stop hanging out with those who are treating them poorly. I suggested that his reaction was coming from a place of privilege because he doesn’t understand how one cannot just not hang out with certain people to avoid being discriminated against, disrespected, or attacked. I explained that for people who are minorities in this community, there is no avoiding those who don’t like us. Most of the people in this community are white and many hold racist beliefs about people of color. For the queer community, there are people everywhere who believe that being gay or transgender is sinful and tell them they are going to hell. I expressed that we are already not hanging out with people who are hateful towards us, but that we cannot avoid those who are hateful at all times because they are at work and school and in the community.
The chief of police shifted his approach again, suggesting that people have the right to believe what they want. I agreed that they do have the right to believe what they want, but that they do not have the right to cause harm to other people based on those beliefs. He asked how people are being harmed with other people’s beliefs that it is sinful to be gay. I indicated that a child being told that who they are is sinful and telling them that they are going to hell causes harm. I expressed that children don’t just get over that and asked if he knew about the rate at which the LGBTQ community commits suicide. His response: “Is it higher than the suicide rate for police?”
At one point during the conversation, he claimed that he could do nothing about the discrimination, and I asked him if he called it out when he saw it. He responded that he couldn’t call it out because it never happens in front of him. He suggested that he just doesn’t see it around him and therefore can do nothing about it. I challenged him to start really looking for it because if he actually looked for it, he would find it.
It was clear to me that he was not going to really allow himself to feel any empathy or understanding for anyone who expressed concerns over feeling unsafe in this community because of their race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, or gender expression. He was unwilling to set aside his own bias in order to hear me or anyone else in that room that night who was expressing concerns of safety.
As a queer person, I do not feel that I could safely report an incident of verbal, physical, or sexual assault to him. I do not feel I could safely report any discrimination I may have experienced to him. After my conversation with him, it was clear that he is unwilling to be a safe person for the most vulnerable members of our community. I would not feel comfortable telling him vulnerable information about me, and I would fully anticipate that he would deny, minimize, rationalize, or justify any experience I may need to report. I believe this would be the case for any person of color, any immigrant, any person within the LGBTQ+ community, or any other minority in this community. I am concerned about the chief’s ability to treat all people with kindness, compassion, and respect.
Macomb needs a person in leadership in the police department who is willing to own their bias. Macomb police department needs someone who is willing to listen and truly hear what people are telling him. We need a leader who is willing to be an advocate for the most vulnerable. Someone who is truly committed to serving and protecting everyone in our community–not just the people who look like and think like him. In order to do that, it requires a leader who can truly empathize with people of diverse backgrounds.