Writing from the Heart: Lessons learned

Down on bended knee for George Floyd, and the others.

The day after George Flloyd was murdered by cops, I drove by Beetlebunng Corner and saw my friend, Dana Nunes, standing holding a sign that read “Black Lives Matter.” I think I may have done something like a thumbs up. Good for you Dana. And then the next day there were two. Amy Schumer, the comedian who turns out to not just to be funny but a fierce activist and wise woman.

Not sure how long it took me to realize I could be part of this, but now every morning at 10:30 the Chilmark Free Library is host to a growing community who gather to take a knee for 8 minutes and 45 seconds to honor and acknowledge that horrific incident. Each day someone reads an account of another person of color who was murdered by police.

We have been meeting for 100 days and we haven’t run out of victims. The stories pile up like bodies during a plague. This, we are learning, day after day, is its own plague. The stories mostly end with the police being exonerated with a simple slap on the wrist.

Some of us don’t know whether to cry or be outraged. Most of us do both. Many of us are understanding for the first time the systemic racism that has been at the core of our country ‘tis of thee.

All those innocent years in elementary school pledging allegiance to the flag of the United States and singing “America the Beautiful” now feels like the betrayal our brothers and sisters have probably felt their whole lives.

Here is the story I heard just yesterday:

Dijon Kizzee

At about 3:15 in the afternoon of  Aug. 31st,  29-year-old Dijon Kizzee was fatally shot by two deputies, a trainee and his supervising officer, from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Dept.

According to the department, the officers were attempting to stop Dijon for “riding a bicycle in an unlawful manner.”

They pursued Dijon and, after catching up with him, asked him to stop. He abandoned the bike and fled on foot with a towel in one hand and a jacket in the other. The officers followed him. Their version of events is that once they encountered Dijon, one officer was punched in the face by Dijon who then dropped a jacket at which time a 9mm semi-automatic pistol fell to the ground. Dijon bent over and reached back to pick up the pistol when both deputies fired striking him multiple times.

A Kizzee family attorney said cell phone video footage of the incident contradicts the sheriff departments findings.

“What we see on the video is very clear. Dijon is running away when the deputies shoot him. They are trying to tell us what we see on the video isn’t real.”

His body was still in the street eight hours after his murder. The coroners report has not been released. The shooting is being investigated. The names of the officers involved have not been released. The two deputies have been “removed from the field pending review of the incident.” The sheriff says that the stop was justified due to the high crime statistics in the neighborhood.  Civil Rights attorney Benjamin Crump said Dijon was killed for “riding a bicycle while Black.”

Dijon Kizzee grew up in South L.A. and later moved with his mother and younger brother to Antelope Valley to escape the violence and gang shootings. After Dijon’s mother died in 2011, he was left grieving and trying to care for his younger brother. He received his high school diploma while in the L.A. County jail system. In the weeks before he was killed, Dijon was struggling emotionally because three people he knew in his community had recently been killed.

He was quoted as saying, “I just can’t take it, it’s too much.”

As it happens the same police department was involved in another fatal shooting the day before. In sworn testimony, L.A. Sheriff’s Dept. whistleblowers identified the deputy in this shooting as a prospect seeking admission into the Compton Police Station’s tattooed deputy gang known as “The Executioners.” This group of police officers is accused of celebrating citizens’ shootings with tattoo parties, setting illegal arrest quotas, cooking arrest statistics, and justifying uses of force by falsely claiming that people they encountered were armed.

Kizzee’s attorney is quoted as saying “the department has a gang culture based on mistrust, racism, and fear,” and he hopes Kizzee’s death would inspire a clear investigation into the department’s malpractices.

On Sept. 1, the L.A. County board of supervisors approved funding for body cameras but only at five stations, and the station involved in Dijon’s killing is not one of them.

Here’s another one:

On Jan. 14, 2014, Gregory Vaughn Hill Jr., a 30-year-old Black man, was drinking and enjoying music in the man cave he had built in his garage in Fort Pierce, Fla. It was his day off from the Coca Cola warehouse where he worked.

