I believe in human nature, in the possibility of its redemption and in the power of its innate evolutionary impulse towards progress. Everything I think, say, and do is an expression of that belief. Everything else bores me.
A lot has changed in my life since last week. I shared a personal story on my Facebook page about a deeply unsettling encounter my wife and I had with L.A. County police. I honestly thought my account would only be read by 5-10 people which is the normal amount of feedback I get for the things I post on social media. To my surprise, the response was utterly overwhelming. My post was shared over 2,000 times in less than 72 hours. I was then contacted by FEE.org who requested to run my story. After adding some details, commentary, and editing, my story, Handcuffed and Helpless, was published on July 24th, 2015. To date, the FEE piece has been shared over 5,000 times. Two days ago, Newsweek ran my story. Within the time span of one week, I’ve received multiple phone calls and messages from several news reporters and police officers expressing a desire to speak with me. I also received many messages from people who came out of the closet and confessed their own stories of abuse and mistreatment. It was frightening, inspiring, bewildering, and encouraging all at once. Inspiring and encouraging because I had no idea that so many people would find strength through my story. Frightening and bewildering because I neither desire nor need all the extra attention. Nevertheless, this is my reality and I choose to engage it.
Since my story has appeared on Newsweek, my blog has been receiving a ton of traffic from people who I suppose are curious to know something about my background and agenda. There’s an urban legend that we’re all going to get at least 15 minutes worth of fame, that each of us will have a brief opportunity to command an inordinate amount of attention. From the looks of it, I may be in the middle of mine. And while I have never sought after such a spotlight, I think it behooves me to acknowledge it’s fleeting presence and to issue a statement about who I am and what I’m about for those who come knocking at by digital door.
T.K. Coleman, what is your agenda here?
My agenda today is the same as it was yesterday, last week, last year, and the year before that: to convince as many people as possible that they have the permission and power to be the predominant creative forces in their own lives. Although the topic I wrote about in my Newsweek piece is a highly politicized issue, I have never been persuaded by the belief that politics is the best way to create social change. Politics, in my opinion, is reactionary rather than creative. Politicians will always and only do a combination of what they can get away with, what their financial backers demand of them, and what the public holds them accountable to doing. A lot of good can come from this process as well as a lot of evil. In its essence, however, politics is only a secondary cause.
I believe that all the great revolutions are the result of ordinary people choosing to become better versions of themselves. My favorite example of this is Rosa Parks. The changes inspired by her courage were not initiated by politicians. Of course, the politicians had to follow along and support the will of the people, but they really didn’t have much of a choice. When people decide that they simply won’t accept anything less than freedom, autonomy, and respect, then politicians are compelled by their own self-interest to fall in line. They certainly have a role to play, but that role is secondary to the role that individuals play every single day when they make small choices about who they’re going to become in this world. I’m not interested in telling anyone who to vote for. My agenda is to get people to take the notion of internal power more seriously. We can only cast a vote for politicians every so often, but we can cast votes for our own potential any day of the week. This is the realm I choose to occupy. I choose to devote my time and energy to making individuals, starting with myself, the best possible versions of themselves.
I believe that when we make ourselves better as individuals, our nation and our world will follow suit. Does political activity have anything to do with that? Sure, but I don’t think it’s the end-all-be-all so many people make it out to be. I cringe when I hear someone say “this is your one time to change the world” every election year because I think that’s one of the most disempowering messages we can tell young people. The American Revolution was not started by benevolent politicians who figured out a way to make the system work for everybody. It was started by individuals who took the risk of creating their own reality without asking for permission. I believe we can do the same. We can create a better world whether politicians listen to us or not. And even when they do listen to us, we don’t have to wait until their long and convoluted bureaucratic processes are complete before we can get on with the nuts & bolts of making good things happen. So that’s my agenda. It’s to encourage you and anyone else to take seriously the possibility that you are as much of a creative force as whoever you’ll be voting for this year; your talents, ideas, and convictions are as much of a harbinger of change as any of the lofty promises made by those who’ll say whatever it takes to get your vote.
