To be Black in America is to be 2.5 times more likely to be killed by the police than a White person. To be Black in America is to be incarcerated more than 5 times the rate of Whites. To be Black in America is to be 5 times more likely than Whites to be stopped by the police unfairly.
In other words, to be Black in America is to be seen as a criminal.
This is the backdrop of the recent spate of #BlackLivesMatter protests across our nation and world. These protests in large part were spurred on by the recent death of George Floyd whose airways were cut off by a police officer’s knee. For the Black community, Floyd is just yet another name in a long list of African American lives ended too soon at the hands of police for no other reason than being Black.
But what is it like to be black in Spokane?
What do the African American men in Spokane think about racism at the hands of police officers and how do they feel? Do they live in fear for themselves and for their children? What do they think about the protests and what do they think society needs to do where they are concerned?
The answers to these questions and more come from three Spokanite, African American men: Phillip Tyler, Jay Troutt, and Michael Bethely.
Phillip Tyler recently ran for Spokane City Council President and is a former president of the Spokane NAACP. He currently works at Gonzaga University as a Campus Security Officer.
Jay Troutt is a former Air Force ‘brat’ and the owner of Classic Cuts, a downtown Spokane barber shop.
Michael Bethely is the owner of media company Bethely Entertainment and is a video producer at Community-Minded Television.
All are husbands and fathers and all are active in the community. Below are their answers. For the sake of brevity, some of their responses were shortened, keeping to the main points they shared, along with edited lightly.
What is your personal reaction to the killings of Ahmed Aubrey and George Floyd, and the many who have died similarly in the past?
Tyler: My reaction is not unique but one that is shared by the many black mothers and fathers in America. I am in pain. I am hurt. I am saddened. I am angry. I am weary from having to continually be resilient in the face of Black death. I am breathless and speechless as it seems our cries for help and for this to stop are not heeded.
Troutt: My reaction is that it’s typical. Typical behavior by racist White officers. That’s my initial [reaction]. I’m never shocked by that kind of stuff. I still get saddened and I still get angered. But I’m never shocked when I turn on the TV or open up my phone and see that. … My reaction to Floyd is a little different. I still have not been able to bring myself to watch that video. Those kinds of things just ruin my mindset. I try to not stereotype just like I don’t want to be stereotyped. But the idea that cop would sit on his neck at all, let alone almost nine minutes, to me, is not an isolated incident. This is not a guy who was worried about being charged with murder. This is a guy that understands that he can do that. … I have no faith in the system that those cops will actually be convicted. Nor the men who killed Aubrey.
Bethely: Honestly, I have a hurt in my gut that I don’t think can really be explained. From my lens, a Black man with three Black boys, Black siblings, Black cousins, Black family and Black friends, I see these killings to be displays of a kind of hate that I feel has been around for a very long time. But I hold on to the hope that the hate doesn’t reach or touch anyone that I know, and that it doesn’t continue to spread throughout this world. My hope is to be able to instill the love that could change the heart of those that carry this hate.
What do you hope others see in these tragic killings? What is the lesson we need to learn as a society from them?
Tyler: Our daily reality. But, I also want them to the see our Black women. Even this interview does not acknowledge Breonna Taylor (March 13). I hope America sees the pain, the harm, the senselessness of these deaths. I hope America can see the underlying racism involved. The lesson should be that we should celebrate Black men and women in life, not simply in death (in memoriam). I hope the lesson is that we need to stop consuming Black death as “Black porn” (the exploitation of Black death in the media). I hope America can see racism is here. It has never been defeated. It is the original pandemic. I hope a lesson is learned that you don’t need a “movement” to be “moved” to action when calling out racism. If you simply wait for the “movement” for your action, once the “movement” ends, so will your action.
