Innocent While Black in Ashland, Oregon

Words by Kokayi Nosakhere

When I wish too, at six feet, two hundred and forty pounds, I can present myself as an imposing figure. It is not advantageous to me. I learned early in this lifetime that I cannot do what “white men” and “white women” can do in American society. In theory, I can. On sheets of paper enshrined behind bulletproof glass, Thomas Jefferson asserted in the face of the British monarchy that, “We [Americans] hold these truths to be self-evident, all men are created equal . . .” Unfortunately, two hundred and forty years later American society is still working on the “all persons are treated” equally part.

As an African American man – a Black man in America – if I wish to successfully navigate our society, I am not permitted simple activities such as walking down the street without having to expend a tremendous amount of psychic energy. I must be aware of my surroundings and protect myself at all times. This week, in Ashland as November 2018 closes, a 20 year old tribal member – yes, I am going to use that term because that is how Black men are treated in America: as one – learned this valuable lesson.

 

Walking While Black in a Small Town

On Monday, November 26 a 20 year old Black man was wrongfully arrested, spending 10 hours overnight inside the Jackson County Jail. Because he did not die in custody or sustain visible wounds, this story will not reach national distribution. The most recent article published by the Mail Tribune doesn’t reveal the young man’s name, which is good and unnecessary. How many Black men reside in Ashland, out of the almost 22,000 persons living here?

It doesn’t matter how Ashland, or Oregon choose to view itself, meaning how the residents perceive themselves to be, the lived reality of persons of color in the Rogue Valley contradiction this perception. When evidence that Ashland is not the hippie, all-inclusive enclave it markets itself to be, the deflective / defensive – arguments emerge.

In looking at the “wrongful arrest,” it is easy for the greater community to deflect accepting any responsibility by using the power and control wheel. The appropriate tab is: minimizing, denying, blaming. The police officers involved in the arrest – specifically – are to blame for this mistaken identity, not Ashland itself. All of Ashland is not reflected in the actions of those police officers.

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Community Distribution News Network

I did not learn about this incident through word of mouth.  No one picked up the phone and called me. I did not learn about this incident through a televised news broadcast nor over the radio. No, like the youngest woman elected to Congress is teaching us, I learned about this incident through social media; a meme posted to Facebook was sent directly to my inbox.

I took a deep breath as I read what happened. Bob Marley’s Slave Driver queued up in my head, the melody ringing in the ears. “Every time I hear the crack of the whip my blood runs cold,” is the poetic manner the Rastafarian prophet communicated the feeling of encountering authority figures in an oppressive state, especially if the authority figures do not acknowledge themselves in a more fortified social position than the person they are confronting.

 

Rules and Regulations that Work

I can hear the instructions given to me by my family for police interactions.

  1. I want you to come home safe, son. When a police officer approaches you, please swallow your pride. You are not Muhammad Ali. You are not Martin Luther King, Jr. You are my son and I want you to come home. If that means temporarily submitting to an injustice, please choose to submit rather than resist. We can sue the police department more effectively if you are alive to be a witness than if you are injured or dead because the police perceived you to be a threat.
  2. Work from the belief system the police view you as a threat. Just like we train how to handle a wild animal, a bear in the woods as you are hiking, I want you to respond to the police officer as if he or she is a wild animal. It is up to you to manage them, not for them to manage you. Do not challenge the police officer’s authority.
  3. Keep a smile on your face, son: remain positive and ask more questions than you make statements. Keep your vocal tones in the jovial range. At no time should you give the police officer the impression that you are upset or that you believe he or she is responsible for your being arrested.
  4. As soon as the incident is over, I want you to write down everything you remember, so we can use that as testimony later, if necessary.
  5. Engage in a spiritual practice, so that you do not become bitter or resentful. Keep your heart pure and capable of viewing the next police officer and someone just trying to make it home at the end of their shift, just like you were trying to make it home when they encountered you. Maintain your hope in humanity to become more human.
  6. Lastly, when you processed what happened with your White friends and family members, do not expect them to be able to do more than empathize with you. Most cannot do that. Out of necessity, they must distance themselves from the injustice and supremacy thought forms embedded in American society. “You are safe with me,” they will affirm. Let them have this space. They do not feel they can act to do anything effectively changing what happened, or from it happening again.

 

I don’t know if the young man received these instructions. I do know that he survived the encounter, even though The Mail Tribune reports the young man plead his innocence. His pleas fell on deaf ears because officers are trained to ignore protests of innocence. The newspaper says the young man’s father intervened, expending social capital within their family’s relationship web to get his son released. The father asked for a review of the evidence gathered so far in the crime the police originally responded too. The evidence cleared his son from “fitting the description.”

Ashland’s police chief did a good job in public relations. He choose to visit the father and son to apologize in person. Ashland police officers failed to follow their own rules of investigation.

Now, the question becomes: Where do we go from here? This is an opportunity for Ashland proper to acknowledge what needs to be healed, so that another wrongful arrest, where simply following already established procedures, is preventable.

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