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Vol. 11   No. 16
AUGUST 4, 2016
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UNIQUE HITS
Reflections/Jonathan Gramling
                                Learn from History
When RunningHorse Livingston, a Native educational consultant, spoke at the Wisconsin Indian Education
Association annual conference back in April, he struck a cord with me when he talked about historical
trauma.

“I think for modern indigenous people, historical trauma is one of those things they can’t sense and yet it
permeates every part of your life,” Livingston said. “For some people, it’s the cause for self-medication. It’s
the root of addiction. We have a lot of violence.”

In this case, Livingston was talking about many of the health, educational and economic problems that are
experienced by Native people on the reservations and elsewhere. It’s like the trauma keeps reverberating
through history to the point where most people can’t even tell you the origin of the problem.

For instance, I wonder how many Israelis and Palestinians really know the root causes of their hatred,
conflict and violence. It’s like the origin continues to reverberate throughout history, continuing to cause
people to act in certain ways, ways that they cannot rationally explain.

This also causes me to reflect on the state of police and Black community relations, both locally and
nationally. There is a dynamic that goes on here, a deadly chain reaction that causes hurt and to some
degree, keeps people in their place. And we can talk all we want, but until we look at the cause of this
dynamic, we will never be able to move beyond it and this ugly dynamic between members of the police
department and members of the African American community will go on in perpetuity to the detriment of
everyone involved.

Ever since Africans were enslaved and brought to North America and beyond back in the 1600s, the police
and/or militias have been charged with keeping the social order. It has been said that one of the most
important duties of the police is to protect private property. And in those days, the African slaves were legally
property of the slave owner and the role of the police/militia was to return escaped slaves back to their
owners. And so, from the beginning, the police were used to keep African Americans “in their place.”

When the Civil War ended and the 13th Amendment was passed to abolish slavery in the United States, it
heralded a new day for African Americans, particularly those living in the South. Once freed from the chains
of slavery, African Americans started running for elective office and winning. Businesses sprang up and
some African Americans became quite wealthy and prosperous. They were achieving their American Dreams.

But the old order of the South wasn’t finished with African Americans yet for King Cotton still needed to be
attended to. And the social standing of poor whites — an illusion at best — was threatened. And so the Ku
Klux Klan arose to repress the freedom of African Americans and to “put them in their place.” Law
enforcement people were often the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan or were counted among their ranks. Law
enforcement is still keeping African Americans “in their place.”

Whether it was share cropping or any other financial arrangement, it was law enforcement that was keeping
African Americans “in their place.” When a lynching took place, if law enforcement wasn’t leading the lynch
mob, it was turning the other way as African Americans were taken from the jail and strung up.

Speeding forward to the civil rights movement, one of the most horrific images is Bull Conner and the
Birmingham police turning the water hoses and the dogs on the unarmed civil rights protestors. While the
civil rights marchers were trying to have their civil and human rights recognized legally and socially, it was
law enforcement that was “keeping them in their place.”

Even here in Madison, this role has historically been there. On the deeds to many Madison properties, there
are restrictive covenants that — before fair housing and civil rights legislation were passed — legally
prevented people from selling to African Americans. And who would enforce such laws? Why the police or
sheriff would.

And especially when I started working at the Urban League back in the early 1980s, I would hear stories of
middle class African Americans being stopped as they jogged in the neighborhoods where they lived on the
west side by police who would say, ‘You don’t look like you belong here.’ Again, this was the police
attempting to keep African Americans “in their place.”

So we have 400-500 years of a dynamic, a negative relationship between the police and the African
American community and 10-20 years of people trying to move beyond that dynamic in some cases and in
other cases perfectly content with the way things are.

And so there is this historical trauma going on, a historically negative relationship that has caused a huge
amount of trauma on African Americans. It goes beyond the physical altercation between a Genele Laird and
the officer who beat her and tasered her. It goes back to the dynamic of African Americans being considered
property, mere chattel, and open to the abuse of anyone who thought they were better than them, including
poor whites. And sometimes that dynamic has been going on so long that police officers — regardless of
their racial background — give in to this ingrained dynamic and do things that they would never do in their
personal lives.

We need to reflect on this history as it relates to police-community relations. It goes beyond the individuals
involved. We cannot look at this as personality clashes or the work of a few bad apples. We need to
recognize and move beyond the historical trauma so that police and community recognize the role of the
police to protect and serve ALL citizens in word and in deed.