Racism, Police Reform, Protecting Police: “The Big Both/And”

Thesis: Both police reform and protection of the police must occur simultaneously and with the same urgency.

Two (of the most recent) executions of Black men by police, followed by five (of the most recent) killings of police offers.  Baton Rouge, Minnesota, Dallas. The responses? Mostly either/or, especially from White folks.  That is, Black Lives Matter and other resistance-organizations have never even come close to advocating for or somehow approving of the killing of police.

For instance, a fellow posted a kind of advertisement on LinkedIn that asserted “Protect the Police,” all of the comments more or less said “just so,” and some comments said that if Black people want not to be killed by police, “they” should simply obey the law. A police detective from Tacoma communicated his heartbreak regarding Dallas and celebrated the bravery of police: entirely appropriate and understandable, and also it left much unsaid. But of course his purpose was to express grief and solidarity, not to cover all issues.

On Chris Hayes’s MSNBC show, Hayes, Jabari Asim (The New Yorker), and Eugene O’Donnell (former police officer, current faculty member at John Jay University) discussed President Obama’s speech in Dallas.  Hayes and Asim thought it was remarkable because it went beyond the usual safe political rhetoric. (Lawrence O’Donnell made the same point later, but emphasized that of all the 44 presidents, only President Obama could have made that rhetorical move–because of his background.)  That is, from their view, the President clearly and unambiguously acknowledged and supported the following points: racism affects policing, the police are asked to do way too much (especially in urban areas), the slaughter of police is as wrong as the slaughter of Black men and women and any men and women, police and other citizens need to empathize with the pain and outrage that protesters and others experience and express, and protesters need to acknowledge the pain and outrage experienced and expressed by the police.

Eugene O’Connell was having none of it.  While acknowledging that in that situation, the President was “damned if he did, damned if he didn’t,” he claimed that the President’s speech mainly offended the police nationwide. He went on to assert that the police are a para-military force that simply takes order from above, and if politicians and others want them to do or stop doing something, they just need to tell them. When Asim tried to mention something about police unions (and their resistance to reform), O’Donnell quickly shifted the terms of the argument and said that the whole discussion represented “elites” criticizing police and that “elites” simply don’t understand what police go through, especially in cities.  Oddly, he contradicted his early claim that the police will simply follow orders; not if the orders (the reform) is connected to the “elite,” it seems, and the elite seem to be anyone who is not police.

Hayes, I thought, responded appropriately to O’Donnell by simply saying that he (Hayes) had heard a different speech, and such widely different responses to the speech represented the problem the nation faces.

As many have stated, if you commit a crime, any crime, summary execution, obviously, shouldn’t be the cost–unless, obviously, you are trying to kill someone (police or not). That a majority of White folks (apparently) can’t wrap their mind around this is depressing, to say the least.  If you’re a Black person, a rational response to the police is to fear them.  If you’re a Black parent, you must have the talk with your children about racist policing and how to try to behave (provided you have the chance) when stopped by the police.  Bill DeBlasio referred to this “talk,” and later at an outdoor speech, almost all the police turned their backs on him in protest–simply for stating the obvious.  If you’re a Black parent, not having the talk would be absolutely irresponsible and potentially lethal.  And yet the police in New York blithely turned their backs.  Is that the grotesque over-reaction that lends itself to police report?  Maybe not.

As many have stated, the police form a human barrier between communities that the nation, especially the White nation, have simply abandoned with regard to education, jobs, infrastructure, mental health, addiction, physical health, and common respect.  Thus in many instances, their job is impossible.

You would think connecting the two dots–reform of policing, including racist policing and the wrong use of lethal force (dot one) and support of police by investing in communities and addressing urban (and rural) problems (dot two)–would be the obvious move for the nation, the states, and the communities to make.  Let’s put it even more simply: if the killings in Louisiana and Minnesota didn’t happen (and there is no good reason for them to have happened), the five officers in Dallas would probably still be alive.

But things are rarely that simple in the U.S.   If you call for police reform, then you must hate the police.  If you call for addressing the problems mentioned above, you’re told to shut up, it’s all the fault of people of color, I don’t live there so why should I care, let the police handle it, and so on.  Some police, especially their union reps, seem determined to oppose any reform. Politicians, especially but not exclusively from the GOP, seem determined to oppose addressing social problems and to acknowledging the experience of Americans of color (except for Ben Carson’s).

What would police reform look like? In part, it would look like the recommendations from the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. (You may google it.) It would look like more training in de-escalation.  The State of Washington requires only 8 hours of such training for police.  The City of Everett, Washington, has decided to increase that to 48 hours. It has also started a program whereby social workers ride along with police officers to help address problems of mental illness, addiction, and homelessness.  It would look like taking seriously the 2006 FBI report about the serious problem of White Supremacists infiltrating police departments:  http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/5/21/1384553/-2006-FBI-Report-on-White-Infiltration-of-Law-Enforcement-You-Will-Be-Assimilated.

It would look like asking police officers where they think politicians should invest money.  It would look like surveying citizens, especially citizens of color, about their experiences with police and publishing the results. It would look like banning assault rifles.  It would look like leadership bringing all major constituents together in communities to work out police reform and social reform.

The City of Tacoma has participated in events at which they listen to the community about its experiences with police and its recommendations.  They started to get officers out of their patrol cars and into the community more, and they’ve added training to address inherent bias and inherent cross-cultural misunderstanding/ignorance.  Of course, Tacoma was shocked into creating a citizens’ oversight committee when a former Police Chief murdered his wife and children and then committed suicide. It’s also true that at least a bare minimum of White citizens in Tacoma have put their shoulders to the wheel, helping to fund important groups that ameliorate poverty, homelessness, addiction, and racism, and opening their minds to what people have color have to say.  It’s a start, at least.

I’m trying to follow the President’s entreaty (in Dallas and elsewhere) not to give in to despair.  It’s hard. Imagine how hard it is for most Black folks, especially those whose friends and family have been choked, shot, or beaten to death when unarmed or already restrained and even when having committed no crime.  Imagine how hard it is for over-stressed police officers or the families of slain officers.

Police reform would help the police. Addressing social problems, head-on and with serious investment, would help everyone, including the police. Rational gun-control would help the police and the communities.

It’s 2016, and the nation won’t connect the dots. More of the burden of connecting the dots must fall to White citizens and to the GOP and those who support it,  and if you know history, if you know politics, if you know statistics, if you’ve seen Trump,  if you listened carefully to the President’s speech, if you’ve watched Fox News, etc., you know why.  This is not one of those fake “fair and balanced” issues, even though, obviously, Democratic politicians, business people, and citizens have much to answer for, too.  The GOP is a White Supremacist organization with Trump currently at the helm, and it’s not even a close call.



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