It is endless. The unwarranted killing of young black men continues unabated. One would think that in these times the police would act with needed caution and restraint. But they seem not to be able to help themselves, as witnessed by the events in Louisiana and Minnesota. Then in Dallas we have revenge – the killing of police officers and the wounding of more.
There is an avalanche of public response. Yet short of total social transformation and a resolution of centuries-old racial inequalities, a way forward seems elusive. To be blunt, broad ranging social justice does not seem close at hand. Paralysis is more immediate.
Here is one idea; one small but essential step. As agents of the state, let’s start with the police.
I am a 68 year-old grandfather, who has, at this stage of life, few encounters with the police. It was not always the case.
Soon after I received my driver’s license, when I was in my 20s and long haired, I was stopped by the police incessantly; on average almost twice a month during my first year as a licensed motorist. In fact, I was a target of profiling. The first cases brought by the American Civil Union against the police in New Jersey were not initiated because the police were profiling and harassing African-Americans. They were on behalf of people who looked like me. In fact, I had been pulled over by the police on the Garden State Parkway on a false charge of dangerous driving and actually won my case in court before a sympathetic and liberally-minded judge. I have few illusions that white privilege wasn’t a factor in my unexpected judicial vindication.
Since then, my encounters with the police have been few. I have no doubt that my relations with the police are a universe apart from members of the black community. I do not fear that a road stop will end with my being dispatched at the end of a gun fired by a cop.
But here is my point. Almost every engagement I have had with the police, both then and now, (primarily road stops and not when police have come to the home wherein they have comported themselves as professional public servants) has left me on the opposite end of encounter in which I have been confronted by an unarmed man (or woman) bearing a weapon and coming across as a commanding authoritarian who was humorless, cold, defensive and sealed off from rational conversation. The encounter was always staged to demonstrate the overwhelming if not absolute power of the police in a way intended to instill fear in his (or her) authority. I always left these encounters with the police feeling diminished, with my dignity assaulted. The reactive but suppressed emotions were anger and contempt lodged at the officer, indeed, the entire professional class of the police who wield their authority in a manner both arbitrary and disrespectful. If I feel this way, I can only begin to imagine how a minority member pulled over by the police must feel when the cop’s need to display authority can readily become a matter of life and death for the black person so detained.
I am told that I should be empathetic and grateful to the police for the dangerous and demanding work they do. Perhaps this is so. But for me to get there, I need to get through my feelings of anger at the police, anger for which I was not the precipitating cause.
Here is my point and my proposal: I suspect that the countenance displayed by police is a product of both the type of personality that is attracted to this work as well as the training police undergo. I am not naïve that police work is difficult and dangerous and this feeds into the steely countenance and defensive posture with which the police so often engage the rest of us. But at the same time, this does not exonerate the police from treating the public – regardless of race – with requisite respect. I maintain that if the police were trained to be more fluid, more engaged as human beings and not as immovable and impersonal forces to display force as the last option and not as the first, that tension between the people and the police would be mitigated. No one, whether white or black, wants to be treated with disrespect. My faith as a humanist is such that if the police found the capacity to treat minorities with a sense of humanity that across the board, people, whether young or old, would respond in kind. Traffic stops and other similar encounters could be transformed from fear and hate-filled moments into experiences that would leave both members of the public and police uplifted.
Racial animus in this country has a very deep and broad history, and the killing of young black men by the police is among the most egregious examples of that multi-tiered and complex phenomenon.
One thing society does have control over is how the police, who charged to “serve and protect,” are trained. It is a small and incomplete step toward social healing, but I believe a necessary one.