Thursday, August 14, 2014

Power and Accountability

Dorian Johnson, who was with Michael Brown when he was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, gave his account of the events of the day. He said the two were walking in the middle of the street when a cop told them to move to the sidewalk. They talked back a bit and things got ugly. Then deadly.

I don't know if that story is true, half true, or completely made up. I wasn't there and, thankfully, since I don't have cable, I've not been inundated with every last detail and opinion on the matter.

I do find the story immanently believable though, because it so fits with the kind of thing I've seen over and over again.

I know a few police officers. I met and spoken with many on various occasions, almost always off-duty. They seems like normal, committed, sensible people. When I've encountered police officers "in the real world," however, it's almost always been a negative experience. My experience with cops has been of the power-trip, hair-trigger temper, angry for no reason variety. Perhaps it's the company I keep?

I've been screamed at by police officers for having a conversation with a homeless man. I've seen teenagers thrown up against cars for little more than being black. I've seen the intimidation first hand.

I won't go so far as to say these particular police officers are normative or even numerous - but they exist. I've heard plenty of cops talk about co-workers who are jerks or take the job too seriously. I imagine the police officers who are calm and committed to upstanding service simply avoid the kind of activities that give their profession a bad name.

The problem comes, though, when a particular class of people - namely the urban (largely black) poor - have only experiences with the worst examples of policing. When you only know angry, power-tripping cops (or the nameless, faceless others who frequently patrol your neighborhood), it's difficult to get a sense of justice and fair play.

Someone asked me the other day what the point of looting was. I don't condone it and, deep down, its simply a way of getting stuff for free. But, when your perception of the world is, "it doesn't matter if I follow the rules or not, the Man is coming for me," there's little motivation to actually follow the rules. It's a silly, wasteful type of protest - one that almost always misses the mark - but it is protest nonetheless.

I was raised in middle-class white society. I was one of those kids taught that the police are your friends and they'll always help you out of a jam. I was taught that I have nothing to fear if I've done nothing wrong and I have the right to stand up for myself.

As an adult, having spent time in places where police presence is something other than inconspicuous, I have trouble believing, deep-down, that those lessons are true. I certainly know a lot of people who grow up being taught to avoid the police at all costs; if you find yourself in an unfamiliar place - don't go to the cops, they'll blame the nearest crime on you; even if you've done nothing wrong, being black is often enough to get you hauled downtown.

These are, of course, anything but absolute truths. However, they are reality for a lot of people. Unfortunately, those people are disproportionately black. Black people do not have the best history of relations with law and justice in this country. While great strides have been made over the years to raise the ceiling of opportunity for African-Americans (at least one can be elected President), this incident (and many others) illustrate that the floor of treatment remains solidly in the basement. Scenes from Ferguson this week (outside of modern riot gear and armored vehicles) could be mistaken for the Deep South in 1962.

When I've been party or witness to police over-stepping bounds, I've spoken up, talked back. I've done so with almost no fear of reprisal. I recognize the angry guy I'm speaking with is armed, but I'm fairly confident he won't do anything to me. I'm right and I'm white. That's just not the truth for everyone.

To me, though, the real failure in all of this is the response. It's the position of leadership. Sadly, there are innocent people killed every day in this country - more often than we'd like, they're killed by police officers. In most cases, there is an investigation, consequences, results. It's only those few times when action is avoided or delayed or ignored, that it becomes news.

Human nature is towards defensiveness. That's natural. But we have the ability to recognize our nature and override it; it's literally what separates us from the animals (except maybe whales and dolphins - those guys are smart!). Problems arise when people given power refuse to accept accountability. Police officers command public trust - therefore they must be willing to submit to a higher, more invasive, possibly unfair level of suspicion. It just comes with the territory. People in power just have a higher standard, whether we like it or not.

It gets tricky for police, because they're also the ones charged with upholding those standards - essentially, they're policing themselves. A quick, defensive response (whether its correct or not) just doesn't communicate the kind of accountability required of those charged with upholding the law.

My wife is a teacher; it's the world in which our family lives. It's painful to see that those people who most probably deserve to be in a different position are the ones most strenuously defended by teachers' unions. It's like police policing themselves. Too often these units become exclusive clubs, designed to benefit lifetime members, rather than defenders of their own profession.

