I Can't Breathe!
I hear the words again in my mind: “You’re hurting me, I can’t breathe!” For me the scene is on the floor of the youth correctional facility where I worked, while two or three adult staff persons had a teenager in a “take-down” hold. The words that went around among staff was often, “fake calls; as long as they’re screaming they’re OK!” The truth was these teenagers messed with staff minds, tried to outwit them in their acting out. Twelve or fourteen other teens, laying flat, face-down, hands on the back of their heads on the floor of the same room after the command, “everyone down!”, would hear what the teen said and the words could enrage the whole group, turn it into a mob.
To avoid bodily damage, they trained all staff in take-downs (including myself as a mental health counselor). They considered it a necessary part of maintaining safety and order in youth corrections, in juvenile detention, and in residential facilities for emotionally disturbed youth. I have worked in these places. I know how difficult the power dynamics are when working with disenfranchised and disadvantaged youth.
Take-down training involves positioning the youth in a hold that allows breathing and avoids kicking, punching and spitting. Youths have kicked me several times. Sometimes a shield has to be placed over the youth’s head to avoid spitting. Spitting is the weapon of disdain and threat for a youth who feels powerless. Transmitting disease is a weapon they have learned to use in their upbringing. Twice a youth has spat on me during my correctional career. I felt fear afterwards about contracting an undetected illness, aids or something that transfers through mucous. I understand the rage. And as a white woman of privilege with power over the youth’s release it skewed the dynamics from the get-go.
It was my job to build trust, to listen, to acknowledge my privilege to these youths if I wanted them to make progress in learning skills to return to society and freedom. Freedom for most of these youths isn’t freedom. Their life is tainted by race, class, abuse, drug-use and poverty; to summon it up, they are the disadvantaged.
I understand the rage our nation feels upon seeing the video of George Floyd in a take-down hold with a knee on his neck. As far as I can see, the officer didn’t use proper technique, but then again he was holding down a hefty man. Why was the other officer standing there instead of helping him in the take-down? Was it because they had to be ready for crowd control? Or were they trying to avoid a video of three-on-one that could cause rage among the public watching the scene? Were they avoiding attacks? I don’t know what the current training strategies are in the police force. The answers aren’t obvious, the methods of control aren’t easy.
The question we need to address is how to keep order and keep it humane and safe for all parties involved? In my place of work I saw the bullying from certain staff, the power plays, the intimidation. Some of the youth would cower, but most would return the challenge with power-plays of their own. During my tenure, I put effort into improving communication, building trust long before an outburst or power-play would erupt.
It takes guts to stand with a youth (or grown-up) who has just received a terrible message from home, or one who was caught in taking something that wasn’t his, and who wants to strike out to anyone, anywhere. Keeping distance without being too distant, providing safety without boxing the youths in, allowing expression of feelings without arguing or talking down to them, but listening if they need to talk. It’s a dance, and you never know where the dance will take you. Even with a youth you think you’ve built rapport, that rapport can break in an instant. Meeting such a youth/grown-up on the street to negotiate a non-threatening interaction while in uniform, as a complete stranger is a monumental task.
I’m not here to defend the actions of the officers who had George Floyd under their knee. I’m writing this piece to offer some background, offer a bigger picture. The frustration over the years of police brutality, the racism that doesn’t seem to abate is justified. Much training has to go into forming a caring, competent security force. In my 13-years in corrections I learned that people (staff) will change if they see others be successful. Very few want to use violence, but it’s all they know; or something has triggered them and they can’t access non-violent tools because they are coming from fear. It took leading by example, active-listening training, restrictions on the use of force, meditation and awareness training - all strange and new-fangled techniques for many of the security people — to turn the tide from brute force to cooperation. But we convinced many staff members and officers, and as a result the atmosphere we worked in was much less tense. As one staff member told me, “I’m no longer afraid when I go to work.” It takes time to make these changes. It became clear that the female staff were much better at using communication skills to de-escalate situations than the male staff, and they hired more women as a result. The number of take-downs decreased. It became a badge of honor to keep order on a unit with the least take-downs.
In this time of a pandemic many of us are hurting, grieving, struggling to make ends meet and envying the privileged. It doesn’t take much for emotions to erupt. I am privileged, living in my small town, in a bubble where one rarely sees violence on the street. I want to offer compassion for all parties who have to keep order and keep people safe. I live in a society that thrives to keep me safe. It’s not that way for everyone even if some politicians tout their slogans about safety for all. Many of the systems in our society, such as healthcare, social services and education are under funded and can’t address the issues of the disadvantaged. Therefore their neighborhoods aren’t safe, their way to a better life is barred. The disproportionate military spending maintains a system of dominance, not a system of building trust and safety.
I can try to shine a light where there’s division and opposition, offer a helping hand where needed. My actions will not change the world; it will not be enough, but I can count on the fact that change will happen. If we avoid extreme positions, talk with and listen to those who veer toward positions of “power over”, the world will make progress toward the change we want to see: a world where color of skin isn’t a determinant of how others treat us or how we treat others; a world in which we all can breathe freely.