Lelani Russell is a member of Generation Progress’ #Fight4AFuture National Leadership Council and is based in Dallas, Texas. In 2015, we visited Dallas to host a roundtable on criminal justice and young people. To read the recommendations stemming from that roundtable, click here.
Eric Casebolt, a white police officer in McKinney, Texas, will not be facing charges for violently slamming Dajerria Becton, a 15-year-old black girl, to the ground at a pool party last summer. Police brutality is pervasive in Texas. It is an issue that disproportionately impacts people of color. And it is an issue that we must address.
I take Dajerria’s story personally, for I too have been a victim of police brutality. I grew up and currently reside in Dallas, just an hour’s drive from McKinney. When I was five years old, I saw my father beaten by the Dallas police outside of my daycare center. I was terrified. Little did I know that this heartbreaking family history would repeat itself 15 years later, when I became the victim of similar mistreatment.
I am 22 years old now, and police brutality has torn at my life on multiple occasions. At a Black Lives Matter rally last year, a police officer revved his engine—perhaps in an attempt to threaten me and protesters beside me—and plowed into me with his cruiser. In another instance, I was body-slammed by male officers.
Not only did these incidents cause me physical harm, but they also caused me to question the purpose of law enforcement itself as an institution. Why would those who have sworn to protect me intentionally cause me harm? There’s not a doubt in my mind that this is about race. I’d imagine Dajerria feels the same.
As a black woman in America, there are a lot of structural barriers that I’m up against. Still, I will not sit idly by as police brutality tears at my community. I’ve co-founded a community-based nonprofit, joined Generation Progress’ national network of gun violence prevention and criminal justice reform activists, worked with and within my community, and met with local law enforcement leaders to try and bridge the massive divide of trust and understanding.
The way I see it, there are two ways to create change: working within the system to drive reform, and working outside the system to create change in the community.
I’ve met with high-ranking law enforcement officials on several occasions to discuss these issues and more. While I wish I could say that working from within the system—with law enforcement—has been fruitful, that unfortunately has not yet been the case. Rather than acknowledging the issues that exist and discussing how we can move forward together to address them, these officials have pushed back, and sought to explain the flawed logic behind their actions. The first step in addressing a problem is acknowledging that the problem exists. Until this happens, it will be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to affect change.
Therefore, in the meantime, I’ve decided to focus my time and energy on community building. My community needs resources like better schools, job training programs, and mentorship programs. If we invest fully in ourselves, we will achieve true safety, and won’t need to rely on police to provide that.
However, if and when law enforcement officials are willing to listen in earnest, there’s much that I would tell them. I would tell them about the need to implement implicit bias training, the need for community policing, the need to create safe and confidential spaces for officers to report the wrongdoing of other officers, and the need for community engagement measures that allow the community to weigh in on police affairs.
If officers took the time to truly learn the neighborhoods in which they patrol – to talk to the people, to walk the streets, to be ordinary members of the community – our relations would strengthen. Above all, law enforcement is supposed to keep the community safe. And when the police themselves make the community feel less safe, as is often the case today, changes at a very human level are required. We’ve seen this dangerous pattern play out with Jason Harrison, with Dajerria Becton, and with so many others whose stories weren’t granted the national spotlight in the face of extreme injustice.
For my sake, for Dajerria’s sake, for the entire community’s sake, I implore the people to take action, and urge those in power to listen.