Transforming the Culture of Harm

On January 29, in my hometown of Rochester, NY, police officers responded to a call about “family trouble” in an economically distressed neighborhood with predominantly Black residents. Several officers responding to the call subsequently chased, threatened, tackled, handcuffed, pushed, pulled, and pepper-sprayed a 9-year old child who was clearly experiencing severe trauma and emotional crisis before the cops even arrived. A 9-year old CHILD. My heart is broken and I am filled with anger after watching the video footage from the officers’ body worn cameras. Once again, video evidence clearly shows abuse of power by state-sanctioned “authorities” and, once again, official spokespeople have attempted to deflect, distract, and defend the indefensible.

Local police union head, Mike Mazzeo, held a press conference after the footage was released and throughout his public comments he emphasized how traumatic and stressful the job police officers do is, while refusing to acknowledge that their behavior frequently traumatizes the people they are sworn to “serve and protect.” When a reporter asked him directly about the harm this violent interaction with police inflicted on the child, who was verbally and physically assaulted by the officers, Mazzeo immediately deflected and re-centered the victimhood of the officers who go from one stressful situation to another with no time to process their feelings about what they’ve experienced. From his perspective, our sympathy should be focused on them.

As I reflect on all of this, I can’t help but apply my own experiences as a survivor of child abuse and an adult advocate/activist/co-conspirator for social justice- centered on liberating children and youth from exploitation and trauma. I have spent my entire life seeking to understand why our culture is saturated with violence at every level and I’ve dedicated my professional and personal energy as an adult to working with young people to envision and enact a culture of healing and care. I know that the conditions of harm in our culture affect everyone in our society- compelling those with greater relative power to oppress, exploit, and abuse those with less- and leaving the masses in a state of near-constant hypervigilance, exhaustion, rage, and grief.

None of us alive in society today created these cultural conditions but we are all responsible for recognizing that they do not serve us- that they have never served us. The structures and systems that were built to establish and maintain hierarchical power have been exposed as harmful, in and of themselves. It does not matter which individual people are in positions of power. As long as the institutions are designed to create power over, rather than power with, the results will continue to be devastating for humanity, individually and collectively.

For every story we hear and see of the kind of egregious abuse exposed in this case, there are countless others that we don’t ever learn about. I’m concerned that those of us who are active in social justice movements are constantly reacting to the symptoms of our deeply systemic social dysfunction and not applying adequate attention and energy to the root causes. We do need to respond to individual incidents and address their impacts. I am convinced, however, that the only way to truly prevent additional trauma to ourselves, our communities, and our children, is to dismantle and replace the systems of oppression we are embedded and enculturated within- white supremacy, misogyny, patriarchy, authoritarianism, ableism, heteronormativity, etc. These are all manifestations of toxic hierarchy – the Culture of Harm.

I have written elsewhere on this blog about alternative models and systems of human organization that have proven much more effective than those most of us have been raised within. I have also linked many online resources, books, and other media for your reference. I don’t claim to be an expert on formal systems transformation but my education and experience has prepared me well for my chosen role- actively co-creating conditions that make real and lasting change possible. Please reach out if you are interested in exploring ways to work together to foster healing, care, imagination, regeneration, joy, and justice- rooted in love- to transform our institutions.

We must do this for and with our children. Let’s demonstrate that we really do value their lives and their futures. That we are willing to let go of the old ways of doing things and allow alternatives to take hold and grow. Each of us has a role in the transformation of our world. What is yours?

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