Excuses and Accountability: My Reaction to Recent Gun Deaths

Posted July 7, 2016

Like most people, I’ve been thinking a lot about the recent deaths of Alton Sterling, Delrawn Small, and Philando Castile. I say “thinking” instead of “feeling” deliberately. I know how I “feel” (frustrated, angered, confused), but my brain keeps thinking about how, and where, to put those feelings into words or expressions.

I’ve written and deleted countless Facebook posts and responses to friends’ posts because I’ve never been quite comfortable using it as an outwardly political forum. More specifically, nothing I wrote really summed up everything I was feeling; it didn’t feel like it genuinely came from me. The filmmaking part of me thought about channeling what I felt into some creative project, but that didn’t seem immediate enough.

It just seemed like everything had been said or done before and, yet, everything remains the same, so I just sat and thought.

Then I saw a video that one of my friends posted that shows Hot 97 DJ Peter Rosenberg get heated on the phone at a NYPD officer for refusing to denounce the actions of the cops involved in the string of deaths. (please click the link above and watch). As I watched the video something clicked that helped me process what I wanted to give voice to. It’s the one word I put up on the dry erase board at the start of the first class of every school year for all the grades I teach:


In that opening minute of class, when the students are trying to figure out what the year is going to be like, who they’re going to talk to in this class, and if I’m going to be as nice to them within the classroom as I am in the hallways, I talk to them about the value of being accountable. Being accountable for their actions, their work, and their behavior towards each other. I tell them that if they put their name on something, they’re  accountable for the value of whatever their name is attached to. I tell them that if they have a responsibility, they are accountable for completing it, and that, if they fail in doing so, they are accountable for owning up to it and acknowledging what they did wrong.

No excuses, just accountability.

As I think about this issue, and the larger climate in this country right now, the word “accountability” is the one that makes the most sense to me. On both a large scale and small one.

For me, the first level of accountability needs to be with the nation’s police forces. I know, to a certain extent, how hard it is for fellow police officers to criticize or denounce the actions of others. It’s much like a team in the sense that they struggle through so much together and feel as though they are bonded in their duty and responsibility. However, just like with any team, the actions of one can lead to assumptions and judgment regarding the actions of others. This has pretty clearly already happened in this country.

Now, I think it’s pretty clear that all cops are not racist and violent, and not all cops would respond the way the cops involved in the many shootings over the years did. However, because of the frequency with which we are seeing these events played out over grainy cell phone footage, it’s time for the cops and law enforcement officials who know something was not handled properly to say so.

This does not mean other officers have to step forward and denounce actions as “hate crimes” or call the officers involved “racist,” but it means they need to step forward and say that this is not the way they are trained to act, and this is not the protocol that they are expected to follow as officers of the law. As Rosenberg suggested in the video above, officers need to “say the words: ‘it looks bad.'” They need to come forward and say the officer in question “didn’t do [his] job well.”

We expect the same from any working professional in any other field. If you see somebody in your office or larger line of work doing something that is not in line with the requirements of the job,  we either take the responsibility away from that person or call them out and tell them to be better. So why is this not happening here?

It has to in order for this country to grow and these events to stop happening. Protests are fine. Movements and bills are all well and good, but the violence perpetrated by police will not lessen until other police officers take a stand and demand it be stopped by holding their colleagues accountable.

That’s not to say that there aren’t police officers who are doing that within their local precincts and maybe even their larger communities. That’s, unfortunately, not enough right now. We’ve reached a place where this country is hurting so much that more demonstrable action needs to be taken. The nation needs to know that the majority of police officers denounce these actions and don’t stand behind the manner in which these officers conducted themselves. That’s our best chance for these horrible acts to become a thing of the past.

Until then, we can think about accountability on a smaller scale; we can all be accountable in our own lives, with our own thoughts, words, and actions.

Trying to change the world on a global scale is a beautiful thing, but it’s also a Herculean task that rarely feels accomplished. Instead, we need to look to instilling accountability in our own individual lives. Be accountable for our own actions. Be accountable for the message and opinions that we put out into the world so that we can move things forward instead of create more animosity. Be accountable for ensuring that the people closest to us are well-informed about what is happening so that they too can be accountable for their own words and actions.

We need to be keep trying to be accountable for making the world that we live in, however large or small we feel that to be, a place where we don’t pretend these issues don’t exist but address them and work to fix them like the strong-willed, innovative people we’ve always said Americans are.

I’ll end with somebody who can write, in general and on this topic, far better than I can:

“I am speaking to you as I always have—as the sober and serious man I have always wanted you to be, who does not apologize for his human feelings, who does not make excuses for his height, his long arms, his beautiful smile. You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable… I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.” – Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me