Black and blue in America

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Waking up in America is starting to feel like getting thrown into the ring with a prize fighter. Not like Mike Tyson, who'd knock you out with a single blow. More like Muhammad Ali, whose technique was to repeatedly jab his opponents until they fell to their knees.

As we try to pick ourselves up after the tragic events of this month, some folks (and talking heads) are feeling compelled to choose sides: pro-black or pro-blue. While these options aren't mutually exclusive, it's human nature to see the world through the lens of our personal experiences — and everybody has their own story.


My first arrest occurred at age 14. It was 1970. My parents had split up. And, I was an addict. A few boyhood friends and I bought heroin and were caught by cops shooting up in a public laundry room. I learned fast that if you were a black male picked up by the police, every ride was a "rough ride." I make no excuses for the life I led at that time, but addicts and even criminals should not fear violence from police.

Thirteen years later, some cops saw me stealing merchandise to sell to feed my $800-a-day drug habit. As they chased me down the street, I ducked into a Kmart and hid under a stack of plastic kiddie pools. When I finally came out, there was a black female police officer waiting to arrest me — and give me the lecture of my life. I'll never forget the disappointment on her face. It was like I made her sick. She told me she had chosen to work for the local police department specifically because it had a history of abusing its power.


"I joined the force to protect you," she said. (You can imagine how that felt.)

In many ways I'm lucky that the worst thing that happened during my addiction was prison. Eventually I got clean and got married (26 years and counting). I have three great kids. I try to be a great father and role model.

As the founder and CEO of the Center for Urban Families, I spend my days working with colleagues around the nation to develop interventions that strengthen families and that reconnect dads — about half of whom have been incarcerated — with their kids and the workforce. Last year, CFUF launched a Community Conversation series, where citizens and law enforcement could gather, along with local thought leaders, to talk openly about improving relations and making Baltimore safer and develop recommendations, which we compiled into a report.

Despite these accomplishments, a stable life, good income and nice car, I still feel uneasy whenever a police officer pulls up behind me. I imagine it's not all that different from the way Philando Castile might have felt when he got pulled over in Minnesota last week.

And that's the sad reality, right? No matter which car you're driving — whether it's the one with the siren or the broken taillight — if you were made in America, you've grown up in a society where deeply rooted biases and patterns of violence are passed down from one generation to the next.

My heart breaks for that 4-year-old girl who sat in the backseat of Castile's car, while her mom recorded the aftermath of him getting shot, and for the children of the slain police officers in Dallas, and for all the sons and daughters in cities all across America who are lost and hurting because they don't have a loving father in their lives.

All of us have the responsibility to protect these little people. When you and I are exposed to carnage, we have the capacity to endure more than our kids do. Their whole future is being shaped by these traumatic experiences.

So what if we agreed — right now, together — to stop that cycle? Could we summon the courage, empathy and give-a-damn attitude to actually make it happen?


Healing fractured relationships takes years of commitment and work — especially when trust and respect have been repeatedly violated. But if we start listening to each other, there's a chance we could get out of bed most mornings to find the sun shining brightly without any blood stains, police tape and trauma from the night before.

Healing years of hurt between police and the black community may come down to giving up the fight — together. And if there's one thing I know for sure, it's that people can change. I'm living proof of that.

Joe Jones is CEO of the Center for Urban Families; his email is