Dontre Hamilton, Tikkun Olam Pie & why I don’t do demonstrations (with update)

Black man killed by white cop. It’s a scenario we’ve seen way too often this year in US cities.

Here in Milwaukee, where I live, that story has a particularly sad and horrible twist. Dontre Hamilton was 31 when he died last April. I never met him, but his situation falls within my slice of Tikkun Olam Pie.

Tikkun Olam is a Jewish concept. When the messiah (for whom we’re still waiting) shows up, there’s no rapture. We stay here and heaven gets established on earth. In the meantime, we’re supposed to clean up the house, as it were, and make it ready for Big M’s arrival. That’s Tikkun Olam.

I’ve come to think of it as a pie. There’s an overwhelming amount of misery that needs to be addressed and a lot in need of cleaning up. No way can any reasonable person take that much on. It would be like trying to eat an entire pie in one sitting. So I’ve chosen mental illness, which comes with a la modes that include stigma, access to medical services, shelter, employment and criminal justice.

Dontre Hamilton’s story touches on all of it. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, he was homeless, and not on medication. He had family members who cared about him and were struggling to advocate effectively for him as best they could. The day he died, he was napping in a Downtown park, where he could be seen from the window of a coffee shop. Employees there called police, figuring their customers didn’t want to watch some homeless guy sleep while drinking carmel macchiati.

A squad responded. Hamilton was deemed not a threat. The officers left. Then Christopher Manney arrived, unaware that a couple of other officers had already checked things out. A physical fight ensued; Hamilton was shot. Fourteen times.

Between that April day and October, when Manney was fired for not following protocol during the encounter, black men killed by white officers in other cities were a constant reminder of what had happened in Red Arrow Park.

Peaceful demonstrations took place amid calls for justice, calls for Manney to be identified by name (he wasn’t for months), calls for his dismissal (he was, and is appealing) and that he be charged (a decision is under review by the District Attorney’s office).

On Friday, protestors shut down the Interstate during rush hour. Several were arrested, the rest gathered in front of the main police station, just across the street from where I work.

I thought about joining them. I didn’t. I’ve been asking myself why all weekend, and have come up with some reasons, but nothing that feels like the complete right answer. So I listed them to see if some coherent theme would emerge.

Why Taking Part in Demonstrations & Protests is Not My Thing

  1. I do not like crowds. I handle them okay if I have a press pass, a notebook and a deadline. But it’s been years since that was my reality, so unless it’s something I really want to see (ie: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Phantogram or King Crimson), don’t bother trying to find me in any mass gathering.
  2. I have trust issues, particularly when it comes to groups. They can turn on you, and I don’t mean physically. I mean that the herd mentality, when combined with high emotion, can result in bad decision-making. I prefer to do my thinking and reasoning about high emotion issues on my own or in groups of five or less.
  3. It doesn’t feel like I’m really doing anything worthwhile or meaningful when I’m standing there chanting the same thing over and over.  I’d rather try to come up with solutions, or gain access to people who have the power to effect change and share or brainstorm solutions with them. This might be a function of a feeling – real or imagined – that I have privilege – the ability to figure out how to get to the people who can make things happen. I might. Or I might be delusional.
  4. I’m not much of a joiner. My first instinct (See #1 on this list) at the sight of a crowd of any substantial size is to move as quickly and discreetly as possible in the other direction.
  5. That said, I’ve been working on community mental health issues in various capacities for a long time. That’s one reason I know exactly how big a deal it is that one response to Dontre Hamilton’s death is a recent decision by the Milwaukee Police Department to provide all officers with special Crisis Intervention Team training to help them to identify and respond appropriately to people with mental health issues.
  6. So it’s not really that I’m not outraged enough to be out on the street, holding a sign and yelling for change. It’s that I prefer to eat my slice of Tikkun Olam pie in the kitchen, not at the picnic.

Update: This morning the announcement was made that former Officer Manney will not be charged. It’s too early for me to make any sort of intelligent comment because I’m reacting and not processing. But my first reactions are shock, disappointment and great sadness for Hamilton’s family, who have just gotten the ultimate in Christmas lumps of coal. As to Manney, this decision is not going to make his life any cakewalk, either. It wasn’t a win/lose situation as much as an elevate/diminish one, for my money. And this decision diminishes everyone involved, directly and indirectly. May we strive for and find better ways of being as we are carried forward by time, the thing that does not stop.

3 thoughts on “Dontre Hamilton, Tikkun Olam Pie & why I don’t do demonstrations (with update)

  1. Thank you for this very eloquent, moving post. I completely see where you’re coming from on the demonstrations thing too. I used to go to a lot of them; felt guilty if I didn’t go; but I don’t do it any more, for all the reasons you list. In the end we all have to find our own right way to be productive, follow our own instincts and judgement. And, as you say, take time to process before we react. Thanks again for this post.


  2. Hi Amy,
    I am grateful to activists who do the hard work. As a writer I can provide them with words, slogans, flyers, stories, context, nuance…all of which comes from taking time to process. But I admit that family stories of crowd psychology during the 1947 Partition of India make me nervous of crowds. I too am comfortable on the periphery.

    On this incident — I am so split.

    Dontre Hamilton was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. We have one in our family, and it’s not easy. Untreated, unsupervised, this kind of person can be fearsome, dangerous, and when experiencing fear, can have the strength of ten men.

    Chris Manney was our beat cop downtown. A couple of years ago, a funny video of him wrestling an activist dressed in a clown suit to the ground outside City Hall (rather than firing) went viral.

    So if he put even one bullet into someone, I can imagine that he acted in self defense, believing he had been threatened.

    But 14?

    Because I pass for white, I have seen officials and workers in this country switch from Jekyll to Hyde when dealing with a black person. Because I pass for white, I have heard people say things they would not say before an African American. And because I pass for white, I have learned to look to people who went to public schools after desegregation and during bus-ing, for better behavior.

    It’s possible Chris Manney was not fighting Dontre Hamilton.
    Nor was Dontre Hamilton fighting Chris Manney.
    Perhaps both were fighting US history.

    New Year’s resolution: fight harder to overcome history in 2015 and onwards.
    Support public schools and the return of bus-ing.


    1. Wow, Shauna – thanks so much for sharing this. And your comment about both Hamilton & Manney fighting US history….that’s a powerful thing on which to chew.


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