Human rights advocacy is a curious path for those whose humanity has been neither acknowledged nor accepted. Following the March 1991 beating of Rodney King and the murder of Latasha Harlins that same year, a community member in a public hearing before the Los Angeles City Council remarked, “The police are trained to see black men as criminals first, citizens second” (LA 92). From recent video footage of black men and women murdered by police officers to journalism examining police violence against black people and research presented by scholars around the world, the evidence is compelling and the conclusion is quite clear: black people are not accepted as human. A human-before-rights approach is urgently needed to set right the role of police officers in our communities. In the effort to stop officer involved homicides against black people, advocates must acknowledge and operate from this truth: black people are not accepted as human. Since accessing human rights requires acceptance into the category of “human” it is urgent that those seeking to create a peaceful, just society turn from their pursuit of more laws to protect them; instead we must pursue first belonging to the group that possesses those rights, we must become human.

How to Know if You Are Human: Observe When the Law Works

That black people are not accepted as human by law enforcement is proven without much debate when we consider the uneven application of the law. Writing on Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, one reviewer wrote:

The New Jim Crow demonstrates that it is not merely the large number of people in prison, but the severe curtailment of their rights after they leave prison that generates much of the system’s hopelessness. Felons are excluded from public housing, welfare, employment opportunities, and even in many states the right to vote. These felons—a significant percentage of the urban black population—become an underclass unable to rise, an underclass filled with pariahs who are excluded from America’s freedoms. (Bill Kerwin)

This treatment doesn’t show any signs of letting up anytime soon. Research not only shows that police officers are more likely to identify African American faces than white faces as criminal, it demonstrates that a race-crime association leads people to associate blackness more closely with crime related imagery. In one of her experimental studies, she found that people who were exposed to black faces were then more quickly able to identify a blurry image as a gun than those who were exposed to white faces or no faces. Alexander and Eberhardt show us that black people have been and will continue to be dehumanized by legal systems because both the laws and the perspective of black people through the eyes of law enforcement and society generally is as less than human.

Regaining Humanity

In the face of this legacy of dehumanization, regaining humanity seems a daunting task and yet it is the work that must be done. Our overreliance on laws and violent force is and will continue to destroy our nation and our dehumanizing policies are causing the whole of our society to erode. First, we must understand that it is not a matter of needing more laws. Police brutality is not a legal issue and it cannot be resolved through the law because the law did not create it. We must address the people who create, enforce and are impacted by the law. We must understand that humanity is not created to serve the law; rather, laws are created for and in the service of humanity. Laws successfully govern human relations when they support the existing social order and the citizens who wish to maintain it. We need a new social order, a new culture.

This order of human before rights is the central argument of Theater for Humanity. The central premise of Theater for Humanity is that the social and communal ties – upon which the foundation for agreement must be laid to validate our legal frameworks – do not exist. Therefore, instead of meeting in a confrontational manner with a uniformed officer confronting a black person armed and ready to shoot to kill, Theater for Humanity asks police officers and formerly incarcerated persons to meet at the theater: a neutral space for dialogue, expression and exploration of community policing solutions. The work is designed to address the decision-making processes that often lead to conflict, misunderstanding and even death between black, formerly incarcerated persons and law enforcement officers as was the case with Rodney King who was on parole for robbery.

humanity first

To change community-police relations, we need tools that build culture and community. The core of the work unites three groups: police officers, formerly incarcerated persons, and theater practitioners (who implement and lead the project). Theater for Humanity can create communities where law enforcement officers and formerly incarcerated persons are a part of and engage with the communities where they police and live respectively. Officers are members of the community whose role is to protect. Theater for Humanity achieves this by providing space for officers and formerly incarcerated persons to have dialogue and build solutions for local policing strategies. Ideally, Theater for Humanity should become a space where officers who violate the community’s trust should be asked to come and participate to earn the right to serve a community. Theater performances are used as a tool for the wider community to engage in conversations that emerge from the workshops. If implemented widely, the program has the potential to change the entire culture of community-police relations. This is because theater is a space for healing; it humanizes the experiences of people who are voiceless and carries a people’s history.

“The contract is not sufficient by itself, but is only possible because of the regulation of contracts, which is of social origin.” – Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labour in Society

If human rights analysis assumes that society can secure rights for black people while neglecting to acknowledge the humanization process, then the result will always be policy that has missed the mark; for, it is not a matter of one or the other; rather, it is a matter of the order and of understanding which drives the conversation: the human or the rights. Human rights advocates must follow the order of first the human and then – as a means of supporting and securing existing human relations – the rights.

So, here is the case for Theater for Humanity: we need to know each other. It’s that simple.

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