Troutt: The ball isn’t in our court as Black folks, but it’s in the court of the [district attorneys], it’s up to them to make a strong case, to lose sleep making that strong case, and to go after them as they would in any other case. To make sure [they] make convictions. To make sure [they] hold those guys accountable. … I want cops to get life [in prison for murder.] I want cops that stand around and watch other cops do it [go to jail for] a substantial amount of time. I want them to be an accessory to the crime. So the punishment should fit the crime. … But that cop who takes another life, I think that if there’s a death penalty in that state, if it’s premeditated, he ought to be put up on death row.
Bethely: Firstly, I would hope that people can see these killings for what they are. I encourage individuals to get all of the facts of the specific incidents. Not to reference and apply the past happenings of the victims to the current incident, but to look at and seek an open-minded understanding of what led each victim to their demise. But most importantly, I hope others see what’s missing. Whether it’s in their lives, whether it’s observing others, supporting others, debating others. I think it’s important for us all to realize and understand what’s missing within our own hearts. On both sides of the debate. Why are you angry? Why do you feel the way that you feel? As a society, unfortunately, I think it’s very hard for us to do unto others as we would like to be treated. That’s the lesson we all know, but still struggle to learn.
Do you believe the disproportionate killings of African Americans by police officers or vigilantes to be toward men in particular? Why or why not? (In other words, are all African Americans navigating unsafe spaces or is that heightened especially for men? Can you elaborate on your answer?)
Tyler: As I answered and alluded to in my previous answer, Black women are being killed, too. Sandra Bland, Atatiana Jefferson, Yvette Smith, Charleena Lyles and Breonna Taylor to name a few. Black death is racist. Racism is the broader hate that covers other evils such as sexism, bias, patriarchy and prejudice. Now, Black men, even young Black men, have always been perceived as larger than reality, dangerous … a threat. This isn’t about navigating unsafe spaces. This is about navigating everyday spaces, e.g., Central Park with Christian Cooper. Although the confrontation did not result in his death, attitudes such as [Amy] Cooper’s lead to our untimely deaths.
Troutt: I think that men in general would be more of a threat than a woman in a shallow man’s or woman’s mind. But Black women are being killed, too. The fact that Breonna in Louisville was killed and the way she was killed resonates with me just the same way that these other murders of the Black men have resonated with me. The idea that she could be laying in her bed and be shot eight times while she’s asleep because of a “no-knock” warrant because these police officers were looking for a man that was already in custody. The idea that they could do that and then not get charged for it. … You kick somebody’s door down and you’re so incompetent and your dispatchers are so incompetent or whoever told you to go get this guy at this location are so incompetent that you don’t know that he’s actually in your jail already. … I don’t care if those cops are brought to justice, [Breonna’s family] will never have peace. You can never make me understand or anyone else understand how that murder made sense.
Bethely: I don’t have enough knowledge statistically to give an informed opinion on this question. However, I do think that Black women are just as afraid/concerned as Black men. On the surface, it may appear that Black men are more prone to be navigating that “unsafe space,” but I believe that there’s a mutual concern. I’ve talked to Black women and men alike who have had fears when being pulled over or approached by the police.
Do you ever feel truly safe? Can you explain?
Tyler: I do not fear any man or profession, but I do fear hate and racism. I carry a registered, concealed firearm with me daily. I position myself with my back to the wall in establishments. I notice every exit point when I enter unknown spaces. I look to see if other Black people are present. I know from my parents and “the talk” that I need to dress, act and behave a certain way in certain spaces or I can become a victim. I have had “the talk” with my two sons because I feel in fear for their safety. As many a Black parent, I have also had to continually readjust “the talk.” We started with don’t dress this way, don’t talk this way, don’t go to these places. Now we have to add “don’t jog alone,” “don’t walk in parks alone,” “make sure your money is right,” etc. This unrealistic expectation breeds fear. How could it not when we see Black men and women seemingly dying daily?
