Fear and the Black Body

The heart-wrenching conflict between police and black America, and how mindfulness offers a solution for fostering understanding and inviting transformation.

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Social justice activist Dr. Marisela Gomez and Police Lt. Richard Goerling stand on seemingly opposite sides of the heart-wrenching conflict unfolding in America between communities of color and the police.

Dr. Gomez is a community activist, author, public health professional, and physician who has spent more than 20 years in Baltimore involved in social justice activism and community building. She is the author of Race, Class, Power, and Organizing in East Baltimore. Lt. Goerling has served in civilian law enforcement for twenty years and has spent the last decade spearheading the introduction of mindfulness training into policing in the United States as part of a larger cultural transformation toward a compassionate, skillful, and resilient warrior ethos.

Both believe that mindfulness, as a common thread, offers a solution for transcending fear, diffusing violence, fostering understanding, and inviting transformation. Here are their voices:

Dr. MARISELA GOMEZ: Many police officers fear the Black body. This fear was instilled since enslavement times when “policing” came about as a way to control and oppress enslaved people who gathered. But the seeds of this fear of the dark “other” continue to live in many white minds and bodies. The cultural imprinting of racism, of superiority, fear, hatred, and anger percolates throughout our national consciousness. We continue to sow new seeds of separation and violence that lead to violent policing and segregated and disinvested communities like the one in which Freddie Gray lived. As Black and Brown bodies, we have inculcated the greed, hatred, fear and delusion of our white sisters and brothers resulting in feeling and acting from inferiority, worthlessness, and self-hatred.

How do we handle this burden of racism?

This burden of racism requires healing, in ourselves first. Mindfulness allows me to keep in mind the ethic of peace, love, balance, and reflective-judgment. Remembering that in any moment I might be responding to past traumas provides me the space to step into the present moment, to reflect and notice where in me it hurts and when it hurts, and why it hurts. Following the breath, noticing the sensation of the body as the breath energy moves through helps me become aware of where there is tension, where there are knots, where there is imbalance. Slowly as I diffuse a knot I unravel the mental and physical memory held in that knot.

And so it goes, over and over and over again, a healing that comes from stillness, mindfulness, reflection, and discernment. This healing allows me the gentle eyes to see the result of historic and current racial trauma and create spaciousness inside of me. And no, this does not happen in that moment of some racist encounter. It happens in the daily mundane acts of life as we walk, talk, eat, sit, stand, and begins to change the imprints of past and current traumas so in that new moment we have new lens of perception and ways of being.

As we heal we begin to see other’s journey of healing and provide space for their journey. This spaciousness also allows us the wisdom to determine the best action to take when confronted with individual and systematic racism. We do not ignore the evidence of racism. No, on the contrary, we are able to meet it with calm and control. As activists this is critically important as we dedicate our lives to changing unjust systems of oppression often by engaging with people who maintain these systems in place, knowingly and unknowingly.

Like the July 4th weekend in Baltimore city when I was pulled over by two white officers. They both approached my car from both sides, both speaking at the same time to me, commanding me to do something. Who wouldn’t get angry and act in a way that might be interpreted as “resisting” or “confrontational”? In that moment I realized that I had to act from a place of control and not fear and anger like they were. They were my burden. I had to be the one that rose above the violence, hatred, and fear. With my hands on the steering wheel so they could see there were no weapons involved, calmly I turned to the one on my side and told him that they needed to decide who would speak because I would not respond to both of them. He responded: “Listen to me.” I said: “ok, what did you say.” I provided what he asked for and they let me go. Perhaps one day I too will be shot because the officer/s may be so angry and fearful and violent that they are unable to respond to calm and reason; like the shootings of the Black bodies that have been recorded, most recently in Tulsa, Charlotte, Falcon Heights, Baton Rouge.

In that moment I realized that I had to act from a place of control and not fear and anger like they were. They were my burden. I had to be the one that rose above the violence, hatred, and fear.

Whatever the future holds in this violent society set on the destruction of the Black and Brown body, most readily seen through police killings, I would prefer to die aware and in control of my mind, not afraid. My hope is that my brothers and sisters whose lives have been taken by police did not die afraid, but with calm in their minds as they courageously faced or turned away from their oppressors.

Lt. RICHARD GOERLING: Leading our nation out of its current policing crisis will require participation from all of us. This is no easy task, to be sure. The following are some ideas for your consideration of how each of us can participate in police reform. I focus on three broad arenas: training, structure, and understanding police culture.

First, we must deliver evidence-based skills training to police officers. Officers need more than tactics; we need multi-disciplinary training that broadens our understanding of socio-economic issues. This profession has turned the corner toward complex social work with the ever-present necessary vigilance for safety.

Three Ways to Evolve Policing

Second, the evolution of policing requires some radical shifts in thinking and leadership. Here are some ideas:

  • Form Executive Leadership Think Tanks. Police executives need a “kitchen cabinet” of diverse leadership and talented critical thinkers to help guide them in this complex landscape. This team should be apolitical, non-judgmental, and offer counsel free from expectation.
  • Change how we select executive leaders—tenure and tradition are paralyzing our forward evolution. We must find ways to break away from traditional approaches to hire the police executives that can lead culture change.
  • Empower police leaders as they shift their paradigms. The job of a police executive is more difficult today than ever before. They will require collaboration and support from community and civic leaders. Get to know us. Support us. Hold us accountable.
  • Change our funding models. Help police agencies find external funding for mindfulness training and encourage government leaders to invest in police officer performance before the trauma. In order to effect change in our communities, we must first lead change within our police organizations and this costs money.

How to Change Police Culture

Finally, while police culture is frequently dysfunctional, there is a deep complexity here that we must all diligently seek to understand. Here’s some ways we can gain that understanding:

  • Seek to understand with an open mind and heart, resisting the temptation to judge and/or vilify, the men and women within the police institution.
  • Learn how trauma and operational stress impact the human beings behind the badge. This is a critical area of study and one that policing fails to address with tragic consequences for police officers and the public alike.
  • Learn from those who’ve been negatively impacted by policing. Similarly, allow your learning journey to illuminate the legacy of racism that exists in policing and the criminal justice system.
  • Don’t believe everything you hear from current police leadership. We are often wrong, and often inhibited by groupthink and tradition.
  • Have informed conversations with your family, neighbors, and your community around these issues. What would an ideal police culture look like in your community?
  • Engage civic and political leaders in discussions of resiliency, performance, and humanity.

Everyone knows the age-old adage that one bad apple can spoil the barrel. Perhaps the barrel is bad. Right now the barrel of our police institution is a crucible in which police officers slowly dehumanize.

Everyone knows the age-old adage that one bad apple can spoil the barrel. But that may not be accurate for some institutions. Perhaps the barrel is bad. Right now the barrel of our police institution is a crucible in which police officers slowly dehumanize. The medical data, the suicide rates, the rates of addictions among police officers, and the current landscape of police-community relations among people of color all corroborate a systemic failure. May we all join together to create opportunities for healing, forgiveness, and the cultivation of resilient communities.