Race, Policing, and the Theological and Social Divide
The problem might not be race. The problem may be misunderstanding, and possibly the hamstringing of a political process by certain groups whose cause is boosted by the inflammatory response of both the news and social media, compounded by a growing refusal to communicate with one another and acknowledge the possibility that some truth likely exists on both sides of a rather odd argument.
At some point in the American psyche it became fashionable to disregard public officials giving lawful and reasonable commands. It is not sensible to walk away from, flee, or advance on a police officer telling you to “Keep your hands where I can see them and don’t move,” or “Drop the gun!” Most describe it to me as “Not normal.” How many times in the course of a given week have you personally witnessed an incident like this? They don’t happen frequently (thankfully) and tend to be the result (usually) of someone not acting in our best interest. Yes, they are increasing. Irrespective of one’s race or ethnicity, putting an officer’s safety and the safety of other innocent civilians in jeopardy simply because one doesn’t “agree” with the law or believe that one is immune to civil authority is unwise and unhelpful.
All of this, of course, reflects a much larger problem. We have regressed to a sort of adolescent, stunted development that points to a “Me, me” and “But what about me?” semi-consciousness that seems to have invaded the American psychological landscape, along with the psychopathology of reality television and brings with it a false certainty that says, “Hey, I can do whatever the hell I want to, by God; I’m an American.” Instead of taking the higher road, we seem of late to have adopted the attitudes and actions that demonstrate that there might some truth in what others in the world community say about us.
To those who do take the “This is America, I’ll do as I please” position, I simply say, “Fine. You keep thinking that. Cops are going to continue to do what they have been sworn to do.” As an aside, America is a republic. You know—an “and to the republic for which it stands….” sort of thing. We have rights, but actually more privileges than rights.
Do I believe we have come to terms with our role in the creation and execution of slavery? Absolutely not. Do I believe we have reconciled the persecution of African-Americans, Native Americans, Japanese-Americans, and others? No. As a descendant of a Cherokee family whose patriarch was a slaveholder, I have much to reflect on until the day I die; some of it good, some of it not so good. I was born with white skin, denoted in this day and time as a privilege, that covers many veins and arteries attached to a damaged heart that pumps both Euro-American and Native American blood. Perhaps my heart is more damaged than I thought, and is so worn and cynical that it just cannot “feel” appropriately for these black men. And yet, I think it does feel for them. Believe it or not, as a former law enforcement officer (LEO), I do feel for black males, known and unknown to me: for those I’ve arrested, for those who backed me up at three in the morning on traffic stops; for those I’ve ministered to and prayed with as they lay dying, for the men I call friends today. But I see them more as men than black men, and maybe that’s my problem, I don’t know. Perhaps I suffer from some strange form of reverse color blindness.
I have friends who are extremely dear to me but with whom I vehemently disagree on this subject of police shootings. Do I disagree with the peaceful protests? Never. It is a duty to follow one’s conscience. There are things to which I would publicly protest. Do I disagree with these friends about the notion of a law enforcement contingent out to kill black males? Yes. As a former officer, I just don’t see the gain in it, and it especially doesn’t make sense given that some of these officers doing the shooting have been African-American men, often led by African-American sergeants, captains and chiefs. If I’m wrong and it is discovered that this is factual, I will be the first to condemn it and ask, “How can we use our best thinking and agency to eliminate this poison and do better as humans?”
It’s also important to take things in systematic perspective. During the past few years where black males have been shot by police, a percentage of the public (and certainly elements of the media) seem to disregard the criminal histories of some of these persons as if those histories have had no bearing on their respective behavior at the time of the shootings, which strikes me as a complete breakdown in the understanding of human behavior in general and criminal behavior in particular. Such histories serve to “establish a pattern,” as it is known in criminal law and procedure. This disregard paints a false picture of the defendant, the officer involved, and the situation in general. It is irresponsible and immoral. Regarding the Charlotte, N.C. incident, some will say Keith Scott’s past as a violent felon has nothing to do with his actions the day of the shooting. Even when the past directly influences the present? Interesting perspective. Are all of these shooting victims actually innocent? Despite Michael Brown’s violent behavior (caught on video stealing and roughing up a store clerk prior to his encounter with Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri) was he in fact “innocent?” How, exactly, do we define “innocent?”
The other day a friend and ministry colleague pointed me to a recent blog of the Los Angeles Police Protective League that recommends police officers “redeploy” and “create distance” when faced with an armed suspect. In other words, officers, do not enforce; evacuate. Retreat. Turn your back on the citizens you are sworn to protect and just run, after all. Thus, in such a scenario, after effectively spaying and neutering our police personnel, we can now experience a full-fledged, national psychosis.
Many of the aforementioned social media and non-social media friends are fellow clergy/professional ministry leaders. What I disagree with is their certainty. Before the facts of each case are brought to bear, many have tried and convicted the police. Most of these people have advanced—often very advanced—education and degrees. They are sure, for example, that in the Charlotte incident an “innocent black man just waiting on his son to get out of school” was killed for no reason by another black man in a militant uniform. Despite Mr. Scott’s lengthy criminal record as a convicted felon and his violent past, they remain undaunted. Basically, we’re talking about “failure to comply” in general, and all these shootings over the past few years reflect that: failure, neglect, or outright refusal to obey an official directive. Americans don’t like to comply; something to do with the narcissism I mentioned earlier. And it’s causing a lot of problems.