Troutt: Absolutely not. Never. I can drive down the street [and] if I see a police officer in my rearview mirror, if there’s a light coming up I make sure that he doesn’t get behind me. I don’t talk to police officers that I don’t know. I flat out don’t trust them. I’ve had incidents at the barber shop where I felt like there was a guy I thought should move on … and I’ve had incidents where I actually would have been justified making a call to the cops. But I wouldn’t make a phone call to the cops because I’m not sure I won’t end up being the victim.
Bethely: When I get pulled over, I’m making sure that I’m in a position to record my interaction with the police officer. I’m getting my license and registration out before the officer gets to my window. I’m rehearsing my tone to make sure it’s not coming off as disrespectful or threatening. I’m sweating. My heart is racing. I’m gripping the steering wheel with both hands. And my voice is shaking while talking to the officer. Maybe there’s a legitimate reason I was pulled over, but my concern is making it home to see my family. I shouldn’t have to feel this way, but I do.
How does your faith and/or ethical values inform the way you “filter” your experiences as an African America man in a world system that can be argued as being hostile to you as a person?
Tyler: Faith has been the comforter of the Black man and Black woman since we were brought to the shores as enslaved people. We found refuge in our churches. Our resistance was borne of the basements of the church. Faith and the connection to something higher is the origin of our resilience. Faith tells us to love your neighbor as you love God. I do my best to live that edict from the Lord, but it is hard sometimes. But I practice treating others like I wish to be treated. Let me be clear, however, I do not filter my experiences. They are as they are. They are what have shaped me as a boy and as a man. Good or bad. The problem with America is that we want to filter experiences and not see them for what they are. Filtering implies the modifying or holding back the elements of something. This allows racism to perpetuate, e.g., it wasn’t a hate crime or the perpetrator just wore a swastika arm band and yelled racial slurs for effect.
Troutt: Honestly I don’t think that it does. I believe that God is real and that God has his hand in everything, but my faith doesn’t make me feel better today about what happened to George and all the others.
Bethely: I’m grateful for a heart of forgiveness. I’m encouraged to spread the love of Christ by my actions. I am upset by the injustices that are plaguing our community. I am hurt by the hate that is being spread in the midst of these times. But I also serve a God who wants me to be a light into this world and spread his Love through everything that I do. So I plan on doing that before anything else.
How can we as a society (and even as individuals) do better for our African American community? For example, how can we assist you in limiting further tragedies such as Floyd’s and Aubrey’s?
Tyler: The change comes at the individual level first, then the kitchen table, then the office space. This creates the force multiplication that creates change in society. When we acknowledge that hate and racism exist daily, we can then talk about it and then work to change it. Individuals can expand their worldview by finding a Black man or Black woman and listening to their stories. Stop thinking that working with a Black man or Black woman gives you license to assume you understand the Black plight or are invited to the barbeque, e.g., Joe Biden commentary. Truly and intentionally create and nurture relationships with Black men and Black women. When you see hate and racism, wherever it is, call it out. Do so safely, but call it out. At home, at work, at church, at the grocery store. Understand that the change, whether individual or societal, is a journey. You may go down a wrong pathway, but simply course correct and keep going.
Troutt: When you look at TV right now and you see all the White folks that are standing with Black people in these peaceful protests, and some of them even not so peaceful, is a really good start. I think when you have other countries involved, I think that’s a really good start because there’s not been any race hated more than the black race. … Black folks don’t have power in this country. … I don’t believe there is any race that has been done as wrong as Black folks have been done, and, here’s the thing, it’s still going on for Black folks.
I think you have to have better training for police officers. It took me 1,050 hours to get my barber’s license. It takes less than that to pass a course to be a police officer. (The Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission “provides 720 hours of mandated basic training to every police officer in the state.”) How on earth could a young cop who has no real life experience, who doesn’t even really understand or know how to deal with the conflict in his own home, let alone be able to deal with the conflict of a hostile situation with someone who is not a family member? How does a young cop go into a police station which has all these unwritten rules and ways of doing things, how does he become a leader? … It takes me 1,050 hours just to understand sanitation and the laws and rules and regulation of being a barber, how could you not need a whole a lot more on how to deal with the society and to actually protect people and serve your community?
