Surrounded! – How Do You Respond Under Threat?

In a world where we are constantly reminded of the dangers that surround us, who among us has not imagined what we would do if we found ourselves in a dangerous or perhaps life-threatening situation? It seems like everyday we hear some story of innocent victims of unspeakable crimes. And whether it is a shooting at a school or house of worship or a driver gone mad or a spouse who wants out of the relationship, there seems to be this pervasive sense that we are surrounded by dangers.

So how do we cope with this clearly anxiety producing state of affairs? Well, it is natural for most of us, regardless of circumstances to play out the very scenarios that we don’t want to happen in our heads as almost a safety drill. It is the brain’s preparatory mechanism serving us in the best way it knows how without intentional training. The unfortunate consequence of this is that we are programming ourselves to perceive threats to our person so that even when we are not in an active threat situation, a part of our awareness is always on the look out for it. This brain function is designed for situations like war, but less than effective for daily living.

The way that I deal with this tendency within my own consciousness is that when my brain takes me there, I do some intentional work to imagine a better outcome than my survival instincts might be able to come up with. When the anxiety arises, I remind myself that what I am imagining is not actually happening. And while I might have logical reasons for thinking that this unwanted scenario is a possibility–perhaps past experiences or tangential ones close enough to affect me–I do not want to let this thought rob me of my present opportunity to be at peace, get creative, or serve others in some way.

I write a little about my practices in my posts, Escaping the Prison Industrial Mindset and When the Pain is Too Much, I Write. Both of these posts have to do with my thoughts around my internal relationship with police in the United States of America. Why? Because despite dozens of years of work on myself, I have still not gotten to the place where I can see an officer and not feel a sense of dread or threat.

People might find this hard to believe, but I literally think about this everyday of my life. So much so that I have made overcoming my body’s reaction to police officers one of my spiritual goals in this lifetime. Based on the teaching, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” just as I would like every police officer to look at me as a human being rather than a suspect, I would like to look at them as neighbors, who are doing their best to live into the core values of their chosen profession. I want to see them that way. And from a spiritual perspective I do. And I am fortunate enough to know officers who I believe live into this and are doing their best. And yet, my body has not caught up yet, because I don’t think their best up to this point is good enough.

Who Was Disrespected Here?
It is now getting around the nation that a young black student from Naropa, a Buddhist University in Boulder, Colorado was surrounded by police officers while picking up garbage at his residence. In the video of the encounter, the initial officer on the scene can be seen holding his gun in a defensive posture–presumably because, for reasons that are not readily visible to anyone else (perhaps not even his own conscious mind), he feels threatened by the presence of the young man with a bucket and trash clamp. When the officer calls for backup, seven other officers arrive. One is holding a shotgun for some reason and none of the others seem to say or do anything to deescalate the situation. It is unfortunate, but I think that they believe that this response was the best that they could do.

We can do better than this.

As I first watched the video, I thought about how many times I played a similar scenario out in my head when I am in my neighborhood. My HOA has on several occasions requested increased police presence because of people taking packages or milk deliveries. When I saw that on our community Facebook page, all I could imagine was that an overzealous officer would see me out at night walking my dog or something and would roll up on me with guns out, saying, “Show me your hands,” and all I would be holding was dog crap that he might mistake for a gun. These are not thoughts I enjoy. But for every response like this one or worse, I am reminded that for now, this scenario is a possibility for me. And I imagine that this young man thought the same thing–probably 10,000 times before it actually happened.

Now I am sure that some people are commenting that the way he responded was inappropriate and that he should have remained calm and spoken to the officers in some genteel fashion. I could say a whole lot about this. But I will sum it up by saying that I too once yelled at a police officer. When I was in the military, I once pulled off of the base and just as I was leaving, I realized that I forgot something in my dorm so I decided to go back. There was a police officer right near the gate. I saw him and felt my normal anxious feelings. But I figured that since he probably saw me leave the base and that I was simply going to make a legal U-Turn and return to the base, I didn’t have anything to be concerned about. But as soon as I was about to go back into the base, he stopped me and I will admit that my frustration got the best of me.

