There is almost no conversation about the real issues. What does it mean to take a human life and what are the criteria for doing so. This conversation is one that becomes a conversation about the existential role and responsibility of those with the authority to kill and those who are killed. It is NOT about if someone should go to jail.
My overwhelming reaction to the last few years, starting with Trayvon Martin and continuing through this very minute is that these are tragedies for the people involved and the community. We need to learn how to stop them by addressing underlying values and behavior. This is not really about the criminal justice system. It is about how we relate to each other and how we treat human life at every level, including at the police, military and street level.
I have not written much about people who are responsible for a death. The opening line of the show is: “There is a dance. A dance that one day each and every one of us will dance.” Yes, we will all die one day. How that happens and whom we are with matters. Will we have the opportunity to be with and comfort someone we love as we or they transition from this earth? There is a ritual and a process around both that is imagined and portrayed in The Actual Dance.
There are, we now see, other moments. It is what one critic of The Actual Dance described: “What about the shop owner who is shot in the throat and is gurgling blood,” where is the “beauty and dignity in that.” This is a criticism because The Actual Dance imagines the moment as one of grace as we hold the hand of the one we have loved and lived our life with as they or we die. While there is another vision around how this plays out during sudden tragedy, see the poem “Hallow”, I have not yet figured out how this all fits into death on the streets in confrontations between police and citizens.
One argument was made by the Police Commissioner in New York. When you are told by a policeman you are under arrest, submit immediately. Anything else that happens if you do not is the “resistors” fault. Maybe in running a successful police department this can be a necessary point of view.
I wonder though what it is like to be responsible for taking a human life. I wonder what sort of training police officers are been given around the sacred nature of their actions. We think about this most often in war and I understand that for the solider who kills there is often deep emotional trauma and impact. A good soldier, in my view, suffers when he or she kills. It is presumed that all such killing in a legal sense is justified self-defense. The same for a police officer. When a police officer takes a life they are also damaging their own soul in some way, even in a fully justified situation. And there are such situations.
I pine for a society where the culture on the street for all people is to honor the sanctity of human life. This includes not engaging in criminal or illegal activities nor activities that contribute to increasing the risk of crime, or drugs or gang activity. Good policing works hard at keeping the streets civil and free of risky activities and behaviors. The goal should be for there to be zero police involved shootings and deaths.
In looking at the Eric Garner incident in New York I am willing to say that he should not have been selling contraband cigarettes on the street and he should not have been arrested in that way. Both situations contributed to the unnecessary death. The real tragedy is that a human being lost his life and that another human being owns that for the rest of his life.
The Actual Dance – the ritual of coming to terms with the meaning of and loss of life – takes place for both individuals in these situations. I do not suggest the consequences are equal. The first priority is to preserve life. Once that line is crossed then there are moral, psychological consequences for all involved. And that is the Dance or process or ritual confronting everyone, not just those immediately involved, but society as well.
It is NOT only about the criminal justice process. The focus around weather we criminalize the behavior or if the jury gets to decide if the death was justified is not the important conversation. In some ways, the likelihood is that the police will always prevail. What is more important is changing our system to reduce the frequency with which this happens. And that is NOT going to happen just because a jury convicts or acquits.
It needs a conversation that is about the value of life in our society and how far we will go to chose life.