Mitigating the Fatality of Fear, by Design

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about fear. About what it means to feel fear, to acknowledge fear and to overcome fear. I feel fear in myself. A deep, personal fear that often envelops and disables me. But more, I see fear in others. I see it in every act of police violence I have chosen to witness from the safety of my screen, after every shooting, clubbing, throwing of children. I see and I hear the fear.

I know from personal experience how deeply ingrained fear is. How difficult to combat. I have suffered from a combination of emetaphobia and severe claustrophobia for many years. These are called irrational fears. Irrational because for most people, these two things are simply not anxiety-provoking the way they are for me. Irrational because in the general population, people do not obsess over these things, stay awake at night thinking about them, develop compulsive behaviors to avoid them or fall into a cold panic when confronted by them. These fears are irrational because they are not based on a commonly-experienced reality. These fears are irrational. But they are absolutely real.

They are real because I feel the fear and the sense of nihilistic dread that they conjure up in my mind. I feel that deeply. It feels beyond my control. Confronted with either, my immediate reaction is to panic – fight or flight mode sets in and I lose control of my ability to reason, to say, these things are not intrinsically dangerous. The dread is in your mind alone. Rather, the panic is immediate: tunnel vision, heart racing, cold sweat, trembling . . .  and then the compulsive behaviors: clean up, straighten up, anything to make the thing I fear go away.

I know fear.

Fear is what I see in every video of police shooting a black man or woman or child. The quick reaction that seems unbounded by reality. The trembling hands holding a gun at a bleeding, dying victim. The compulsion to handcuff a grieving loved one who is forced to witness their boyfriend, brother or friend die. The shrieks of fear set on repeat, “He’s got a gun! He’s got a gun!” “Keep your hands up! Keep your hands up!” “Don’t move! Don’t move!” Shrieks of fear to dying men and women and children who are powerless, who are incapacitated by bullets, who are already dead. These fears, embodied in those empowered by law and guns, are the most frightening of all.

So how do we fix this problem? The recent wisdom has been to talk about implicit bias. This feels like a good start. It recognizes a common fact, that many people are naturally inclined toward bias against people of color. But it doesn’t address the fear. And the fear is real. Implicit bias is a common cold to the cancer of fear. What we need to address is the fear.

And here’s the thing that feels entirely intractable. This fear, it’s ingrained through centuries of cultural, social and political conditioning. The indoctrination of fear is well established. It’s in centuries old political speech, governing legislations, films, music and literature. It’s embedded in the structures of neighborhoods, in the lexicon of poverty and in the representations of our bodies.

I’ve learned something recently about my own fear. Accept it. Don’t give in to it. Try to solve it. But accept it. 

I want members of law enforcement to begin by accepting their own fear. Know that it’s there. Acknowledge it to themselves. That they are disempowered by their own fear. That they are conditioned to react irrationally to their fear of black men, women and children. Acknowledge that they are not equipped to react appropriately to all human beings because they are trapped in a cycle of fear that often ends when, confronted by the thing they fear the most, they behave automatically and compulsively to simply make it go away. 

Then I want to disempower them from doing harm. I want to disarm them immediately so that they can do no more harm. I want the government to disable them from acting fatally on their fears so that black men, women and children – whoever triggers their irrational fears – cannot be annihilated by the sense of dread that takes hold of police offers in those split second moments of panic.

I want to disempower them by making it illegal for armed police officers to stop cars with broken taillights. I want to disempower them by making it illegal for armed police officers to confront human beings who are not engaged in acts of violence. Armed police officers should never be involved in situations where a person is selling cigarettes or CDs illegally. These are not offenses that should require firearms.

I want to disempower them by making it illegal for police officers to work in communities where they do not live. Every police force, even if it means empowering citizens to act as officers of the law, should represent the communities and neighborhoods that they are hired to protect. By knowing the people, by living with the people, by communing with the people, they become your people and our people. Can you continue to fear what you know? What you know to be good? What you know to be the good in you? When you live among the people you are bound to protect, you can see when someone has a broken taillight and offer to help get it fixed. No bullets required.  When you live among people, you know when someone has stolen a car or is engaging in activity that might be dangerous. And then you can act to provide the services and support that might be needed. Because in the end, the police should not be empowered by their fear, but by their desire to maintain peace, order and law. And there is no room for fear when those goals are so clear.

I know fear. Let’s acknowledge the fear and then make certain is doesn’t kill another innocent.