I watched the video of one Charlotte area clergyperson who, using the microphone and her position to her advantage, spoke of the “righteous rage” the community has arguably earned, as if her group and those she was representing had a patent on the subject. Yet, a couple of days later I watched a video of a friend—a clergyperson who has spent her entire life and career in the cause for human rights, peace, justice, and equity—speak eloquently about her own experience of the Charlotte protests and, while she issued a challenge to the community to deal with the realities of these shootings, she did so with her usual grace and professionalism. Still, she and I view these incidents from very different vantage points. I will continue to respect hers (and her) regardless, staying in the tension of the reality that we’re going to have to agree to disagree.
Again, these are cherished colleagues who nevertheless have made it their life’s mission to make race, not the interpretation of our ideas about it, but race itself, as the focal point of their “pulpits.” And some of these folks have very powerful pulpits. Some are projecting a surety that the officer in question has overreacted. That’s akin to my attempting to practice parish nursing, teach my colleague’s theology class, write a thesis on in-depth peacemaking, or preach a sermon series on restorative justice. Because I haven’t worn their “uniform” or studied their “statutes,” so to speak, I’m not qualified to do it.
But minds seem to be made up. Attempts at reason and accountability now seem pointless for some, and yet they sometimes adopt a rather condescending position: I’m unenlightened and stubborn—I don’t “get it.” Besides, they say no police accountability exists (though it most certainly does—more than you’ll find in the ministry—trust me). Hence, from my point of view, there’s a misunderstanding problem as opposed to a racial one. Academic professionals, theologians, and much of the public voice their certainty. I, for one, am not certain about these incidents; I’m thunderstruck by so much premature blame and illogical language and behavior. Experience tells me there is a great chasm between hours or days of theological or philosophical refection and the sometimes instantaneous decisions LEO’s must make. And I can always tell when I’m dealing with someone who has never even remotely been in the position of having to make a life-altering, split-second decision.
On a technical note and as a point of reference, television and movies often portray law enforcement officers not firing until the suspect’s firearm is pointed directly at them. This sort of nonsense propagates the notion that no officer-involved shooting is justified absent this scenario. It is not the LEO’s responsibility to wait until he or she has a bead drawn on their forehead to fire. Again, somewhere in the American psyche, we have promoted more fairy tales to serve as authenticity. It is simply bad police work to not fire “until fired upon” in a situation as deadly as a suspect with a weapon, or a suspect who clearly has the ability and intention of relieving you of yours. It’s real-life law enforcement, not some virtual reality gaming application. And it is bad public policy to use race as a vehicle for local, state, national, or religious political gain. Scratch that. It’s unconscionable.
On that note, are we training a new generation of police that can’t seem to determine a real threat from an imaginary one? Are we entertaining a trans-generation of people who have no understanding of personal responsibility and no regard for authority, instead becoming both sociological and de-facto wards of the state? Could it be that the actual threats are changing in this country—that traumatic brain injury or some form of altered mental state has people (many with extensive—and I mean extensive—interstate criminal histories) driving, carrying guns, and performing activities that common sense says they shouldn’t be, needlessly provoking a police altercation? And how is it that these offenders warrant martyrdom on the contemporary stage of public discourse?
It seems improper in any case to put the cart before the horse. Before we fry our public servants at the public square, let’s reconsider. Ironically, in my own experience in each profession (or calling, if you will), I discovered something rather peculiar: Interestingly enough, I actually endured more devious, underhanded, soul-wrenching behavior in ministry overall than I ever did in law enforcement. So I’m not sold that education, social position, and some sort of professional religious commissioning makes for clarity and conviction, much less a copyright on “righteous rage.” Conversely, it often lends confusion where none is warranted, sometimes by professionals who have spent their career working out their own issues at the expense of others.
For quite some time I was torn. Yet, with each passing incident, I’m less conflicted because reason has been abandoned in favor of politics and publicity. I understand the Charlotte protests that turned so violent were operating, at least in part, under the auspices of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. I’ve noticed that their protests often result in more people getting hurt and, tragically—in the Charlotte event—killed. What’s that about? In their defense, I am convinced of the existence of a separate entity, traveling from city to city that inserts within these protests with the intent of creating chaos and violence. This is nothing new in this country. But even that doesn’t speak to the frame of mind of the persons I’ve described who are convinced police are bent toward a hyper-focus on black men.
“Black Lives Matter” and its direction has also been questioned by others. I don’t know where Rev. Reynolds stands on the issue today but her 2015 comments were thought-provoking. But again I argue—whether or not critics are correct—that misunderstanding and lack of genuine communication is the problem.
Over time, instead of providing possible answers to serious but potentially solvable problems, we have given authority to what someone once phrased as “causes in search of an issue,” where little productive thinking gets done. By that I mean the absurd habit of blaming police officers for doing their jobs precisely the way they were trained to do them, and ultimately doing harm (e.g., the public and departmental sacrifice of Officer Wilson and his family in Ferguson). Can police training improve? No doubt. Is current training sufficient to deal with the growing number of mental health issues and lack of respect for authority I’m seeing play out in America’s streets? Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean that people with no experience or knowledge of police administration should dictate police policy, calling for ancillary resignations and convicting cops in the court of public opinion. Nor does it give clergy license as leaders to distort reality.
So, is there hope for these problems that seem to be multiplying as we move down the road between the past and the present? Can we resolve our differences? I don’t have the answer and never laid claim, but being part of the conversation and openness to dialogue is always a start, as is continued interest in one’s hometown and nation. Just as important is the willingness to call others on their determination to lay blame in places that make them feel better about themselves or experience an elevation in their social or professional standing in the name of civil disobedience.
If I’m wrong and it truly is about race itself, is that hope even realistic?