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Published September 2, 2020

From the Heart: Reflections from Kenosha, Wisconsin

Recent events in Kenosha, Wisconsin recalled the injustice and heartbreak we are all too familiar with. FHITpro Garen, a Kenosha native, reflects on traveling to his hometown, the current climate, and how we can all be the change we sit to see in the world in our From the Heart feature...

Dear FHITfam,

I am sending everyone love in this difficult time. I feel compelled to address the events that occurred in Wisconsin this past week. I have so many more questions than answers.

On Monday morning, I regained cell service on my phone after a 3-day camping weekend. The very first notification I received was from my Dad: it was the devastating video, we have all seen, of Jacob Blake being shot 7 times in the back by a Kenosha Police officer. My heart sank.

Some of you may not know, but Kenosha, WI is my hometown. I was born and raised there and have lived there the majority of my 34 years on this planet. I proudly graduated from Mary D. Bradford High School and still affectionately call the city home. My friends live there. My family lives there. 

As the days progressed following this event, I regularly checked in with my family to see how they were fairing. Wednesday, I spoke to my 18-year-old niece, Lauren. Already incredibly disappointed that her senior year of High School was disrupted by the pandemic (canceled prom, canceled graduation, canceled lacrosse games – she will be on the lacrosse team in college, and I’m super proud of her), she is currently stuck in limbo, worrying if her move to college is actually going to happen. On Tuesday night, however, all of Lauren’s worries took a backseat to terror. 

We’ve all seen the circulating videos: a 17-year-old kid shoots and kills two people and injures one more in an episode of chaotic, surreal violence, all of which took place just over a mile from Lauren’s home, where she and my sister slept.

Speaking to Lauren hit me hard. Perhaps it's because I am of the age where all my closest friends are now having children of their own – perhaps because I remember holding Lauren when I was 17 and she was just a baby. But hearing the fear in her voice, and not being able to take it away, was heartbreaking for her Uncle Garen.

She couldn’t understand why this was happening. I couldn’t give her a clear answer.

......

I cherish my diverse social network of humans in Kenosha:

I have White, Black, Hispanic and Mixed Race friends bravely protesting and ferociously demanding answers to why these events occurred, and why they seem to be normalized and repeated with such regularity in our society at large.

I know teachers who have taken to the streets, assisting small business owners with clean up efforts after their businesses were destroyed, creating massive painted murals on the endless slats of plywood that vertically line the shattered storefronts.

I know a man named Alvin Owens, my middle school teacher and mentor, who has been on the front line with protestors since Sunday – which happened to be his Birthday. He is demanding answers and advocating non-violence while being subjected to teargas and pepper spray – all while owning and operating his own small business, a brand new barbershop. He is a fierce Civil Rights leader in the community and I am so indebted to him for his positive influence on my life. (Fantastic article featuring him from the L.A. Times this week: https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-08-27/kenosha-wisconsin-jacob-blake-protests)

I also have friends and high school classmates who are Kenosha police officers and Sheriff’s Department deputies. I personally know the Sheriff and I’ve met the Mayor. These are human beings who are trying their best to do their job with integrity and honor in the face of the complete chaos that has descended upon the city.

There is also my Dad. He is a retired Captain on the Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department and served the community for 26 years. He remains the best guy I know. He and my Mom, a former emergency room nurse, instilled in me the values of honesty, compassion, kindness, integrity, love, and empathy – and while I make mistakes like everybody else, I always try to make my parents proud. They have dedicated their entire professional lives to the service and protection of the citizens of Kenosha, and still reside in town.

These aforementioned humans all represent different groups, demographics, philosophies, professions or affiliations. But they all share one title: human being. And just like all of us watching Kenosha from afar, they are in desperate need of healing. And just like us, they are mature adults with a developed ability to process emotions and difficulties. This week, however, I can’t stop thinking about the younger generation watching these events take place.

