Leading with courage against racism
Roughly three percent of West Virginians are Black. Yet, Blacks represent 12% of our state’s prison population (28% nationally). Blacks and whites commit crimes, and use illegal substances, at the same rates. But your and my tax dollars prop up a criminal justice system where you are better off being rich, white, and guilty than poor, black, and innocent. That’s not right.
These numbers are an affront to the West Virginia values we hold dearest: justice, liberty, and human dignity.
But their impact doesn’t compare to the sight of a tiny Black woman with mental illness being pummeled by the police officers meant to protect her. Or the shame of a Police chief arguing that those same officers would have been justified going even farther. There are middle class white women in my family who suffer from mental illness; none will ever find herself in the position Freda Gilmore was in two weeks ago. None will ever know the pain of having the city’s Police Chief say she deserved to be punched.
Racism is not only the tool that the wealthy Good Old Boys Club wields to keep their foot on the necks of Black folks. It’s also the tool they use to keep poor whites and Blacks in poverty. When whites fight Blacks, the Good Old Boys Club wins. How? Take a look at our history books.
Coal companies used to keep mine camps segregated in our state. The bosses knew that if white miners mistrusted immigrant and Black miners, instead of the bosses who were stealing everyone’s labor and lives, the bosses could keep the company town system churning out profits for themselves. Those bosses knew our division was their victory.
We must not let the Good Old Boys divide us. Not in this moment. Not in the next. Fighting discrimination against any person is good for all people.
We must fight for a West Virginia that works for all of us. We can have a police force that sets its aims on corporate criminals and corrupt politicians, instead of people with mental illness. We can make our state police academy a national model for de-escalation and crisis stabilization. We can be a national leader in restorative justice. We can tell our state’s full history–in our museums, public art, and statehouse. We can track and punish government agencies that demonstrate persistent bias–in hiring, in discipline, in education, in incarceration. We can have a government that pursues full representation for all people in the executive branch, so that those who do the people’s business look like the people. We can deliver equity, opportunity, and healing through our schools, banks, hospitals, small business, and jobs programs. We can do so much more.
But it starts with reckoning with this moment, with standing in what our hearts know to be true. What happened to Freda Gilmore was wrong. Wrongs like this are too common. Racism is alive in our state. Our outrage is righteous. 100 years ago, it took working class Blacks, whites, and immigrants marching together against coal company rule to wake up a national labor movement. The answer to our state’s many crises is not moderation, but boldness. The only shot we have of winning justice for any of us on any front, is to fight boldly on all fronts.
More than 500 Charlestonians packed Emanuel Baptist Church the evening of our visit. Dozens bravely took the microphone. We proudly support the community recommendations put forward tonight by the Keep Us Safe Charleston Coalition and clergy leaders–including full implementation of the 2016 8-point racial justice plan, an immediate independent investigation of the incident, a strong civilian review board, mental health intervention, a new use of force policy, and more. You can sign on too.
Find the people who are hurting the most and leading with courage — that’s whose side we’re on.