A friend of mine has vowed to recognize every action as an act of love or reaching out for love.
She vowed that in the midst of the Ferguson and New York protests and possibly even after the police shootings that was followed by some truly alarming statements by Fraternal Orders of Police and police officers’ unions (the Bay Area’s statement was somewhat tame in comparison) about the need for a police state and unquestioning loyalty to the police. (Another friend explained that they were doing what unions do — assuring their members that they have their members’ backs under any circumstances, in ways that can be alarming or seem entrenched and militant and hostile to outsiders; he noted that teachers’ union statements can come off as militant and unyielding as well, although I bet they don’t talk about teachers as the only barrier against anarchy and chaos and the only line of defense of civilization.)
I would like to be as compassionate as my friend, because in my heart I believe that is true; it’s just that many of us have been scarred so much that our expressions of love or need for love have become misshapen in some incredibly problematic ways.
And so my intermediary step is this: I’m going to start trying to find compassion for the FEAR that underlies aggressive language and behavior. That doesn’t mean I think the fear is rational or justified. And it definitely doesn’t mean I’m going to go up to someone acting belligerent and ask them what they’re afraid of. It doesn’t even mean I think they’re always aware that they’re responding from fear. It’s just a way of me slowing down my automatic reaction of getting angry at people who I think “just don’t get it,” and who (in my mind) bring a hostile energy to their determination not to get it.
The other thing I’m going to do is to celebrate courage when it shows up.
After all, the phrase “fear not” shows up in the Bible a lot, which means angels are used to us getting freaked out.
The same thing was true the night the angels visited shepherds in the fields when Jesus was born, according to Luke chapter 2:
That is, in the face of fear, we have comfort in knowing God is with us in the form of an infant who is also a savior. And therefore, we do not need to wait for another savior. We need to act with courage as if we already have one. (That was asking a lot of the shepherds, I think.)
A number of people have suggested that the nonprofit I founded should be hosting dialogues between police and protesters. I’m not sure we’re there yet, because there’s some work as far as I can tell that the police need to do themselves first.
What’s exciting and inspiring to me is the ways some officers and chiefs are publicly acknowledging that in this moment, police departments are being reminded that their relationship to communities of color is broken and the solution to that problem is to acknowledge problems where they exist and to address them.
(And to the very unlikely reader of my writing who wants to know why I’m not addressing what that small handful of property-damaging protesters have done wrong, (1) if you don’t know me, I’m a pacifist who also tries not to use dehumanizing language for people, so I will not call all police officers pigs, and I certainly think it is damaging to say things like the phrase spraypainted on the Oakland jail “the only good pig…” you know the rest. I don’t endorse it as a strategy, and I think participating in protest that involves contempt for the humanity of the other, though understandable, is damaging to our own souls. So I don’t endorse that and I consistently advocate for a different model in the faith-rooted organizing work I do. (2) There is a power differential that functions in systemic racism, and my scripture teaches that to whom much is given, of them much is expected. So while most of my movement work involves the frustrating task of unfairly asking people who have little power by the world’s standards to be better human beings than those who are oppressing them, in my writings I’m going to ask some level of courage and humanity from those who have power. (3) While I think many police officers want to be in good relationship with the community and help the community be a better place, and while I think they are often used as a fulcrum by others with more power rather than them personally wanting to create a power imbalance, if you think police do not have more power than the protesters, ask yourself who you’d be less inclined to pick a fight with.)
So today I want to celebrate some people who are choosing to speak out and to fear not, that we may learn from and be inspired by their actions to create nuanced conversation rather than embattlement:
Thank you, Pittsburgh police chief Cameron McLay, for holding a sign as part of a New Year’s Eve community gathering.
In his follow up email to the rank and file officers who felt he was calling the entire department racist, he apologized if that was how they experienced the comment, but he also went on to say In his email to the rank and file, McLay wrote that it’s a “statistical fact” that police enforcement efforts in the United States have a “disparate impact on communities of color,” and that “we, the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, need to acknowledge how this reality feels to those impacted communities.”
Thank you, Nashville police chief Steve Anderson, for responding to a concerned citizen by letting him know that protest is an important part of what it means to be American, and that supporting protest is not anti-police.