My heart breaks for Jacob Blake’s three children, sitting in the back seat of that car and witnessing their father being shot. What did they do to deserve that shock? My heart breaks for my niece – just trying to understand why she is scared to go outside. My heart even breaks for that 17-year-old kid, wielding an assault rifle, not even old enough to own a gun, who thought it was his duty to protect a city that adults failed to protect.  Don’t’ get me wrong; I hope he is tried and punished to the full extent of the law. Period. But I have a strange empathy for him, because not too long ago in his short life, an adult told him that this sort of behavior was appropriate – adults enabled him and validated his worst impulses. What kind of an example are we setting for our future generation? Who or what is responsible for all this pain and suffering?

Many questions. No answers.

……

However, if you frequent social media, watch network news, or listen to our political leaders, you find an endless stream of answers materializing in rapid succession. These answers vary, depending on the source and their allegiance, but they are always 100% certain and unequivocally true. These answers all have the same theme: Someone else is to blame; usually the person at fault is ‘different’; and no responsibility is acknowledged. Then, as we have seen repeated countless times, in the void of responsibility the cycle of victimization, destruction and blame continues to spiral as we and the younger generation absorbs more trauma. But what if we could break the cycle?

What if we all took responsibility for what is happening in our America? What if we saw these circumstances as a reflection of who we are and stopped blaming others? What if all of us, black, white, brown, gay, straight, disabled, short, tall, and everywhere in between took complete ownership of our actions and stopped pointing fingers at others? What if we came together as humans and had some uncomfortable conversations as a way to, as Mahatma Gandhi said: “Be the change [we] wish to see in the World”?

I will never truly understand what it is like to be black in America like Jacob Blake or Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland or my mentor Alvin Owens, but after speaking with my BIPOC friends and colleagues I have begun to understand some of my blind spots regarding race in America. I will also never understand the emotional and psychological pain associated with a career in law enforcement, but I can choose to speak to my friends in law enforcement and ask my Dad some hard questions, knowing that he will give me an honest, fair and incredibly nuanced perspective.  We can choose to bridge the gap and come together. There is an opportunity to connect on a human level. But this starts with us as individuals.

James Baldwin profoundly said:

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” I have taken a long look in the mirror this week, and have faced some uncomfortable truths, one specific truth being: there are some people in America who see me as a threat to their safety. Just now, I experienced an illuminating example:

I am sitting on a park bench in Bushwick, Brooklyn writing this piece. A young kid, probably 12 or 13 years old, just lost control of the basketball he was playing with and it bounced in my direction. Instinctively, I reached out and grabbed the ball to assist him. As I did so, his posture slumped and he cowered away from me, sheepishly averting his eyes from mine. He slowly backed away, as I smiled and tossed him the ball with a soft, underhand pass. Without looking up and without a word of thanks he quickly ran away. This moment gave me pause.

Was he somehow scared of me? Has he absorbed the viral videos from this week or experienced first-hand the abuse that a white-person like me has inflicted on a non-white person like him? Or is he just a shy kid? I will never know what he’s feeling, but the point is: I can choose to react with callousness or with empathy. And personally, I believe it’s my responsibility to understand that people may see me differently than I see myself. That doesn’t make me a bad person; I know what is in my heart. But it’s the reality. And if I want to be the change I wish to see in the world, I have to face this reality. And sometimes, reality is uncomfortable.

……

We are all uncomfortable right now. We are all grieving. This is our America and these are our human problems that are affecting everybody. And the children are looking to us to lead the way.

I want to personally assure everyone that if you’d like to have a dialogue about these topics, I am here with an open ear and open heart. We can choose to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. 

The Diversity and Inclusion Team led by our amazing Fhitpro, Carlos, is leading the way for us to become more comfortable with these tough conversations – he is facilitating a safe space for all to speak openly about the social issues of our day, and to speak about it TOGETHER. And to quote Carlos:

“Together we are stronger. Together we can reach further. And together we will heal these wounds and do what we can to make this world a better place.”

……

 Shortly after I gave the kid back his basketball a young man named Anthony approached me with a football and asked if I wanted to play catch. I smiled and said, ‘Hell yeah, man.’ He told me he was 18, just like my Niece. We chatted about sports and life and played catch for 20 minutes.

The opportunity to connect is out there. There is hope. The decision is ours.

- Garen

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