We need to apprehend the people who did this to you. Can you tell us more about the events? What street were you on? What colors were you wearing? What was the exact date? Let’s do something about this!
The #1 assumption people make when reading my story is that I didn’t try to do anything about what happened to me or that I somehow failed to try hard enough. That’s a bit disheartening to hear because I believe I tried harder than most people would or could if they were in my situation. Moreover, it’s also sad to see how many assumptions people make about what you could or should do when you’re in a situation where you’re literally fearing for your life and the safety of your wife. Nevertheless let me clear the air on this issue one final time: Every single bit of information that I have has been shared with multiple officers some of whom I’ve spoken to in the past week. I am convinced beyond convincing that an exceedingly great effort has been made to do all that can be done about the unfortunate event that transpired three years ago. Frankly, I am completely over that part of things. I care about justice, but my healing process cannot sustain the nuisance of giving out all my information to every curious soul who thinks they’re going to be the Perry Mason archetype who cracks the case. I’ve had extended conversations with lawyers and police officers alike. That’s enough. I’ve made my peace with the possibilities and realities of being able to hold those two officers accountable. I am fighting a different battle now. I am fighting the battle of helping myself and others find the healing, inspiration, strength, and wisdom that comes from sharing our stories.
Why would you waste time telling your story if it can’t be used to incriminate the police officers who did this to you? Aren’t you perpetuating the problem?
To my surprise, this is an inquiry I’ve received from several people. This question arises out of a worldview that prioritizes political-based solutions so strongly that it almost becomes blind to the myriad of ways one can have a profound impact in spite of a lack of systemic change. Of course, one should seek to hold bad cops accountable whenever possible, but there is far more to the value of telling a story than getting bad cops fired. For starters, it’s part of my healing process. When people are abused, we move so quickly to discussions about what they should have done or what they should do that we forget how important it is for someone to process their own trauma. Even if you punish the instigator of an abusive experience, the victim needs specific processes and practices to help them cope with their situation. Learning to not live in fear is a tough challenge. Sometimes, telling your story can be a way forward. Sometimes, personal freedom begins with the simple but challenging decision to use your voice in whatever capacity you can.
Freedom is a voice
freedom is a song
freedom is the spirit
of a people who are strong
Bobby McFerrin, Freedom Is A Voice
When one person tells their story, it can help inspire others to do the same. I’ve received a plethora of messages from victims of abuse who found encouragement and validation in my story. Many of them told me that they were going to open up and share some dark secrets with their family members or therapist because of my story. Is that less significant than firing a couple of bad cops? I pity the one who answers that question “yes.” But let’s take this further. There’s even more good that’s come from this story. The exchange of information makes everyone smarter. Other people can learn from my story and I can learn from theirs. I’ve already been taught a few new things that I can do to better protect myself from future abuse and others have learned a few important things from observing my example. This is the kind of knowledge that can save lives and mitigate unnecessary harm. Here’s another take from a personal friend about why it might be valuable to tell stories like mine even if it doesn’t result in direct punishment of the offending party:
In the wake of some recent events I’ve had and witnessed quite a number of FB debates with people who almost literally believe that the police can do no wrong and that anyone detained or harmed must have brought it on himself. So stories like this, when credible, debunk those overgeneralizations and can challenge people to be willing to reconsider and not to assume, in a knee-jerk fashion, that the police are always right in a situation and must always be defended. I want to be clear here: I consider myself “hawkish” on crime and just about to the right of the right-wing. But that’s all the more reason for us to get all the data. A story like this is data. I want to be able to be tough on crime and supportive of the police in the right way, in an intelligent way, not in a knee-jerk way that invites a loss of civil liberties for everyone and that acts as a form of enablement for bullies with a badge. An anecdotal case like this tells us that such do exist, more than perhaps we would like to admit.
Many forms of abuse are perpetuated not merely because one or two people go unpunished, but often because of a widespread belief that certain types of people would never do certain types of things. So for me, it’s not just about incriminating a couple of bad law-enforcers, but it’s about inspiring storytellers. As I write this, my mind recalls the following Native American proverb: “Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.” By empowering more people to tell their story, we can spark individual and cultural transformation in ways that go beyond the process of making laws and punishing those who break them. Through storytelling, we can convey concepts and convictions that will live in people’s hearts forever.
