Like you, Darius and I have been overwrought with recent events. We honor the lives of the brutally murdered man George Floyd, for the injustice suffered by Christian Cooper and way, way too many more.
We grew up believing that we lived in the greatest country in the history of the world. Americans put a man on the moon, America protected democracy the world over, The USA maintained a Supreme Court that thoughtfully balanced the letter and the spirit of the law.
We grew up starting a school day standing by the side of our desk with our hands over hearts reciting a pledge of allegiance to a flag that flew inside every classroom.
“I pledge allegiance to the flag – of the United States of America. And to the Republic for which it stands. One nation, under God. With Liberty and Justice for all.”
Darius and I sat with our thoughts, we compared the reading we were doing and the reading we’d done. We honored great black writers like James Baldwin, Ta Na Hasi Coates, Cornell West and others and we thought about the seminal work of San Francisco’s own Reverend Cecil Williams.
But what do we “do” about it all?
We started Square Peg because we both have a keen sense of justice. The old saying “To whom much is given, much is required” rings very true for Darius and me. We are fortunate. We came from loving, educated, and safe homes. We are healthy – we are white. From the time we were children and saw some kids singled out as clumsy, dumb or simply different – we attached to the pain we felt witnessing someone being marginalized. So we created an emotional sanctuary – Square Peg. And it is good. But it isn’t enough. Our sanctuary can’t bring back murdered men like George Floyd or murdered children like Tamir Rice.
But we can reach out to more disenfranchised populations. We can build more diversity in our Board. We can hire more young adults with neurological differences. We can work with County Mental Health services to become more accessible. These are just some ideas to help open up our space so that more people of color are able to access the joy and magic of our sanctuary.
I’d like to share a story from last week. One that could have turned out terribly.
A friend, a volunteer – someone we’ve known for over a decade sent me a text the other morning. He was having a terrible time and asked if I would call his employer for him to let them know that he wasn’t able to come to work. This friend is a young black man. He’s also autistic.
He started texting details of his morning and the extreme distress he was under because of some personal issues he was trying hard to resolve. Things escalated and he found himself in a giant emotional meltdown. He needed my help reaching out to his employer to let them know he coudn’t come to work. Then he texted that he’d injured himself and that he thought he might die.
I knew where he lived and I knew that I was at least 40 minutes away and I really needed to get him help. I had to call 911.
The dispatcher put me on the phone with the sheriff. He needed details of where to find my friend who was in a rural area. I tried as best I could to be calm and tell the officer that my friend is autistic – that he has a diagnosed neurological disorder that predisposes him to panic and that he might likely panic when he sees law enforcement. The officer got agitated and said these words;
“Are you saying he’s going to be uncooperative with law enforcement?”
A terrible chill ran down my spine.
My friend is black, autistic, he has tattoos and wears black hoodies. Had I just unleashed holy hell on my panicked, terrified and possibly injured friend?
My only weapon was my ability to stay calm and my white professional womanhood.
“I’m telling you, he’s AUTISTIC, he’s in a panic and he may feel unsafe with law enforcement.”
The officer said nothing.
With all of the calm I could muster I said
“I know you deal with panic for a living. I know your officers put their safety on the line. But I deal with autism for a living and I need you to acknowledge that you hear me – that he has a neurological condition. His panic might look like he’s on drugs but he’s not – he’s terrified.”
I’ll skip to the end of the story, because it’s the only thing that matters. The officer who came on the scene acted MAGNIFICENTLY. He took his sworn duty to serve and to protect and he helped my friend calm down, he helped find my friend mental health services, he sat with a young, black autistic man and showed him his humanity.
What could have been a disaster, turned into real help. My friend could have been another statistic and instead told me that for the first time in his life – he felt protected by a police officer.
I will never know the role I played in this story. I’d like to think this officer is naturally talented and diffused a situation with skills he learned in his training. But I also know I was fearful for my friend and felt it necessary to stress to the dispatcher his diagnosis and color, things that make him at risk for deadlier outcomes when officers are involved.
I’d like to think this is the new wave of police officer training and de-escalation techniques. But that would let me off the hook, as a white American, of demanding change from what we see in cities across the United States.
You see, in my America, if you want to Make America Great Again – you must embrace the last and most important line of that pledge we grew up reciting every day:
“With Liberty and Justice FOR ALL”
Let’s get American about that.
Let’s demand accountability for beliefs and practices that strip fellow citizens of the founding principles of LIBERTY and JUSTICE FOR ALL.
Use your privilege to help others.
Don’t forget to Love.
And for goodness sake, wash your hands.