27 November 2014

My Thoughts on Cops, Race, Ferguson, Justice, and Whose Side I'm On

A demonstration in New York City protesting
the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO.
(Photo via WikiMedia Commons)
When I was about 18, I got into an argument with my best friend* over an article about a man who committed suicide by cop. 

I said something like, “It’s disgusting that getting shot by the police is so predictable that someone can actually plan to commit suicide this way.”

My friend countered, “You know who I feel sorry for? The cop. Imagine having to live the rest of your life knowing that you killed someone just doing your job, and that person used you to commit suicide.”

I don’t remember what I replied to him, but I remember still feeling angry and unconvinced. My friend is white. I am not. That day, I was unable to articulate to him that race had everything to do with where our sympathies lay.

Nevertheless, my friend’s words stuck with me.

I actually have family members who were cops—family members who are not on the brown side of my family—but I have never talked with them in depth about what it was like to be on the job. One of them said to me, “It’s pretty much like [the reality TV show] Cops.” Having seen snippets of the show, I was afraid to ask more. I was too much of a coward to confront the possibility that people I love might be doing things that would enrage me if I knew. (We already have plenty we disagree on.)

I have also met cops that I like (usually police of color), who have been personable, fair, and concerned, who have
exactly embodied the ideal of law enforcement as it should be.

Sometimes, news of a policeman killed during duty has sent me into a reverie, trying to imagine what it would be like to have every work day present the possibility of death. I have read writings by and about cops, describing how seemingly innocuous situations can turn bad, or how someone who presents as non-threatening might be extremely dangerous. I can sympathize with the idea that confronting the worst side of human nature, day in and day out, can taint a person’s view of the world and transform every individual into an object of suspicion.

Since Monday, I have been reading with a kind of grim resignation everything I can about the killing of Mike Brown. I read Officer Darren Wilson’s testimony, which I don’t believe for a minute, and Dorian Johnson’s testimony, which includes details that comport exactly with my own experiences of cops’ attitudes and speech with me and with other people of color.

These two accounts encapsulate two world views. In the first, Mike Brown is the belligerent aggressor, who escalates nothing into something, who is huge and terrifying, and Wilson must defend himself. In the second, Darren Wilson is the demon, and Brown must fight for his life.

The two accounts are parallel, yet mirrored. But no matter which account the reader believes, the end is the same: Wilson has a gun, and Brown does not. Wilson gets a hearing, but Brown gets executed.

The gap between these two accounts seems like a chasm. After all, they can’t both be true.

But I wish cops could understand that what they feel—being on high alert, aware that people going about their business might be hiding a threat, knowing that any day they could die at the hands of someone irrational, stupid, or hot-headed—is exactly how African Americans, especially black men, feel around them.

Cops and black men are having parallel yet mirror experiences of each other.

On the face of it, this could provide some common ground, the beginning of understanding. In reality, we know that the construction of race, a construction hundreds of years old and woven inextricably into the fabric of Western culture, functions precisely to perpetuate the divide. An illusion with very material consequences.

I have lived in places where police are not upholders of the law, but agents of bribery and corruption. The kind of life most of us want, with stability and security, is only possible in our current society with a professional, trained, and funded police force. 

It’s hard to hold both ideas in my head, that I want to have cops patrolling my streets at the same time that I also fear them, not just for myself, but for my some of my friends, and some of my kids’ friends who are brown and black boys and will grow up to be brown and black men. I can feel sympathy for an individual cop in a tight situation having to make a tough call (and let me be clear that Darren Wilson is NOT that cop). But such sympathy cannot erase the continuing rage I feel at an institution that regularly mows down men of color and  incarcerates them at a staggering rate.

I don’t have a solution. Rational discussions and state-sponsored “conversations about race” serve mostly to create the appearance of progress and building bridges without shifting the institutional bedrock that supports the structure of the status-quo. Violence usually hurts communities already suffering the most, but sometimes it is the only language that state power understands and responds to. (I am not calling for violence. I am simply looking at history.)

I do know that if cops have any kind of sincere desire to change this dynamic, it is incumbent upon them to listen and learn. Cops have power and resources; impoverished communities do not, which is why the equation of armed white cop + unarmed black man ends with the same tragic result again and again (while armed white men roam freely).

Ultimately, what police are supposed to stand for and what people in the streets are calling for is the same thing: justice. But the scales are weighted, and Americans need to take clear-eyed look at the ways race creates that imbalance. The scales have never hung equal, but until they do, we will have no peace.

* Read about my run-in with a cop and a vigilante with this same best friend here, as part of my reflection on the injustice of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case. 


A petition to President Obama and the US Attorney General to press federal charges against Darren Wilson

A wishlist of books for the Ferguson Library

The NAACP march, Journey for Justice, beginning on Saturday, November 29