Your story can’t be proven. People lie all the time. How do I know you didn’t make this whole thing up?
Proof is a funny thing sometimes. One of my favorite stories is how I proposed to my wife. Whenever I tell the story, people have all sorts of reactions. Some people laugh. Some people are impressed by my creativity. Some people are curious about how I managed to keep her from finding out. Some people want to know what my actual words were. Some people want to know if she cried. But no one has ever asked me to prove that I’m not making the story up. Here’s what’s funny about the story, though: most of the interesting parts that make the story worth telling are very difficult to prove. My wife was there and she can confirm I’m telling the truth, but she was also present at my police encounter so how much is her testimony really worth?
Most of the stories that change our lives are stories that can’t be proven with video footage or more than 1-2 eye witnesses. What we decide to believe involves a lot of factors. Sometimes we judge a story based on the fears we have about how other people may abuse the story in order to promote an agenda we don’t like. I had someone chastise me for telling my story simply because they’re afraid that “liberals will use it to promote their racially divisive ideologies.” Sometimes we take people’s word for it when we’ve had similar experiences, but we doubt their words when their stories are unlike our own. The persuasive power of personal testimony and eyewitness evidence depends on the knowledge we have of the event’s reporters as well as our own beliefs about what sorts of things are possible in the world. Since I was actually there, I can say I know it’s true. My wife was also there and she corroborates my story. Furthermore, I have no interest in monetizing my story or using it to advance any political candidates or causes. But you have to go with your own reason and intuition.
There’s a difference between knowing that something is true and showing that something is true. The former is simply a state of being aware. The latter is an ability or skill whose effectiveness can vary depending on a variety of factors. You can know that something is true, but still lack the ability to show that it’s true depending on the standards and biases of the person who demands proof. For instance, suppose I were to say “I have a headache.” How would you know if I’m telling the truth or not? If you’re a close friend or family member, you’d probably believe me. But if you’re initially skeptical of my motives, there’s no limit to your capacity to doubt what I’m saying. Even if I wince in pain or take two pills of Tylenol, you could still easily say “he’s just putting on a show for attention.” Your skepticism, however, wouldn’t deprive me of my right to legitimately claim I have a headache. My ability to know what I’m experiencing doesn’t depend on my ability to make a believer out of everyone who questions me.
I didn’t tell my story because I naively believed that everyone would accept it nor because I’m trying to audition for the Sean Hannity show. I told my story because my story is all I have. And just as it is fair for others to doubt it, it is fair for me to tell it. If you doubt my story, I simply ask you to be consistent. Hold everyone’s story to the same standards of evidence. Doubt isn’t the enemy. Selective skepticism is. Once we stop practicing selective skepticism, the power of critical thinking will guide us to truth.
What’s next? Are you going to go on the Bill O’Reilly show? Are you available for radio/podcast interviews?
Maybe. Maybe not. I’m not interested in having my story politicized. And it was never my intent to be on TV debating and discussing issues with political commentators and news reporters. I have a work to do. I have a life mission to fulfill. I have a spiritual purpose I was born to complete. When these 15 minutes of negligible fame pass away, I will still be focused on an agenda that precedes and supersedes my fleeting appearance in Newsweek. I still plan on using my voice for good and I’ll be cautiously open to any opportunities that feel right. I won’t run from my story, but I also have zero plans to shop it. I told my story solely because I was listening to my inner voice. I’m going to go back to doing that. If my inner voice guides me to make a certain kind of appearance or speak with a certain kind of person, I’ll follow it’s lead. But until it calls me in that direction, I’m going to heed it’s present invitation to do the work that my nature demands of me.
My story doesn’t make me who I am. Who I am is what makes the story. The story is an expression of me, but it is not the definition of me. The small little spotlight that’s currently shining on my story will eventually grow dim, but my individual portion of the brilliance that shines within every human soul will always be there waiting for me to cultivate it, manifest it, and use it for the good of others. So that’s what I’m going to primarily focus on.