He looked them in the eye
My attention has been seized by the heartbreaking news coming out of Baltimore, my hometown. The horrible announcement of the unnecessary and unintended death of a man, the violent attacks on men and women doing their sworn duty to protect and serve, the destruction of hard-earned businesses and personal property, the terror reigning in communities full of innocent children, old folks deserving a rest, and people just trying to live a good life… these things haunt me. But as I consider the anguish sweeping through this city, and in truth, across our nation, one idea echoes in my mind. It was first mentioned by a respected gentleman at Mr. Gray’s funeral and is now splashed across headlines and parroted by talking heads in the media. He looked them in the eye…
During his impassioned speech, Reverend Jamal Bryant claimed that looking a police officer in the eye was the wrong thing to do, a rebellious and punishable action. He reported that young black men are specifically taught not to make eye contact with those wearing a badge. I sincerely hope that is not the case. I was taught, as so many are, that looking someone in the eye is a sign of a respect. Moreover, many believe that the eyes serve as a window to the soul and that looking into them is the first step to truly knowing a person. We should not avoid looking one another in the eye, nor teach the young of any race or creed to avert their eyes when presented with someone different from themselves. Rather, we should do more of this looking people in the eye. Perhaps then we would begin to see the humanity in one another. Perhaps, we would begin to treat each other, and ourselves, with the respect we all deserve.
What would Mr. Gray have seen had he truly taken the time to look the officers in the eye? If he had simply made contact and nodded rather than turn and run… Would he have recognized that the person behind the badge swore to protect and serve before all else. That he was called to his profession because he saw children who deserved a safe place to learn and grow so that they may have bright futures. That in each citizen he saw a human deserving a chance to live a peaceful and prosperous life? Would he have seen the sacrifices the officer makes each day to fulfill his duty, working an erratic schedule for low pay, missing dinner, birthdays, anniversaries, holidays with his own family so that he can be there when the families of others call for help. That he spends his days and nights filled with the stress of making the right decision to achieve the best possible outcome for the victims and citizens he serves? The disappointment felt when someone he is trying to help refuses to cooperate or makes the wrong choice and leaves him with no other option than to use force or detain a suspect. Would he have felt the worry of the officer, and his wife, and children, and parents, that each call to serve may be his last? That in trying to protect and serve others, his life may be lost. Or that his life may be taken by those who see a target on his chest where others see a badge? The officer, like all of us is human, imperfect, and full of fault. But look into his eyes and see that, in spite of the sacrifice and danger, he is doing what he believes is best to make this place a better place for every single one of us to live. And then could Mr. Gray have respectfully greeted the officers and continued on his way, unharmed?
And looking back at Mr. Gray, looking him in the eye, what would the officers have seen? Would they see a man who didn’t have the luckiest start in life? Someone born into a difficult situation where money was tight and opportunities were scarce? Would they have seen a son whose mother loved him and tried with everything she had to set him on the right path, but who gave in to the pressures of the community around him? Would they see a former student whose school didn’t necessarily have the resources to help him learn in a way that would help him escape the dangerous situation into which he was raised? Would they see a man who was sick, addicted, and unable to control his life without a serious and well-intended intervention? Would they see a man lost, unable to find a way out? In his eyes, could they see the human, caged, afraid and hopeless? And seeing that, could they have found the right word, presented themselves in just the right way, to make a bad situation a little better. Looking into his eyes, couldn’t they have seen what he needed? Respect, dignity, and hope? Is it possible that a moment of shared eye-contact could have sent that message?
And truly, shouldn’t each of us take the time to find a mirror and look ourselves in the eye? As violence and death and division sweep through our communities, are we being a part of the solution or are we contributing to the problem? Do we take the time to gather and analyze truths before we share an honest opinion, or are we simply repeating what we heard from the reporter with the loudest voice or the media source with the biggest budget, working hard to make more news? As we enjoy the rights and freedoms given us by this country, are we fulfilling the responsibilities that are entrusted to us as citizens? In this nation, of the people, by the people, and for the people, shouldn’t each of us be doing something to make our society work?
I don’t pretend to know the people involved in this incident. The intent of all involved parties is unknown to me. I recognize that malice and hate and abuse of power exist within our society. But I cannot pretend that sometimes terrible things happen and no one person is at fault. I believe that every member of a society must do their best, be their best to make a peaceful, happy life possible for us all. I will not give up hope on humanity, on our ability to come together with other humans and do what’s necessary to make it work. Yelling, fighting, blaming, burning… that’s not going to do it. But looking into the eyes? That seems like a promising start.