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Zirpoli: White America must stand for black justice

Years ago, I sat in my office with Steve Haddad. He was telling me about his fundraising efforts on behalf of an organization whose mission was advocating for equal rights for the LGBT community. Steve is not gay, but he explained: Gay people will not be protected from harassment and discrimination in America until straight people demand it.

People of color will not be treated humanely and fairly in our society or by the police until white people demand it. Until then, it will remain a black issue, instead of a human rights issue that affects all of us.

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My friend Steve told me that he could no longer stand by and watch his gay friends become victims of abuse and discrimination. He knew that he had a moral obligation to stand with them and advocate for their rights as he would his own. He was right, of course, and I learned an important lesson that day.

As a white person, I recognize the privileges I have had in my life compared with the discrimination that people of color tolerate daily.

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Until enough white people say “enough,” people of color will continue to suffer at the hands of racism. Until we stand with them against injustice and discrimination, we will continue to see people like George Floyd die on an American street with the knee of a white police officer on his neck.

Why is it that white folks can take semi-automatic firearms into state capitals to protest the wearing of masks as a threat to their constitutional rights, but not see police brutality of black Americans as a threat? The answer, of course, is that they don’t perceive what happens to people of color as a threat to their freedom. But, of course, it is. Consider for a minute their outrage if black police officers were repeatedly filmed killing unarmed white citizens.

Beyond the sadness of watching a white police officer kneeling on a black man’s neck was watching three other police officers standing by and doing nothing to stop a murder in progress. This is an example of what appears to be a blind allegiance to protect “their own” instead of protecting the reputation of their profession and the community they serve. Misbehavior in police departments will not stop until fellow officers stand on the side of justice, speak up and end the silence toward the misfits in their ranks.

Until white police officers demand professionalism from their fellow white officers, they will be seen as protecting the status quo.

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Silence can only be interpreted as approval of the disorder within their ranks.

It was good to see several rank-and-file Minneapolis police officers speak out against their peers who killed Floyd. It is about time. But their condemnation needs to be stronger and louder. The officer who held his knee on Floyd’s neck had at least 17 prior complaints against him. Yet, according to The New York Times, “he received no discipline other than two letters of reprimand.” A Justice Department review recommended that the Minneapolis Police Department “improve its system for flagging problematic officers” after finding that black people accounted for more than 60 percent of police shootings while black residents accounted for only 20% of the population. But nothing changed.

Inappropriate behavior continues until it is no longer acceptable and tolerated. Unchecked force against people of color by the police will continue until White America communicates loud and clear that it will hold police accountable for their actions against our fellow citizens, regardless of the color of their skin. Until white people demand that white people be held accountable for their inappropriate behavior, inappropriate behavior by the police will continue to be a black issue.

No one died when Colin Kaepernick took a knee to protest police abuse against black people. Yet, interestingly, White America had a temper tantrum. Where is the outrage by White America over a white police officer taking a knee on the neck of an unarmed and handcuffed black man?

The protesters in Minneapolis and around the country should be white people, embarrassed and horrified at the behavior of some members of our race. In fact, many white people are joining the protests. And in Virginia, members of the Norfolk Police Department “spent Friday night standing side-by-side with Black Lives Matter” protesters, according to Saleen Martin of The Virginian-Pilot.

I frequently hear these days that "We are all in this together." So let's act like Americans, all in this together, for liberty and justice for all.

Tom Zirpoli is the program coordinator of the Human Services Management program at McDaniel College. His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.

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