After moving to Buffalo, I made a set of new friends. Each is an activist driven by vision. One works with men of color to relinquish patriarchy, and another is focused on strategies around food waste and sustainability. One of my friends once talked about infusing love into the prisons and the other is helping churches become a refuge for migrant families. Being with people with vision has filled me with a desire to create a social justice vision for each cause I hold dear. I admit that I can get bogged down in fighting against what is wrong now, instead of imagining a future worth fighting for.
Someone gave me the phrase “peace in every body”. And, I may hitch all my future vision-making to that one statement.
Tonight, I want to imagine what a society would be like with policing organized around creating peace. Simply rehabilitating individual “bad cops” or even lots and lots of police through training wont matter at all if the criminal justice system remains unjust and unregulated. Like pouring new wine into old wineskins, we can’t simply rehabilitate police officers, we would have to change what we are and are not willing to tolerate in terms of policing, sentencing, bail, incarceration and the whole lot.
That said, I want to take it a step back to say that the cruelty, the violence and the humiliation we are seeing on the part of police officers within the black community are not aberrations of policing. These things are what policing is designed to do. Policing in America is primarily focused on the protection of property. Specifically, police work to protect property from black people. Even when the property (a nice car, a home in a good neighborhood, the public park) is public or is owned by the black person him/herself. For example, in the 1990’s police officers tended to pull over black men in nice cars using the justification that the car was most likely stolen. In a perverted way, white womanhood is also considered property or at least as a thing that needs to be protected from black men – an idea that was born in slavery and portrayed poignantly in the film “Birth of a Nation”. This idea has been perpetuated through time. It explains why so many white women have become empowered to call the police on black people to control their behavior. And it is the reason so many police officers answer that call. Thank God for cell phone cameras.
When Americans talk about being in a “safe” or “family-oriented” neighborhood or a “good” home, they mean they live where they predominately see white people. People of color (some who live there and some who do not) are routinely harassed in an effort to control and monitor their behavior in these spaces. Keeping black and brown people “in their place” then becomes the most important goal of everyone in the community in direct ways (through police harassment or brutality) or through the use of proxies (through behaviors of civilians like following, staring, using harassment or slurs, reporting people to ICE, or calling the police). Way across town, the racial segregation is largely maintained through violence – even if you cannot see or do not witness the violence directly. In addition to walling people in through limited opportunities, diminishing job possibilities, low-quality public transportation, food deserts, poor schools, slow emergency response, and etc.; police officers create and maintain a line – a perimeter – around these spaces. And they watch and terrorize the poor and people of color to keep them from disrupting white comfort by straying too far from home. Even though you may not be able to see the line, the people who live in these communities know where it is and what it means.
Here’s the problem. Racial profiling does not keep crime from happening. Simply collecting black people who might break into your home won’t prevent someone from breaking into your home. In many ways, the false sense of security one feels from living in segregated communities, may make certain people more vulnerable to intra-racial forms of violence and abuse.
Back to the job of vision-making. What if policing put people over property? If necessary, I suppose, wealthy people could provide protection for their own property, and not rely on the tax payer to fund these efforts. Indeed, as a black taxpayer, I feel like I am paying wolves to hunt me. What if police were here to “protect and serve”? What if they could step in and protect people in domestic violence situations or rescue children from harm? What if they worked with communities and not against them? What if they had to live among the people where they worked? What if they met up with people at church, community outings, or at the bar? What if their children went to the same schools? Could they then tell the difference between George Floyd the funny, supportive, loving father/uncle/friend and George Floyd the “thug” who needed to be snuffed out face down on the street. Would closeness help people see the humanity in others?
Forgive me for making this gross over-generalization, but it seems that when women police, they tend to be better able to connect with people. Can we find ways to make space for more women in police forces? I don’t mean to get all Judeo-Christian on the topic either, but what about the concept of being a servant-leader? Nurses, doctors, teachers and many other professions require the kind of service that Jesus discusses where you show up to the job with of a sense of sacrifice and humility. Sometimes doctors may get a big head in their careers, but for the most part they are driven by a duty to heal. Is a career as a police officer drawing young men who once felt helpless and bullied? Can we find ways to help young men in general feel empowered in ways that are not focused on domination and control?
As social services and the safety net for the poor erodes, police are called on to do things that are clearly outside their purview. Could police officers partner with mediators, clergy or community activists? Every problem cannot be solved through force and incarceration. As we become more and more scared of each other, city budgets go into police departments and the militarization of police equipment while draining the resources for drug rehabilitation, mental health resources and summer youth employment. Some cities are trying to divert nonviolent offenders, especially young ones to alternative programs; however, these efforts need to be supported by police departments in order to be effective. The lives of police officers as well as the health of society are at stake if we do not make real structural changes.
Even as I am making the argument against training away racism from individuals, I do believe that police officers like anyone else in a service position, need to be reviewed and held accountable.
When I studied the sexual abuse of male children for a book project a number of years ago, I came across a study about clergy abuse. They found that some child predators “hid beneath the cloth” – meaning that they sought out careers as clergy so they could abuse children without being held accountable. For decades, the Catholic church simply moved abusive clergy around to different churches – often in inner cities – to hide the crimes of these men. Similarly, white supremacists and hate groups recognize that police officers who kill black people are not held accountable. These groups have been actively recruiting police officers and some members are becoming police officers. How many police officers are going to work everyday itching for an excuse to abuse, terrorize and murder black people? The thought that even one of these violent deaths was about an ideology rather than an escalation of events, terrifies me the most. We must hold police officers accountable and work to root out the infiltration of hate groups in these departments.
Anyone, regardless of their career choice, who kills an unarmed person, should be convicted of murder – just like everyone else who commits murder. If we cannot as a society stomach putting police officers who kill unarmed people in jail, they should no longer receive a pay check or pension from the city – and they certainly should never be allowed to hold a gun again. Police accountability keeps us all safer. Prosecutors, DAs and others often find it difficult to convict their friends, but I also believe that juries made up of good-meaning people with implicit racial biases are also to blame. We need to establish community boards made up of people from the communities where the police serve. These boards should be responsible for holding police officers accountable. I would think that police officers themselves would want to be at the forefront of culture shift and social change in criminal justice. Justice-based policing would make their lives safer as well. Whereas, I can respect the need for solidarity among police officers, once someone acts outside of protocol and becomes a menace to the community, they should no longer be protected by a “blue wall”.
It is hard to find a vision for policing now that the George Floyd/ Black Lives Matter protests are still happening and feelings are so raw. However, now would be a great time to use all our collective energy and creativity to make change. Otherwise we will find ourselves back here again the next time the black community does not receive justice for the killing of a black man, woman or child.
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Photo Credit – King Walker stands in front of police officers and their supporters at the conclusion of a “Blue Lives Matter” rally in Baltimore, Maryland, on May 30, 2015. (Reuters / Jim Bourg) The Nation