When focusing on the “racist” upholds a broken system

or: When are we going to get real about poor people of color wanting to be safe and the underpinnings of the police force undermining the efforts of good police?


I just came across this article about an Oakland firefighter filing a discrimination case because he and his young sons were held at gunpoint by a police officer and forced to put their hands up when the firefighter went into his own firehouse to check that it was secured. The firefighter shared that this moment completely reframed his nine-year-old and twelve-year-old sons’ understanding of police officers from this moment forward. Quoting from the article, “I think they view black males as a threat,” the firefighter said.

(A police consultant said there was no racial aspect to the incident and that the officer was following protocol.)


I came across the article moments before heading to a Buddhist-led nonviolent protest of Urban Shield, a militarization exercise and military weapons show for local police departments. Our region’s annual glorified gun show and military exercise (run in previous years by the Israeli military) occurs next week in the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting and the ensuing military-level response to nonviolent protests.


The firefighter was held at gunpoint the same night I was at a community event where we talked through our reactions to Ferguson. One of the activities was partnering with someone we didn’t know well and saying for four minutes, “I am sick and tired of hearing about…” One of the things I named was “I am sick and tired of hearing about one bad cop. Individual cops keep getting thrown under the bus by politicians so that we have a sense that it’s a crap shoot whether we’ll get a good cop or a bad cop. Most of the police I’ve met are good people, and they’re in a system that is trying to stop them from being good. I’ve watched good officers become people I don’t recognize as chiefs of police because they are holding the reigns of a system that is too broken for them to do anything but try to keep it from falling apart on their watch. I am tired of hearing about a few bad apples when no one is willing to look at the rotten barrel that is working hard to rot all of the good apples.”

I may have really offended you with that paragraph, and the good news is that if I did, you’re not alone. A good number of my friends are angry about the lack of safety in Oakland—people getting shot too frequently, vandalism, break-ins, armed robbery (one of which happened in front of the Oakland Peace Center just a couple of weeks ago), assault. I personally know people who have or have myself experienced these crimes, and it ain’t good. Another number of my friends hate the Oakland Police Department for the police harassment they and their friends have needlessly borne, and even many of my friends who abhor violence and are not engaged in politics deeply distrust the OPD because of its long legacy of corruption and resistence to reform (depending on who you ask).*


I have had four conversations this week that leave me sad and wondering:

  • Two White clergy friends in different parts of the country in different denominations preached about the injustice of the death of Michael Brown in mostly White congregations, and both experienced angry and hurt reactions from men in uniform who worship in their congregations—reactions that may even jeopardize one’s tenure as minister at that church.
  • One Black clergy friend shared with me in tears about a conversation with a White colleague about how hard Ferguson had been on this person’s congregation. The White person explained why the congregation was overreacting and denied their right to be feeling any pain at the loss. My clergy colleague said to me, after sharing other stories of being marginalized for speaking out about racism in the church at large, in a choked voice, “You never told us in the anti-racism trainings that we would be punished for speaking out about how racism is hurting us.” And I am so cynical at this point that I had to stop myself from saying, “When have you ever seen any of us not get punished for speaking out, going all the way back to Jesus?”
  • Another Black clergy friend of mine shared with me the burden placed even moreso on this generation than on ours. He grew up in Mississippi and did not fear for his life in his teenage years but believes that this delayed backlash is getting worse and worse as we get farther and farther from the civil rights era. Young Black men have to fear for their lives today in a way he did not have to as a teenager in the South fifteen years ago. (This conversation reminded me of an article that Dr. King’s victory in the civil rights movement was the end of Black people constantly fearing for their lives and also of an article about the reaction to Ferguson not being about Black rage but about White rage at a growing loss of power.)


At the risk of re-offending both groups of friends, here’s what I wonder about: I find myself wondering if we keep setting up good officers to fail because the system they have to work through is not set up to protect them as well as it protects the ones who do harm. I find myself wondering if the people in the F*** the Police marches realize that they’re not helping the people who live in poor, high crime neighborhoods who need police they can trust more than they need no police. I find myself wondering if we as a city can have a conversation that allows us to acknowledge that our current system of law enforcement is failing its citizens and its officers: whether you believe the firefighter or the officer, the outcome is not what either one of them wanted. And I mostly find myself wondering if there are any diverse cities that have overcome these kinds of hurdles so that the relationship between poor communities of color and police is healed and communities can work together with police to create safety and prosperity. The cities I have lived in (Baltimore, Washington, DC, Chicago and Oakland) do not have that story to tell on a citywide basis.


And so I go to the nonviolent protest of local and national police militarization. And so more nephews like that of Javon Johnson learn to fear police at younger and younger ages. And so poor communities of color remain unsafe even though neither they nor the police want it to be that way. And none of this is good enough for any of us. People of color, police, and the city as a whole all deserve and need better. I’m grateful for your wisdom on what better looks like.


*I went to an Oakland oral history a couple of years ago where the speaker explained that in the early 1940s, Henry Kaiser went to the South to recruit the hardest workers in the country—Southern Black farm workers—to come to his ship building plants in Oakland and Richmond. While he was down there, he also recruited the best-trained people to keep southern Blacks in line—Jim-Crow trained White police officers—to join the Oakland and Richmond police departments. The speaker argued that despite efforts to diversify the OPD, there has been little effort to look at the infrastructure and culture of the OPD that intentionally creates alienation between police and community, so that when good officers seek to build trust, that behavior is unintentionally punished or quickly rejected by a combination of police and community.

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