While my warnings from family about turning off the car and putting my hands on the steering wheel kicked in, when I he came up to the window, the words that were going through my head came out of my mouth and I said, “You’ve got to be f***ing kidding me. You saw me leave the base just now. Why are you stopping me?” I didn’t want to respond that way, but I was aggravated. He told me to calm down and I did. He wanted to know why I left the base and immediately turned around.

I don’t remember what happened after that. All I know was that I was heated. When he told me that I was free to go, I promised myself that I would work on myself to never respond that way again because it snuck up on me. Thoughts of how that could’ve gone differently if I were out in the middle of nowhere and had a similar reaction haunted me for a while and it still crosses my mind to this day. So people can say how they think the young man should’ve reacted, but I’m not judging because I’ve been there to some degree.

Besides the fact that I can relate to how he reacted, his response is consistent with the Department of Homeland Security Active Shooter Response Training, which tells people that in the presence of a threatening situation where someone could shoot them, they should, in this order:

  1. Run
  2. Hide
  3. Fight

I think this is their recommendation because it is consistent with survival instincts when one feels they are in danger. Now if you can take away the false notion that people in special clothes with weapons are always in the right and just see it from the perspective of someone who knows that they are treated as prey for a certain group (written with no personal offense intended), you might be able to connect with this young man. From his perspective, he couldn’t run (He’s possibly seen videos of officer shooting unarmed black people who run.) and he can’t hide. So what does he have left if he is just hoping to survive. Put yourself in his shoes.

What if you were surrounded by a group of people you fear? I once had a white man over six feet tall who outweighed me by a good sixty pounds run when he saw me walking through his neighborhood. I didn’t live there. But damn. And as I walked past his house, he peeped through the blinds like I rang his doorbell wanting to talk about Jesus. I was about 15 years old and probably weighed about 130 lbs at most. I bet if there were eight of me and he couldn’t run or hide, he would’ve been doing whatever he could to draw people out to witness his situation and probably help ensure his survival.

But if asking you to put yourself in this man’s shoes doesn’t draw some compassion, watch this video of a mongoose fending off lions and tell me you don’t get it.

Now tell me you don’t feel for the mongoose in this one.

Do you think that the mongoose behaved unreasonably under perceived threat? Maybe you do. But I bet the mongoose would be inclined to disagree since it is still alive.

Now in making this point, I am not advocating what many would constitute as disrespecting officers. As I mentioned, I know many officers who I would hope would have responded differently were they in the same situation. I am sure that there are many officers who are saddened by all of this. I’ve had conversations with officers who have expressed as much. My uncles was an officer for 30 years and struggles with this perception of officers. And yet, I’m sure he agrees that there is much work that needs to be done in changing this environment.

The question is, how do we create the communal change necessary to transform the relationships between police officers, black people, and people of color?

Well from my perspective, the first step is to examine our values as a society. We have to get honest and stop making most of the pressure fall on the police and the people we all devalue as a collective. It’s all of us in the sense that whenever we refuse to look at the system as a whole, we become complicit. As Dr. King put it, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This man is every one of us under certain circumstances. We have to learn this or else. Every time something like this happens, it creates a wound in all of us–even people who feel like the police acted appropriately. Why? Because we are part of each other. And until we get that, we are all going to pay for these errors.

If I ever get to talk to this young man, I would thank him for making the best choice he could think of to survive a dangerous situation and for choosing to speak from his heart. At the same time, I think I’d encourage him to remember that he is too valuable to risk confronting police officers like this if he is ever in such a situation again. If I could talk to the officers, I would ask them if they learned anything from this encounter and I would pray with them that they take this opportunity to be a part of the healing that this community needs. If I ever talk to you, I’d ask you what you will do to help make things better for everyone.

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