A recent Portsmouth Herald column, “The police are not the enemy,” made me think that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day can’t come soon enough.
Its attempt to defend a two-tiered justice system by pitting American against American rather speaking about reconciliation and justice is simply wrong-headed.
In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” MLK wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
No matter how it’s framed, our current crisis is not just about police. It’s about deeply ingrained American institutional privilege and racist inequities; inequities clearly apparent in disparities in sentencing and incarceration rates, family income, access to education and health care, and employment and housing opportunities.
It’s about, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed when he was at Union Theological Seminary, “[In America] Black and white hear the Word and receive the sacrament in separation. They have no common worship.”
Police are trained to reflect and protect institutions. They’re the visible blue line representing a system they’ve been convinced is just and equal, but which often isn’t applied equitably. The issue is not individual officers, all of whom volunteer to take on one of our most challenging and dangerous public sector jobs — most serve unselfishly without reproach or fault.
And when they fall in duty we all mourn. I remember outpourings of grief for deceased New Hampshire law enforcement officers. Marked by overwhelming expressions of prayer and support, both locally and nationally, their deaths did not go unmourned, unappreciated and unnoticed — to suggest otherwise is offensive.
The issue is that some police, called upon to enforce an unequal justice system, become inured to the injustices they may be perpetrating on behalf of those elites who believe that some citizens are superior and more entitled than others. As a result, sometimes bad things happen. When death happens, as recently experienced in Ferguson, New York and Cleveland, the results, manipulated by politicians and prosecutors, appear weighted toward police.
Sojourners’ Jim Wallis, in his “Pastoral Letter to White Americans” wrote, “Many white Americans tend to see this problem as unfortunate incidents based on individual circumstances. Black Americans see a system in which their black lives matter less than white lives. That is a fundamental difference of experience between white and black Americans… The question is: Are we white people going to listen or not?”
“White Americans,” Wallis continued, “Talk about how hard and dangerous police work is — that most cops are good and are to be trusted. Black Americans agree that police work is dangerously hard, but also have experienced systemic police abuse of their families. All black people, especially black men, have their own stories. Since there are so many stories, are these really just isolated incidents? We literally have two criminal justice systems in America — one for whites and one for blacks.”
Unrecognized implicit bias and overt racial bias are not, unfortunately, phenomena America’s overcome. Ongoing disenfranchisement, racial profiling, stop ‘n frisk protocols and harassment — particularly of young black men —have brought us today’s vigils and protests.
In 2010, President Obama reflected the sentiments of most Americans, “As a nation, we rely on law enforcement officers to keep our neighborhoods safe, enforce our laws, and respond in times of crisis. These men and women sustain peace and order across America, and we look to them as models of courage and integrity.”
Such sentiments do not exonerate wrongdoers or abusers, whether they’re murderers of police or police who betray community trust, and they certainly don’t exonerate those who incorrectly train police or cynically use police to implement a political agenda.
Vigils, like those often held in Portsmouth, happen when a mobilized segment of a community believes that injustices are happening in their name and are not being acknowledged by the greater community: they’re a response to perceived abuse of power and privilege.
The column accused protestors of “Jumping on the anti-police bandwagon and attempting to capitalize on the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. It is unfortunate that the organizers chose a racial theme to draw attention to an issue that is unsupported by facts.”
He doth protest too much, methinks, knows too little, understands less.
“White people need to stop talking so much, stop defending the systems that protect and serve them, and stop saying “I’m not a racist.” If white people,” Wallis wrote, “Turn a blind eye to systems that are racially biased, we can’t be absolved from the sin of racism.”
What the elites don’t realize is that the capacity to make the right choice is in fact a privileged position — one not yet extended to the disenfranchised.
NYC police officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were not killed because “Some in society chose to vilify their profession, making them less than human.” They were killed because a mentally unstable person went berserk, shot his Black girlfriend, then murdered two NYC policemen and then committed suicide, all with a handgun that was once bought in Georgia and which made its way through unknown and untraceable hands to become the instrument of death in New York.
Ismaaiyl Brinsley pulled the trigger, but wealthy, primarily white elites, supported by legislative actions and court decisions, they who have become increasingly aggressive in supporting even more laws designed to suppress the political participation of the poor and communities of color, must also be held accountable.
Such unwarranted suppression increases rage, tension and disenfranchisement from which irrational acts of criminal violence can erupt.
And when it erupts elites and the columnists who serve them then claim that the problem with communities of color is that they’re not submissive enough and that in their unwillingness to be submissive they deserve whatever befalls them.
It’s true: police aren’t the enemy. The enemy is the elites and the lobbyists, pundits, political hucksters and opportunists who, fearful of losing power, serve them and give their all in support of long-standing institutional inequities.
It’s true, too, that the enemy is those of us who stand, in privilege, silent.
Bonhoeffer’s truths ring true today. It’s not the police. It’s not just the persistence of the separate worship of black and white; It’s also the separate worship of haves and have-nots.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.