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.
“Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Merriam-Webster defines the adjective systemic as “of, relating to, or affecting the entire body.” That medical definition refers to the system of a specific body or organism, including, of course, the human body. The Ebola epidemic sweeping West Africa is a systemic assault on the organs until the victim bleeds to death from the inside. But some systems are larger than those contained within the vulnerable body of a single individual. We have railway systems and highway systems, judicial systems and weapons systems, accounting systems and computer systems, and the most important system of all, our social system.
A social system outlines how a group relates to and supports the members of a society, in order to create a community that gives its people the best chance of survival, with the ideal goal being to create a successful paradigm for sustainability. As our bodies have had to adapt to a changing environment, so too our social systems have evolved into what we hope are better and better ways of dealing with friends and neighbors, and even with those whom we have chosen to label enemies.
Yet despite good intention, a social system planned by human beings will always have disastrous moments, even fatal flaws, because of the fallibility of the premises on which they are built. The systemic assault on the body of American society is evident these days in the continuing epidemic of cop-on-black intimidation, threat and murder brought to light most recently with the choke-hold killing of Eric Garner, in New York, and the shooting of young Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. (The subsequent violence is not part of that illness. It is a predictable side effect, though.)
Our laws, and those who represent them, are supposed to be the anti-bodies to this type of viral infection. “We all need to hold ourselves to a high standard, particularly those of us in positions of authority,” President Obama said in a statement last Thursday, after police in military vehicles and camouflage appeared to violate the First and Fourth Amendment rights of journalists and protesters in Ferguson.
Human decency isn’t regulated by law, but by a sense that we actually are all part of the same body. The anti-bodies are obviously corrupted when police officers refer to the protesters as “fucking animals,” and a faulty judicial system puts its own money-driven survival ahead of the welfare of the citizens it is meant to protect.
Even the United States Supreme Court, which is supposed to be the most inoculated from the distractions of a dysfunctional society, finds itself refusing to acknowledge the pervasiveness of racism in favor of some mythical, Euro-centric sense that the pendulum of discrimination has swung too far the other direction. Laws protecting the rights of disadvantaged minorities to receive the same educational opportunities of their wealthier, White counterparts don’t work, Chief Justice John Roberts said, because, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” (Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District, 2007)
As Slate.com’s Dahlia Lithwick pointed out after the anti-affirmative action decision in Schuette, earlier this year, Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent “poke[s] at Roberts [Seattle decision] with a sharp stick.”
“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race,” wrote the justice, “is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.”
Justice Sotomayor was describing racism as the systemic disease that has been a blight on American society, since even before the days our slave-holding Founding Fathers declared that “all men are created equal.”
It was only fifteen months ago that a St. Louis County, Missouri, police lieutenant was fired for allegedly telling his squad, one morning, “Let’s have a black day,” and “Let’s make the jail cells more colorful.”
“Now is the time for healing,” intoned President Obama, last week. That won’t be easy, but there is a way.
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Let’s look at another definition for systemic one can find at Merriam-Webster, that is precisely about healing a corrupted system:
“of, relating to, or being a pesticide that as used is harmless to the plant or higher animal but when absorbed into its sap or bloodstream makes the entire organism toxic to pests (as an insect or fungus).”
With Ebola, though no cure exists, scientists say the best chance at a cure is to strengthen the body’s own defense system, so it can fight off the infection and the patient can heal. That treatment, in its own way, is a systemic.
What systemic, then, must be applied to American society to rid itself of the racist scourge?
One idea to solve the issues in Ferguson is to diversify the police force. “There’s a deep undercurrent of racial frustration,” Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery told MSNBC‘s Jose Diaz Balart last Thursday, after he was arrested and released by local law enforcement. “In places where residents do not believe the police understand them or look like them, you are always going to start at a disadvantage in terms of these relationships.”
Experts agree that diversity of government officials and a community’s police force is laudable, “But at the same time, you can’t expect that to be a panacea,” University of Pittsburgh political science professor, Jon Hurwitz, told the CBC.
The CBC’s Mark Gollom writes:
“The problem, says Hurwitz, is that stereotypes against blacks that associate them with violence continue to persist. Hurwitz said these stereotypes are ingrained across the political spectrum, and that many blacks in the U.S. are just as susceptible to stereotypes of blacks as whites.”
So as a systemic solution, there’s just as much a chance that a more diverse police force would not solve the problem. It’s possible the problem is not in the racial make-up of the enforcers, but rather the way they relate to the community they serve. As Gollom put it:
“Generally, whites also perceive their experiences with police officers different than blacks, Hurwitz said, with most whites reporting they have been treated fairly and politely during their encounters.
“But blacks talk about being treated rudely and disrespectfully, Hurwitz said, even if their encounters with police were for similar reasons as whites.”
In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Tuesday, one former Los Angeles cop says it’s not just the officer’s responsibility to keep tensions minimized. The “bottom line,” writes Sunil Dutta, who is now a homeland security professor at Colorado State University:
“…if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. Most field stops are complete in minutes. How difficult is it to cooperate for that long?”
So we have a huge group of citizens who feel the cops treat them “rudely and disrespectfully,” and cops who say, “Don’t threaten me,” and if we follow those rules everything will be okay. The problem is, those aren’t rules for a community to get along. They’re rules for a community cold war. It’s only a matter of time before the effort it takes to keep up the facade of a peaceful town shatters into chaos.
During the protests, there’s been looting and tear gas and arrests, Molotov cocktails and noise cannons and more arrests. Smoke, screams, blood and broken glass spread across the streets of Ferguson, as they have in so many poor and neglected neighborhoods before. Asked for calm, they shout, “No justice! No peace!”
“Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
In his CBC article, Gollom refers to a program in Boston as a “success story,” where the Boston PD reached out to community stakeholders, including Black clergy, “to forge better relationships with blacks.” But according to at least one recent study by three Harvard professors, that program, called Operation Ceasefire or the “Boston Miracle,” while successful during its nascent period in the 1990s, slipped away from the community in the 2000s. The reason for the inability of the city to maintain its “success story” was not the model, but the commitment of the city to the program.
“Our basic conclusion,” the study’s authors write, “is not that the Boston model of the 1990s has failed, but rather that the City of Boston and the Boston Police failed to pursue the policies and practices that had been so successful during the late 1990s.”
In January, after a string of homicides in Boston, the police once again reached out to the Black clergy for help, and to present “a united front against the violence that’s occurring in our streets,” according to the police superintendent in chief.
The lessons from Boston may apply in Ferguson, and other towns where there is not a concerted effort by the police to reach out to leaders in the community, and “forge better relationships.” These relationships cannot be seen as some kind of quick fix to the problem. Concentrating on ending the violence, on both sides, without addressing the underlying causes of the problems will only result in the virus of racist intolerance reestablishing itself, and destroying the community from the inside.
Like a treatment that gets the body’s own defenses to destroy a virus, the problems in our social system need to be addressed by getting an entire society to fight against a common, corrosive enemy.
Here’s the tricky part. You are our society. Your own conscience is the anti-body. Your commitment cannot flag, for our entire republic depends on you. Vote. March. Act. Love.
“Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.