Uses of Power that Start with A: Abnegation, Abuse, Avoidance

This morning, I began the day at a school conference with my high school senior, to find out if Jie would be suspended for carrying a weapon at school. When Jie's teacher called to initiate this meeting, I was flabbergasted. Jie? An A student, hyper-responsible kid, was carrying a weapon at school? At this small, progressive, school where pretty much anything goes, Jie had crossed a line?

Here's the story. Jie takes a class at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and needed to cut tracing paper for the class. Knowing that knives are not allowed at school, Jie alerted the art teacher that a knife was necessary to do a project for a class, and showed him a pocket knife intended for use for the project. The teacher promptly took the knife, and soon the entire faculty was having a meeting to discuss suspension or other "appropriate" punishments because Jie was carrying a weapon.

Neither Jie nor I think that Jie would have been treated differently if Jie had been white, or were not trans*, but after something this weird happens you do start to question your other assumptions. You no longer feel you are in a universe where people behave with empathy and good faith. Jie's now so angry at the school that suspension was quite appealing. After an honest conversation with the teachers who know Jie best, we decided to proceed with "restorative justice" -- that is, Jie will help the school to create more reasonable policies around the use of tools and initiate conversations about a variety of aspects of safety at the school. And Jie was -- kind of -- not suspended and -- kind of -- suspended. Honestly, we're not sure. The teachers just told Jie not to come into the school all day.

So Jie faces consequences, and as far as we know, the art teacher's behavior was not identified as problematic in any way. By definition: he's the authority. To me, his choice about how to use his power is a microcosm of a world badly broken, a world I thought we were escaping by avoiding the giant schools with metal detectors and cops in the hall. Authority figures have a choice -- trust people and set reasonable limits to make the world work for everyone, or create a world of fear and rules and punishment. A TSA world. A world where everyone, known or unknown, is not to be trusted and every student is secretly wanting to wield a weapon.

Which brings me to the other use of power I'm watching in my little neck of the woods this week -- behavior by another authority figure which I would characterize as inappropriate, irresponsible and just plain dumb. Last week, the Minneapolis Chief of Police was slated to meet with community activists about the very strained relationships between police and communities of color in Minneapolis.

The facebook page for the event, created by City Council member Alondra Cano, read, "Do you have ideas for how to improve the relationship between the Minneapolis Police Department and our communities?"

Anyway, the Chief of Police, Janee Harteau, decided, just a few hours before the meeting, that it was "unsafe" and that she wouldn't come. She cited "planned physical disruption" as her reason.

Full disclosure: I am part of Citizens for Critical Change, one of the groups which was planning to attend the meeting. For those of us -- ministers and lawyers and teachers and artists and parents and students and concerned residents -- who had planned and prepared for the meeting, her refusal to attend and the reasons given for it felt quite disingenuous. Our planned "disruption" had been to wear red and carry signs. The fact that Harteau did not attempt to Skype in or even phone in, and she allowed Cano and two other city councilors to attend without police protection (which they did not need for the very peaceful meeting) further added to our lack of respect for her decision.

The meeting, which consisted of Minneapolis residents sharing stories of harrassment, intimidation, and physical violence at the hands of the police, was heartbreaking. One only wished to hear what the Chief of Police would have said in response.

So, in my family this week, thoughts are focussed on the use of power by authority figures, and how that leads to trust or to brokenness. Authorities can always wrap themselves in rules, or innuendos, or righteousness, and most people will support them without thinking. With or without suspension, Jie's trust that this particular school is a place where people are in real community, where teachers are there to be... if not helpful, then not harmful either... that won't come back. Jie's take-away is that direct and honest communication with an authority figure at this school leads to punishment. And Jie points out that, for kids with less privilege, school suspension can start the slippery slope towards prison.

I can't begin to imagine the take-away for people of color at the community meeting about police accountability. I'm sure that I, a white, middle-class citizen, had more trust that the Chief of Police might work towards healing broken relationships than many other people walked in with, but now my trust is broken as well. Watching Janee Harteau wrap herself in a cloak of victimization and righteousness while uninformed (white) people rush to her side to say how glad they are that she protected herself from "thugs" like me, I don't know how healing will even begin to take place. Absent an apology and a commitment to a do-over, we are now at a stalemate.

So there you have it.