Wednesday, November 26, 2014

What Are Police For? And Other Questions Of Justice and Protest

It would be lovely if it were true...
If you happen to be four or five years old (target audience for this blog) I can predict at least one thing you will do in school this year: you will learn about "community helpers." You will learn how firefighters save kittens, how doctors give scary shots that keep you healthy, and how police officers can help you if get lost.

"Community helper." Sounds quaint, doesn't it?

Let's consider police officers. Without the context of knowing what most police officers actually do , if I was to imagine someone who has the job of "helping" to ensure community safety, I would imagine someone who deeply knows the people of the community, investigates situations that would cause breaches in safety of community members (such as unlighted areas, abandoned houses, etc.), and works with other community leaders (clergy, doctors, teachers) to address threats to the community's well-being.  These community safety helpers would understand the context of the community and the history of its residents.

Maybe there was a time when some of these things happened, when beat cops walked the streets and whistled happy tunes. I know that there are many amazing programs going on throughout America to bring back community policing, support the mental health needs of communities through police actions, and more. 

It's time to face facts, though. These types of programs are not the norm. North America is in crisis today, and part of the reason is that  we have military forces trained on our citizens.

I imagine (hope) if you're living in the United States, you're familiar with the situation in Ferguson, MO. A young Black man got into an altercation with a police officer and was shot to death. The details are clouded in controversy, but what we do know is that the young man, Michael Brown, was unarmed. Despite conflicting witness testimonies that should have signaled the need for a trial to suss out the truth of the situation, and despite the very low burden of proof when it comes to indictment, the officer was not charged by a grand jury.

Given that grand juries almost always return an indictment, the message was clear: if a Black man is killed by the cops, he probably deserved it.

(The many, many internet comments I have read over the past few days have confirmed that lots of Americans believe that defying the police means that you asked for your own death.)

At the same time as this has been going on, protests have ignited in Mexico over the disappearance of 43 students who were taken into police custody and then reportedly handed over to a criminal syndicate and killed.

If I sit back and listen, I can hear the blustering objections. How could the convoluted tale of the death of Mike Brown be compared to the obvious sins committed by the Mexican police?

And to that, I answer: what are police for, if not to ensure the safety of the community? to help the community, as our little ones learn during their social studies time?

Instead, our police have become a military force, set to enforce systems that do not serve the community. As income inequality grows, I expect this will only get worse. And this will put the men and women who join police forces because they actually do want to help the community in the tenuous position of protecting systems that are not serving the best interests of middle- and lower-income people of any race, but particularly people of color.

Americans are deeply divided in how we think about the police.

When I've gone through jury selection, they have asked us, "do you believe someone is more likely to tell the truth just because they are in law enforcement?" Having been raised with a healthy skepticism of authority, this question has seemed odd to me. Yet the last few days have brought home the number of people, mostly White, who unequivocally believe that police accounts of events are true (even when, in the case of Ferguson officer Darren Wilson, they contradict the physical evidence of the case, and, you know, basic math.)

On the flip side, many Black Americans mistrust police forces and the courts. Which is hardly surprising, when you think about the numbers of Black men who are incarcerated compared to Whites; when you think about stop-and-frisk policies and racial profiling in traffic stops; drug laws that provide greater penalties for drugs that are used more often in Black communities than White;
school police who begin ticketing Black and Latin@ youth at greater rates, putting them in contact with the justice system at an early age ... the list goes on and on. 

Again I ask, what are police for? What is a justice system that protects injustice?

I'm a pacifist. In fact, I'm such an extreme pacifist, that I don't watch sports because I believe they contribute to a culture of war. I don't believe in violent revolution. 

Yet I understand the impulse that drives the violence we've seen over the past few days. When faced with a system that is patently tyrannical - when the police force can kill an unarmed citizen and then be protected from even a serious inquiry into whether it was appropriate force, and your city is filled with paramilitary forces, then what do you do? What do you do with that much rage when all promises for uncovering the truth and for safety are broken, when the state clearly communicates that you are not worth justice?

If you believe that we must come together in order to invert systems of power in our country, as I do, and you believe that these actions must be non-violent, one thing you can do is look over the list of 198 non-violent methods of protest and persuasion that fill the armory of peaceful protest. Ask yourself, which of these am I uniquely positioned to do? Non-violent action is not just about street protests. It consists of writing (like this blog), art, symbolic acts, theater and film, consumer actions, non-cooperation ... well, there are 198 (and that list was created before social media, so there are definitely more things you could do). If you disagree with what is happening in our country, if you want a justice system that is fair for all Americans, then do what you can to subvert the current paradigm.  You can be like my friend Jamar, who is sharing petitions on Facebook to influence Congress to require body cams for police officers. Or my friend Ceci, who is using art to comment on the situation in Mexico. Or Dhathri, who is urging others to participate in Black Friday boycotts.

But what we can't do is ignore the opportunity presented to us to ask for the police force and justice system we need, so we don't have to explain to our pre-schoolers that we were wrong when we told them about those community helpers.

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