Protector or Predator?

George Floyd was buried today. In his death he has become yet another face in a heartbreaking tableau of men and women of color who have died senselessly… needlessly… at the hands of the police in our nation.

The spotlight is shining more brightly than ever before on the actions of police departments across the nation. And the more that light penetrates into the dark corners where injustice and criminality have been hidden, the more we are forced to confront realities that have always been with us, but that we were disinclined to see.

John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” looked at the topic of policing in America on Sunday night. It’s on You Tube. Watch it. It is compelling. It is angry. It is heartbreaking. It is frightening.
You may want to say it’s an exaggeration or that he’s a hyperbolic liberal social commentator who always pushes the boundaries to get ratings. You can say it. But that doesn’t make it true. And, even if he pushes his narrative further than you might like (and I honestly think he did very little of that), there are hard truths in his report that you have to acknowledge if you are intellectually honest.

He examined the linkages between white supremacists and the police who, for decades, enforced laws designed to target, suppress and blatantly discriminate against black women and men. The legacy of racism and bias that continues to today. You may not want to see it or admit — but it’s there. As are intransigent police unions that make true accountability impossible and that enshrine a mindset that the police somehow are above the law that they are charged with enforcing.

He also touched briefly on the militarization of our police forces and on the training that many receive that tells them they are predators and if they are not willing to pull the trigger — to shoot to kill — the other “predators” they encounter, then they’d better find a new line of work. Frightening? Hell, yes.

And all you have to do is to look at the video footage of the past two weeks. See how heavily armed the police are. They look like combat soldiers going to war. Not like the defenders or our citizens… not like protectors or guardians. They looked like what they have been created to be… predators.

Now, some will tell you that they have to be armed with heavy weapons. Look what they’re up against, they will say. Look at the weapons that the bad guys carry. Yes indeed. Look. THIS is the price we pay as a society for allowing the trafficking in guns that has become so pervasive. Gun violence is indeed out of control. The bad guys and the ostensible good guys… all armed to the teeth. Somehow I don’t believe that is what the framers of the constitution envisioned with the second amendment. But this too is part of the problem.

How many more stories and video clips do we have to see before we, as a socieity, cry out in revulsion and demand change? Look at the footage on John Oliver’s show or on any new channel. Yes, there was violence on the streets — but FAR too much of it was unprovoked violence by police officers.

Look at the images. Police pushing aside old man with a cane shuffling to get out of the way (not Martin Gugino who was pushed to the ground and left bleeding but yet another old man). Pulling masks off people’s faces to spray them with mace rom inches away. Smashing people’s heads and ribs with batons. Targeting journalists, shooting pepper balls and rubber bullets at folks who had the temerity to record them. Attacking without cause. Even engaging in gratuitously vindictive acts like slashing the tires of protestor’s cars. (Yep… quite a story from Minnesota about that too — with the far-too-familiar lame “justifications” for these senseless abusive acts by police).

There are too many examples to ignore, and we can’t say this is a few bad cops. “

This is a systemic problem. Not just systemic racism, but systemic injustice. A system in which abuse of authority is condoned and protected by laws that shield the abusers, and by leaders who are unwilling to challenge them. A system in which intimidation and violence are given free rein while OUR rights to gather, to protest, to seek redress of our grievances are ignored.

This is not an overreaction on my part. It is a far-too-long-delayed reaction. But that I fear, is what happens when the color of our skin protects us from the realities that those whose skin is a different color live with every day.

Listen to the voices of our black countrymen. Listen to their stories and their fear and open yourself to their pain over the loss of their children, or fathers, or mothers, at the hands of the police.
And please, don’t let those who would preserve the status quo mislead or confuse you or turn this into another cultural battle.

“Defunding the police” isn’t a call for anarchy. It isn’t about abandoning the streets to criminals. Rather it is about rethinking our approaches. Determining the best allocation of resources.
Police aren’t mental health workers, social workers, experts on drug abuse, or countless other issues we ask them to tackle. But they are forced to play roles for which they are unprepared and ill-suited because we haven’t defunded critical programs that build stronger communities and that support critical social needs.

We need to be clear that the debate isn’t between police and no police. It’s about the proper role for police, the proper training, the relationship between police and the people they serve (emphasis on those last words — “the people they serve”), and it is about the need to build safer, stronger, and more resilient communities.
Communities where there are programs to address mental health and addiction. Communities that offer the homeless refuge. That care for the most vulnerable. That build a future together. And where police and communities really work in partnership.

Camden, New Jersey, has been redefining these relationship for years. It offers one positive model. We can do this if we choose to.
Yes… there will be criminals. There will be bad people. And we will still ask those who choose to serve as police to confront them. To help keep us safe. And we need to support those police officers by giving them the tools and the training they need as an integral part of our community.

They should be honored and respected. Presently, they are not. They are what they and their leaders have allowed them to become. Sadly they are now, in many cases, as much of a threat to our citizens, and to our society, as any other proponents of racism and violence.

There ARE good police officers. But the system of policing and the broader criminal justice system is broken. These are the issues that “calls for defunding the police” seek to get at: how we, as a nation, will allocate resources to address these complex issues, and redefine this entire process. It’s time. It’s a debate we must have and we cannot let opponents hide behind false narratives that trying to address the issues means we are soft on crime, or that we are naive idealists who want to throw open the doors wide to criminals, rapists, and drug dealers.

That’s how the narrative will be framed, if we let it. Let’s make sure we don’t. Folks are still struggling to envision the alternatives to the present system. We see it in Minneapolis where proponents of defunding the police aren’t able yet to articulate what reinventing the process will look like. It will take time. It will take discussion and honest and painful exchanges of perspective. It will take admitting to our fears, defining our values, and finding ways to come together with those who may have very different viewpoints.

It will not happen overnight. But it has to begin, and it has to be real, and it has be meaningful. It is work that our children and grandchildren will have to continue. But we fail them if we don’t begin now. Today. Tomorrow. And in November.

Pandemics of disease, of racism, of abuse. They must all be faced.

It’s on us.

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