The police chief was responding to someone who believed it was not in the best interest of the police department for Nashville police officers to provide hot chocolate and coffee to the protesters who shut down a local highway in the wake of the Ferguson verdict. The chief had authorized that, and said that their department does not do what is in the best interest of the police but what is in the best interest of the community to the best of their ability. He said a lot more that made me proud to be an American. And I’m not the only one.
Thanks to Richmond, CA police chief Chris Magnus, who was already getting increasing acclaim for transforming the relationship of the RPD to the community over the past seven years, for holding a Black Lives Matter sign (along with his deputy chief and the city’s phenomenal mayor).
Chief Magnus received rebuke from the local police union for wearing a uniform while holding the sign – officers are not supposed to engage in political activity in uniform – but he argued that the message that Black lives matter is not a political message and he would hold the sign again, although he would like to be better prepared for the fallout. “I learned that three words can have an extremely powerful impact,” Magnus said. “I don’t think this is a movement or a situation that is going to disappear.”
Deep respect to NYPD officer Adhyl Polanco for going on Democracy Now to affirm Mayor DeBlasio’s (what I thought was relatively uncontroversial) statement that he had to have “the talk” with his Black son about how to not provoke police because young Black men experience unprovoked harassment by police officers at much higher rates than youth of other races.
“How can a parent who has a black child, how can a parent who has seen millions of kids been stopped by stop and frisk — and you know the statistic of that — how can the parents of black kids see kids get killed by police over and over, how can parents see kids be summoned illegally, being arrested their own building for trespassing, and being the treatment they get from the police department — not from all officers because not all officers are the same — how can you not responsibly have that conversation with your son?” he asked. “I have to have the conversation, and I’m a police officer.”
Honestly, I worry for Polanco’s safety. Off the record, Black NYPD officers acknowledge that out of uniform, they are not immune from police violence and harassment. I am keeping him and all officers who are nuancing this conversation in prayer, that their courage may help officers who feel the same way to speak out and officers who feel embattled to see the greater complexity of this issue.
And here’s the one that my local activist friends may take issue with. I think the current Oakland police chief (and deputy) might be helping the OPD after decades of good cops getting consumed by a corrupt system begin to move in the same direction as the Richmond PD. It won’t be easy, and in the early stages it is happening very quietly, but I hear rumors from reliable sources that OPD has been read the riot act about harming nonviolent protesters even when those protesters are verbally harassing police, and I’ve seen the results. I hear rumors that the punishment for not having the required body camera on has become way too steep for officers to brush off. And I hear from the actual media that diversity in recruitment and intentional shifts to community policing models are helping us move towards a point where one day we might have a functioning relationship between the OPD and communities of color in particular. Something as simple as seeing Chief Whent out on the Friday night walks in east Oakland is a good first step. “Communities that have a higher degree of trust in the police department have a lower degree of crime,” Whent says in the article linked above. “We’ve recently not had the greatest relationship with the community, and I think to a certain extent more diversity and recruiting more locally will help change that.”
The OPD has a history complexly connected to the Jim Crow South, and it is worth reminding non-Oaklanders that the Black Panther Party wasn’t just anti-cop out of principle but in response to how unresponsive the police were to needs in the Black community and how inclined they were to harass innocent Black people.
No amount of diversity can undo organizational culture, which is why we went into federal receivership after much more recent issues related to corruption and non-accountability. But good leadership committed to changing structures and claiming a mission that is about the community – the WHOLE community – can create a new and healthy organizational culture.
I hope over time the protesters who are bringing light to what is profoundly broken can become a valued resource in this culture shift within the OPD.
Hey, if angels can show up in a sheep field in 1st century Judea, anything is possible.
This is part of Sandhya’s twelve-part series on the values of Christmas, which actually spans the twelve days of 12/25 to 1/6 each year (although commercialism usually has us so burned out on Christmas by 12/25 that we pack it up in boxes on 12/26). If you would like to become a patron of the arts by supporting Sandhya’s writing, you can do so by visitinghttp://www.patreon.com/sandhya. She would be honored by your support.