Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Law and Order

I was away this weekend at some meetings. On Sunday I was checking through Facebook and saw my daughter tagged in some pictures from church. Apparently, after the service, some people went next door, to the police station, and chalked messages on the sidewalk and parking lot. If I'm being honest, I had real mixed feelings about my daughter being part of this. It's not that I don't appreciate the role of police in society and I certainly don't think they deserve the assaults and murders that have been rained upon them over the last ten days or so. At the same time, I do think the position of police in our society - the role they've assumed and the role we give to them - needs some rethinking.

I was proud to see a picture of my daughter smiling next to a message that said, "You are loved;" there's never a time or place when that message isn't important and appropriate. I feel less excited about the message that says, "Hero Parking" in the lot. There are certainly heroic police officers, but there are also heroic teachers, parents, doctors, and janitors. A hero, at least in my understanding of the term, is anyone who puts another before themselves. Maybe it's a low bar, but, I suspect, it's the only bar you need.

At the same time, I don't want to teach my daughter that anyone's profession or education automatically defines them as a hero (or a villain). I want her to know she should treat everyone with equal respect, even if they don't deserve it. There aren't people worth more than anyone else. We shouldn't have people in our society who hold higher positions of respect or honor. While I'm certainly all for celebrating heroes, I just don't believe putting on a uniform automatically makes you one.

That leads me, of course, to the really difficult situation we've been dealing with this week in the US. I know my emotions were a bit fried even before watching the fourth season of Orange is the New Black this week, the main storyline of which involved the increasingly inhumane treatment the inmates suffered at their hands of their guards and society's tacit approval of such. You can call it heavy-handed for sure, but there was a lot of separation - "us" and "them" -ing - using someone's status or behavior to justify your own behavior.

It's the larger problem in our society. We like to label "good" and "bad." I struggled with my daughter playing on the sidewalk with the neighborhood kids tonight because they were dividing up into "good guys" and "bad guys." I don't want her to play like that. I know it's very common. Certainly I did the same thing as a child. Most people call it harmless. I think there's more to it. There are no "good guys" and "bad guys." There are just "guys." We're all human beings, equal. Human beings can do good things and we can do bad things, but those actions don't make a person good or bad.

It's an important distinction because of the effects down the line. When you have bad guys the solution to that "problem" is getting rid of the guys. We throw out bad things, after all. But if they're just regular people doing bad things, the solution is to change the action - these are people who can be redeemed.

This is the way I want my daughter looking at the world.

A world that is, right now, more divided than ever - with people picking "sides" in some perceived war between black people and the police. This only serves to reinforce the root causes of tragic killings and perpetuate more of the same, often in the name of justice. Nothing just ends in death. That's just not how it works. As I've written before, sometimes killing is the best of many bad options - but it is never just.

Violence is not the answer. Neither is fear. I heard an interesting interview with the former Chief of Police in Seattle about his new book, purporting to have good advice for "fixing the police." He talks about how power and fear dictate many of the actions leading to these awful headline shootings. He chalks much of it up to police training and culture - both things that need to change.

Listen, we've got a police system that is unequivocally biased against African-Americans. There's no way to argue with the numbers. Now, having a racist system doesn't mean every police officer is a racist - it doesn't mean any of them are (although, just by sheer demographics, some police offers will be racist). What it means is that we have a system of policing that produces results that work out worse the darker your skin gets. You can look at history - many of our laws were created for racial control. You can look at demographics - crime tends to be easier to spot in poor communities, which also tend to be disproportionately black, but you can also show, through time, how these statistics are perpetuated by the way laws are enforced and these neighborhoods are policed.

Police are supposed to serve and protect, and the police officers I know personally are committed to doing just that. At the same time, my interactions with police on the job have mostly been the opposite. I can attest to the ways in which serve and protect becomes harass and hinder. This is the story many people, especially people of color, tell. My only conclusions is simply that the ways in which police are trained to serve and protect keeps them from doing the things they want and are committed to doing.

The Seattle Police Chief talked about how often police are trained to control every interaction from beginning to end, which leads to abuse of power. It leads to seeing the people they're supposed to protect as "other." The "us" and "them" becomes the police and the community. This is certainly no one's intention (or the intention of very few), but the numbers and the stories and the deaths prove that reality is different.

I keep going back to "hero parking." I would love for that to be a true label for every police officer. Maybe that is indeed the solution - training our police to put others before themselves, even those who don't deserve it. It's not just training that would benefit police, but every person in every situation. If a police office who's concerned for their own safety encounters a person similarly concerned, we end with two people who suspect the other of ill intention and it's a recipe for disaster.

In the end, the struggle between #blacklivesmatter and #alllivesmatter is a microcosm of the larger, actual, human interaction. No one who says #blacklivesmatter disagrees with the notion that All Lives Matter, what they're trying to communicate is that while all lives are supposed to matter, black lives, by the numbers, matter less to our society. That needs to change. What we have, then, is a clash of the ideal and the real. #alllivesmatter is an ideal we'd like to uphold - maybe an ideal some people have convinced themselves is reality; #blacklivesmatter is a recognition of the reality of inequality that must be rectified.

Ideally, a police office would treat everyone with respect, be willing to show grace and mercy in the face of difficulty, and be free to do their work with the support of the people they're charged with protecting. This is the story we want - and maybe the story some people have convinced themselves is real. What we're seeing now is a recognition of the reality that things just don't work out this way.

We need change. Change in the way we train our police officers, but also a change in the way we interact with each other as people. We need to be heroic to each other; and we need to hold each other to the same standard.

I've been encouraged by those police officers who've finally begun to break ranks and condemn inappropriate conduct from their peers. This is a step towards improving the standards of law and order in society. We must be careful, though, not to fall into the trap of demonization - in which we make those police officers who've failed to live up to the obligations of their office something other than equal victims of an unjust system. If that happens, we've gotten nowhere, but just turned the tables.

Things need to change. Lots of things need to change, but let's work together to change them with the kind of respect and dignity both police and the people they interact with so often feel deprived of.

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