I recognize the value of brotherhood and family and unconditional support, especially in an occupation so fraught with danger. I get what that's pushed so strenuously. At the same time, police officers must know that for every bad decision that gets defended, every mediocre cop who keeps their job after a screw up, the reputation of the whole profession takes a hit.

With cops, like with teachers (or really any profession) if they themselves are not the ones upholding the standard, the standard is not long for this world.

Positions of power attract abuse of power. I'm not simply talking about how people with power issues are attracted to positions of power (which is true), but that the positions themselves breed abuse of power when lacking accountability.

You can go back to the oft-cited Stanford study - where a group of undergraduates was split into prisoners and guards and left alone. With 24 hours, those with power had descended into dehumanizing acts of violence and torture against classmates who had been their equals not a day before.

I have great sympathy for the cop who says, "I'm gonna tell these kids to get out of the street, because I can and they have to listen." I've been in similar positions of authority that have similarly gone to my head. It happens without conscious awareness. Power just takes over.

When those who are supposed to listen and obey don't, well then, it's a short step to increased pressure, force, and violence. It's not an outrageous leap to make - especially for those who've been trained to respond that way - especially when you know deep down there's no way anyone with any power will accept the word of a poor, black teenager over that of a cop.

The Ferguson Police Department has proven to be anything, but a bastion of calm, considered, response - or even really community awareness. The whole week has been a lesson in how to do PR poorly. Whether you think the office is telling the truth or not, they've bungled everything that came after.

It's no real stretch to think perhaps the atmosphere and subconscious training could have lead to a lack of awareness, judgment or discipline. When we make it easy to abuse power, we can't be surprised when it happens. It doesn't have to be malicious to be evil. We haven't heard from the office in question - while its entirely possible he's as resolute and unfeeling as his department seems to be, my guess is he's as broken up about the whole thing as anyone. My indefensible bouts of anger have never resulted in consequences quite so dire, but they just continue to devastate my soul. I can't imagine what Darren Wilson's life is like right now.

Then again, despite all the furor and anger, these kids could be cunning con artists. They could have concocted the story knowing that public opinion would be on the side of unarmed minorities over the big, bad white cop. I doubt it, but I'm not ruling it out. Lord knows I've witnessed some terribly disrespectful behavior from arrogant teenagers in my neighborhood and thought they could really use someone to shake them up a bit.

I doubt the reality of this situation is comfortable to anyone, no matter what angle your experience and bias leads you to believe.

But even if this incident isn't everything most people think it to be, it looks enough like other, real, verifiable abuses of power (disproportionately correlated with race), that it can be representative of the larger problem.

We have a race problem in this country, but we also have a real issue with power and accountability. We (and by that I mean just about every organized group - from Catholic bishops to drug-running street gangs) have an affinity for "looking out for our own." We tend to rally around our own - both when they deserve it and when they deserve the strong corrective force only "we" can give.

Ultimately, none of these issue will be solved until we come to one profound realization: there is no "them;" there is only us. We are all in this together.

I follow that crazy radical Jesus Christ (or, at least, I attempt to), and one of the most profound lessons I've tried to learn from him is that our place is always on the side of the outcast the minority, the downtrodden, the forgotten. I try (and I think I do a better job than most of my friends and acquaintances would like me to do), whenever a "them" emerges (from molesters, to immigrants, to teenage "thugs"), to put myself on their side, in their shoes.

I do this in part to remind myself and others that we're all human; any division we create is arbitrary at best, but also because it's only from inside the "us" that any real change can occur. No one is taking heed of "them" telling me what to do. No one is changing their life because "they" told me to do it. Change comes when we stand up to ourselves and call ourselves to something better.

If there is going to be a "them," whoever it is, count me among them. That's where I'll make my stand, because that's where, time and again, I find my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. And when this particular "them" becomes strong enough and powerful enough to become an "us," I'll cross over again.

The only "us" that matters is the "us" of all humanity. Only when we recognize that we're responsible both for and to each other - when there is nothing fruitful to be gained from creating a "them," can we really begin to address the problems that plague us.

Playing "us" and "them" games is all about power. A wise man I know once said, "the only legitimate use of power is to share it," or give it away. That's called accountability - a recognition that we all (every one of us) have a part to play. No one can or should do more than their share. We're all in this together. There is no "them," only us.

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