The skin remains thin where old wounds receive no healing salve and are not allowed to mend. The scar is prodded by forces seeking control and picked at when it tingles in a sadly familiar way.
There is little sympathy for those robbed of justice when their justification for anger crosses over into mob hysteria. Moreover, it harms the community in which they live and, more importantly, the cause for which they were marching in the first place. On the other hand, it’s important to remember that police aren’t always the “good guys” and their claims are never unassailable.
People in Ferguson, Missouri, and around the country marched this week for a cause deeply rooted in the story of America – the fight for equal treatment under the law, and a fair shot at justice. Through the smoke of burning businesses and lost jobs and racial epithets and Klan threats it may be hard to discern the silhouettes of purposeful people looking to wrest reconciliation from the restless mobs. Attacking the status quo with bricks, bats and bottle glass only maintains it, while power’s grip hides behind riot shields and rolling clouds of teargas.
Yet we cannot walk away from this fight, and while changing it from the outside is tantamount to attacking a retracting tortoise, the old reptile understands that in order to breathe free, he must acknowledge the threat that looms outside his shell. When the rabble rouses to anger, only real change appeases. It then falls to the earnest and purposeful to calm both sides and find a way to mediate peace through mutual respect.
Our racial dysfunction “has led – for whites, blacks and Hispanics as well – to a widening sense of disrespect,” conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks opined on the PBS Newshour, Friday, “that not only is there no opportunity, but they’re being disrespected by the people with authority, and that’s especially true with African-Americans because of the historical legacy of racism in this country.”
Respect is not born from threats of violence, neither from a hysterical mob nor a policeman’s gun. Some suggests body cameras to protect officers’ reputations and the rights of civilians, and though recent studies have proven the devices to be an effective bulwark against use-of-force excesses by police in some communities, it is like attaching training wheels to a bicycle even though the rider should be expert without them. The problem is with the bicycle, not the rider.
We don’t have to teach the police they have to be watched to be effective. We have to teach them that proper policing is being civil, especially in the face of communities that have an existential fear of their relationship with the cops. The onus is, and has always been, on the police, here.
Regardless of whether Michael Brown is responsible for the interaction with Officer Darren Wilson that precipitated the tragic events of August 9, as the grand jury seemed to believe, a policeman chose to use deadly force because he could, not because he had to. In that context, “good guys” with guns shooting “bad guys” without guns means, to me, that the so-called “good guys” should not have a gun, at least not until they receive more complete training.
When a police officer, who is sworn to protect a community, pulls a weapon and fires, he must have an understanding of the impact of his actions. He is shooting not only at an individual who may or may not be armed; he is aiming to kill a member of his community, even if they have nothing in common other than a similar zip code. The shooting will have an impact. The policeman must comprehend that, just as he must have an understanding of why he takes any punitive action.
Even if a police officer is just pulling someone over for a traffic violation, is he doing it because they were being careless and dangerous on the road, or because he has a mandate to raise revenue for his municipality? Is his performance evaluation based on how many tickets he writes and arrests he has made, or is he judged on how well he gets along with not just his fellow officers, but with the community he serves?
The system is broken, if a police officer’s job is to help keep the court dockets and jails full and the pockets of the county’s general fund overflowing. His job is, and should always be, policing first, arresting second, shooting last. That is his link in the chain of justice. There is no room in a civil society for anything else.