The One Big Issue That's Not Being Discussed

by Pendarvis Harshaw

The conversation around police brutality in America has become convoluted. Elements of racism mix with civil rights violations, government corruption, the criminal histories of civilians, violence against police, and technology’s influence. Mental health issues are a constant. The almighty entity known as social media is omniscient and overwhelming. And we as a nation cannot escape talking about gun control — or the lack thereof. It’s a mess.

The overlapping conversations about gun control and police brutality in America have to be somewhere on the spectrum of great American inventions, somewhere between jazz music and the atomic bomb. A byproduct of one of those aforementioned great American inventions, jazz legend Nina Simone, once said, “I'll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear." Nina knows.

There is a rift between many African American citizens and police officers that is based in fear. The fear that comes along with these complex issues impedes both parties' rights to freedom and the pursuit of happiness. But I don’t see or hear this fear being blatantly discussed. If freedom is the absence of fear, how can anyone truly be free in America?

I’m an American — a free American, supposedly. I don’t take my freedom for granted. When I trace my lineage, it stops at a slaveholder’s tax records. When I ask how we got to California, my aunt ultimately refers back to our ancestor who escaped the Jim Crow south by hiding in a coffin. And last year, when I finally sat down to speak to my father about him not being around for my childhood, the terms “War on Drugs” and “mass incarceration” were heavily interwoven into our exchange — even if those terms weren’t necessarily spoken. The level of freedom I observe on a daily basis is more than some in my bloodline ever saw in their lives. No, I don’t take my freedom for granted at all. But I do question how much freedom I actually have.

If freedom is the absence of fear, how can anyone truly be free in America?

While this country no longer relies on chattel slavery or Jim Crow Laws, it has far from corrected itself from the ills of mass incarceration, and it has nowhere near achieved Nina Simone’s definition of freedom. In a lot of ways, expecting Nina’s definition of freedom to come into fruition is as audacious as expecting an end to the prison-industrial complex. After all, this country operates on fear.

The joint conversations about police brutality and gun control are extremely blatant examples of how fear plays out in America. But it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that fear is also present in problems around discrimination against the LGBTQ community and women. Fear is undoubtedly mixed into the conversation about terrorism and the war against it. And deeper within the conversation about police brutality and gun control is the Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter debate, in which fear is evidently present. The statement “Black Lives Matter” is directly linked to the fear that in some people’s minds that the lives of Black people are looked at as worthless.

On the opposing side, there are people arguing that “All Lives Matter,” out of fear that “Black Lives Matter” is some kind of movement of Black supremacy. Talking to my peers, I’ve noticed that the fear of dying from police brutality, gun violence, or a combination of the two is greater than the fear of succumbing to respiratory diseases or getting into a car accident. I rub my temples, play jazz music, and let out a frustrated laugh to keep the mini atomic bomb inside my brain from exploding.

To be so big and bad, America is fearful. There’s fear of the future and fear of the past. The fear of “the other,” which plays out as bigotry, racism, and xenophobia, illustrates how we aren’t united at all. Is this the land of the free, or the land of the fearful?

If we ever plan on having some sort of unified approach to solving any issue, we have to address the underlying element of many of the problems within this nation. President Obama’s quick response to the most recent high-profile incidences of police brutality and violence against the police was a step in the right direction in addressing the overall issues. And even during that town hall discussion, he said that this is going to take some working together to find a solution. “We have to, as a country, sit down and just grind it out — solve these problems.” Sitting down together is going to take some getting past our fears first.

I mean, imagine that: a government which openly discusses how its citizens are living in fear, with a number of them living in fear of the government itself, and then doing something about. How liberating would that be?