An American Problem

It seems whenever major events happens I find out about them while I’m in bed and via Shanice. Early Tuesday morning Shanice told me that a man named Alton Sterling had been shot, and killed, by two police officers in Louisiana. The next day I learned about the killing of Philando Castile in Minnesota, and last night Shanice told me about the killing of five police officers in Dallas. Most of us did not experience the social unrest that occurred during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, when American cities exploded and became urban battlefields, so when tragedies like these happen it seems foreign, unthinkable that this could happen in the United States. The past few days have shown that it can happen, it does happen, and it will continue to happen unless action is taken, both by we the People and by our local, state, and national governments.

In the wake of incidents like these there seems to be this belief that you have to either be with the public, specifically with African-Americans, or with the police. Division and absolutist thinking is not going to help the situation. It will create more tension that will eventually erupt with the unnecessary deaths of more Americans. I worry that we have lost our sense of unity in this country, that we are becoming less capable of creating dialogues and having civil conversations about major issues that affect our daily lives. You either have to unflinchingly support the police or a group like Black Lives Matter. If you don’t then you’re either a racist, or a police sympathizer, or a cop killer, or a zealot. None of which is true unless you choose to adopt that position. Defending Black Lives Matter and the belief that Americans, regardless of race, should be treated equally and with justice does not mean you hate the police by default. Defending the police does not make you a racist by default. It’s possible to defend both groups, find fault in each camp, and try to look for a solution that benefits everybody.

We also need to stop this ex post facto justification for why the police shot citizens when said citizens never posed a threat, or no longer posed a threat. In the case of Alton Sterling some are saying that because he had a criminal past that must mean he deserved to die. Mr. Sterling already served his time for those crimes, and said crimes had no relevance in this situation. Are we expected to believe that after someone has been arrested, tried, and punished for a crime that they are open for future punishment for those same crimes? Last I checked that is known as “double jeopardy” and is outlawed by the Constitution. Another argument is that we can’t see everything that happened outside that convenience store in Baton Rouge, so we are not allowed to make any judgment calls. I watched the video. Mr. Sterling was pinned to the ground by the two officers and even if he moved to grab an unseen weapon they could have hit him with a taser, or pepper spray, or even a simple punch to the face. Point-blank shooting the man was, and is, unacceptable. With Philando Castile some are bringing up the fact that he has tickets. Apparently having tickets means that you are untrustworthy scum of the Earth and your comeuppance is inevitable. Others are saying that Mr. Castile had a concealed weapon, and when he reached for his license the officer felt threatened. What about the officer asking Mr. Castile to step out of the car, and the officer removing the gun from Philando’s person? “Shooting first and asking questions later,” is not an acceptable way to handle a routine traffic stop. He also told the officer that he had a concealed weapon. It seems like if he was planning on using his gun he wouldn’t have said anything.

Now, for the police. I do not envy that job, just like I don’t envy being a firefighter, an infantryman, a medical professional, or the president of the United States. I am glad that there are people out there that are selfless enough, and a little crazy enough, to willingly put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of the community. That being said, the police are not saints. They are not perfect human beings. They are (obviously) capable of making awful mistakes. They are not exempt from criticism, and the system within which they operate has faults that must be addressed. Killing law enforcement officers is not the way to address those faults. I don’t want to live in a society where that kind of retribution is seen as normal. I’m sure, Dear Reader you don’t want that either. It would be a step backwards into a kind of anarchic, Law of the Jungle style civilization where violence is met with more violence. I also don’t want to live in a society where the people who are supposed to uphold the law seem to be immune from it, where, if they commit a crime they will get more protection than a fellow citizen. We do not have a hierarchical system (at least in theory, if not in practice, unfortunately). If a police officer and a McDonald’s worker commit the same crime they ought to be subject to the same punishment. The police officers that killed Mr. Sterling and Mr. Castile were not acting in self-defense. What if you or I did the same thing? Would we be protected from punishment? As cynical as it sounds, the most they’ll probably lose is their jobs, whereas “regular people” lose their freedom, if not their lives. To anyone that says, “Well, they volunteered to put their lives on the line for the community.” Exactly, they volunteered. Again, I’m grateful there are people out there brave/insane enough to do that, but they are not conscripts thrust into a situation without their consent. A government official didn’t show up to their house, put a gun and a badge in their hand and say, “Good luck!” If they do not feel comfortable being in a threatening situation like that then they shouldn’t have volunteered for the job.

Speaking of threatening situations, I understand that police have to operate in dangerous neighborhoods, and after a while I’m sure they get bitter, and frustrated. At the same time, there are people, American citizens, human beings that wind up being the outlets for that aggression. The militarization of the police force is not helping the situation. If I lived in the inner city and saw an armored car roll down the street with police officers dressed like Army Rangers I would feel uneasy, to say the least. Perhaps instead of giving military equipment to the police, we should spend more money on training. Instead of turning a civil security force into a militia, we should invest in education, so that impoverished Americans have a fighting chance of achieving the “American Dream,” instead of feeling that their only means of survival is crime. Or maybe we should have honest wage reform, and better price control. Just about anything is better than slowly turning the police into the sixth branch of the military.

While we’re on the topic of the militarization of the police allow me to expand on it. The scenes from Louisiana and Minnesota, and from the protests in East St. Louis, conjure up haunting memories of the dictatorships of the 20th Century. Gestapo-style tactics like mass arrests or summary executions are not only disturbing, but go against everything this country is supposed to represent. Nobody should feel unsafe when the police are around, but unfortunately that seems to have become the new reality. Americans, no matter their race or class, should not feel like they live in an occupied country. What happened in Dallas sounds like insurgency/counter-insurgency. There is nothing romantic about that. Seven families have lost a loved one, and the divide only grows wider. How many more gun battles in American cities have to happen before we recognize that there is a problem? How many more African-American citizens have to be executed? The pessimist in me believes it won’t be addressed until it’s happening in Suburbia, and even then people might still say, “Well, that’s too bad, but it wasn’t my family.” The optimist in me hopes it won’t come to that, and we’ll snap out of our apathy, and not only demand change, but be willing to participate in making that change happen.

As a final note, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: race. America has had a race problem since before the first shots of the Revolution rang out in New England. We have made progress, without a doubt, but we have a long way to go. Just because President Obama is our leader does not mean racism has vanished, it has simply gone underground. Segregation still exists, it’s just not as overt as a “WHITES ONLY” sign. Racial tension still exists. We can no longer have a false sense of victory, because that victory is hollow when poor black children still go to crumbling schools, when African-Americans feel that they are automatically viewed as criminals and threats, and when American cities are subject to chaos and bloodshed. Right now it is still largely considered a “black problem,” but I believe it is an “American problem.” I’m reminded of this poem by Martin Neimoller, which he wrote during Nazi rule:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Although it’s not “Socialists,” “Trade Unionists,” or “Jews” being targeted in the United States in 2016, the message rings just as true. If we, white Americans especially, continue to view police brutality as a “black problem,” then eventually it will become our problem too. So instead, let us not view this as a “black problem,” or a “police problem,” or a “poor people problem”, or a “city problem,” let us view it as what it is: an American problem. I want to help find a solution for this American problem, and I hope you do too.

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