(Troutt also added asking candidates where they stand on police brutality; voting for candidates wanting to do something about it; calling out friends who make racist comments; and using government payments, such as the ticket money that comes from the cameras on stop lights, to more police training. He concluded with, “Come out of your comfort zone. Get uncomfortable.”)
Bethely: Ask. Seek. Knock. Ask us questions. Seek understanding of the issues at hand. Knock on your neighbor’s door and spread the same love that you expect.
How does this particular cultural climate we are living in affect your own parenting or mentorship of the younger generation?
Tyler: What particular cultural climate? America often acts as if racism has been defeated and has just been resurrected with the election of Trump. No, we have dealt with hate and racism since 1619. My father and mother, who are from Arkansas and Oklahoma respectively, dealt with it and raised us to be aware. My family, who know Spokane as their home, have dealt with it and I have raised them to be aware. This particular cultural climate? Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Deah Barakat, South Carolina Church shooting all happened prior to 2016. I raised my boys and tell our youth, don’t let people tell you this hate and racism is about the President. That is not only not completely true but it diminishes the pain and loss of not only the aforementioned but also the many that have experienced hate and racism prior. For many a Black parent, parenting young Black men and Black women is about teaching them to survive. Damn, that’s tough just typing that.
Troutt: We’ll be out and some White lady or some White man will come up and say, “Oh, your kids are so beautiful. What’s his name? He’s so cute. Look at his eyes. He’s so cute.” And he’s 5 years old tomorrow. And in the next five to seven years, he’ll no longer be cute anymore. He’ll be a threat. He won’t be a threat because he’s a thug, he’ll be a threat because of their own insecurities and their own sickness. … As I did with my oldest son who will be 24 years old this month, I’ll have to warn [my younger son]—see [he] says, “Oh I love police officers”—I’ll have to let him know that police officers are not really worthy to be loved. And that you’ll have to watch your every move when you get amongst police officers. If they tell you to do something, you better make sure that you do it. Not only because it’s the lawful thing to do, because if you don’t do it, they’ll kill you and they’ll get away with it. [My daughter] and every other Black woman should never think they are safe from this stuff that goes on. To always beware of racist White folks. Black women in this country have been being raped by racist White men and done wrong and killed by racist White men since we came here.
Bethely: Unfortunately, I know that I will have to educate my sons and the younger generation of what to possibly expect in certain situations as a person of color. Hopefully, I will be able to instill in them the same love that I strive to distribute, and then in turn they do the same.
Is there something else you would like to add that I didn’t touch upon?
Tyler: Well, I touched on Black women and their silencing. I want to reiterate “movement” versus being “moved.” This is so important because if you cannot be “moved” by injustice, hate and racism without the “movement,” the move to affect change will always be slowed and will consist of fits and starts … while all the while Black men and Black women will continue to die senselessly at the hands of biased people and police. Seeking to eliminate fear, hate and racism is not a sporadic or intermittent activity, it must be continual. Our blackness is.
Troutt: Silence about racism is just as bad as expressing racism. What I’m saying is that we, as Black folks, want White folks to speak up against racism when they see it. Being silent about it does not absolve them from the problem.
Bethely: I don’t speak for the Black Community as a whole. These are my thoughts and opinions that I have chosen to share without consulting the community, but this is how I feel.
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Cassy (pronounced like Cassie but spelled with a ‘y’) Benefield is a wife and mother, a writer and photographer and a huge fan of non-fiction. She has traveled all her life, first as an Army brat. She is a returned Peace Corps volunteer (2004-2006) to Romania where she mainly taught Conversational English. She received her bachelor’s in journalism from Cal Poly Technical University in San Luis Obispo, California. She finds much comfort in her Savior, Jesus Christ, and considers herself a religion nerd who is prone to buy more books, on nearly any topic, than she is ever able to read. She is the associate editor of FāVS.News.