A mother picking children up from a local elementary school heard loud music coming from the garage. She called in a noise complaint, concerned about her children hearing what she described as vulgar music. Two St. Lucie County sheriff’s deputies — Deputy Newman and Edward Lopez — responded. When they arrived at Mr. Hill’s home, the garage door was closed; they banged on it, and eventually it opened to reveal Mr. Hill in a drunken state.

The encounter between the officers and Mr. Hill is in dispute as there were no witnesses, other than the officers and Mr. Hill, but it is not in dispute that the garage door was eventually closed.  Deputy Newman then fired four times through it, striking Mr. Hill once in the head and twice in the abdomen, killing him in his own home. The entire episode took less than two minutes.

Later, a SWAT team arrived, released chemical agents into the home and used a robot to pierce the garage door and photograph the inside. Mr. Hill was found dead inside the garage with an unloaded gun in his back pocket. The deputies said he had been holding it during their confrontation, though that claim is in dispute.

A grand jury declined to bring criminal charges against the officers.

Terrica Monique Davis, who lived with Gregory in the home, remembers the man whom she had been planning to marry two months after his death as a hard-working family man who loved to fish and hang out in his “man cave” garage.

“You’re not going to be able to find anyone who would say anything about him,” Davis said. “He loved his kids, and he loved that garage. So for him to die in there…it’s just too much.”

DJ Henry, a 20-year-old college student, had been at a party after a homecoming game at Finnegan’s Bar and Grill not far from Pace University’s campus. Some patrons at the bar got into a fight and police were called to disperse the group. Henry was in a car and was shot while he was trying to drive away. As Henry pulled the car forward, according to police, they yelled for him to stop. The officer who stepped in front of the car ended up on the hood and fired several shots through the windshield. Henry was pulled from the car and died while handcuffed on the pavement awaiting EMTs.

In the last few years, I have been involved in something called Narrative Medicine. Dr. Rita Charron started a course of study at Columbia, taking aim at our healthcare system. She was fed up with the 15-minute appointments that threw pills at the patient and she had begun listening to their stories, one patient at a time.

I have been lucky to have been one of many presenters of her course. After she designed the class, many more doctors are on board and are finally recognizing the power of story in their healing practices.

When I am not teaching I get to be a participant. The following exercise could really be one of the ways we make our way through this maze.

The leader had us sit in a circle of about 36. We each had a partner and three minutes to tell our story. The partner takes notes. The bell rings and your partner speaks. When the bell rings a second time, we go around the circle and each person repeats the story in FIRST PERSON that they just heard. So I dont say I heard this story; I say my name is (blank) and I tell it as if I were that person. The effect is stunning. Not only have you radically listened, but when you start retelling someone else’s story you begin to inhabit their emotional reality. How can you not feel and have empathy with that person no matter how different he is?

She does this workshop with Palestinean and Israeli kids. She does it with English and Irish kids. She travels the world and is healing small groups of people one story at a time. So this is what is happening at Beetlebung Corner. One story at a time. This is all we can do. Listen, feel, retell, heal.

If I could somehow add ALL the other stories that sound exactly the same as these, with just a few different minor details, you would be shocked. I know you would. You, too, would be outraged and then do what we are doing; trying to educate ourselves on the law, and on the real American history that was never taught in our schools, trying to learn strategies to make changes culturally and in our own souls, trying to figure out a way to heal this blight, trying to listen and not numb out. Today when I heard someone say, I just can’t take it, it’s just too much, I thought maybe now that “too much” will finally be turned into ACTION.

Helpful Links

The following is your mission, should you choose to accept it. A few simple action/education points in tandem with the cause:

Info on the BREATHE act and becoming a community co-sponsor: breatheact.org/learn-more/.

Simply put, getting the conversation going within your own community, whether on-Island, or wherever home is, is a great way to start to advocate for it.

A good and comprehensive reading list that includes many of the books we have talked about during the morning protests can be accessed here: n.pr/2GzjP0u.

An article in the NY Times from an important perspective; that of a parent with kids during these tumultuous, necessary, and justified protests happening across the nation can be accessed here: bit.ly/2F7ZqPg. (A hyperlink to listen to the article is included).