Every time we climbed out of our NYPD ‘RMP’ at the Gun Hill Houses in The Bronx we looked up in a desperate scan of rooftops and windows. Hell, every time we walked out of the front door of the 47th Precinct we’d sweep the towers of the Edenwald projects with our eyes.
I was young, and committed, and I was armed, and yes, I was afraid. It was the 1980s and New York City was a dangerous place and a dangerous place to be a police officer. “You’re walking around like a big blue target,” one friend bluntly told me, and I know that most of us felt that way — at least some of the time.
When you are afraid you have to fight really hard to be rational, because fear, fear and anger actually, work on shutting down the thinking parts of our brain, and we become little more than lower order animals in a chaotic battle for survival. A great deal of our training as Police Officers was, in fact, designed to help us buy time in crazy situations by slowing us down — we were taught a whole series of steps to go from first putting our hands on our firearm to actually pointing that weapon at someone with a finger on the trigger. Slow down, think, stay rational.
If there is one thing that unites the 11 cops in Dallas, with a man standing outside a neighborhood convenience store in Baton Rouge, and with a family driving in a Minneapolis suburb, it is that they are all dead or traumatized because of irrational fear based in ignorant assumptions.
Over three decades of resegregation in schools — since the second term in office of Ronald Reagan — have combined with increased segregation in communities brought on by the spread of Metro areas to create Americans who have no first-hand knowledge at all of other racial groups or other economic status groups.
And a combination of world events and the bloodlust of our media organizations has created a deep fear of ‘the other.’
This ignorance and fear are embedded in our homes, in our families, in our schools, even in our houses of worship. The ignorance and fear are stoked by the media we consume, the restaurants we choose, the way we shop for homes, the tax structures we vote for, the people we tolerate in positions of power — stoked by all the things that divide us instead of uniting us.
And the fear explodes when a terrified white cop pulls a trigger simply because he is so frightened of any black male, no matter how young or old, no matter how ‘respectable,’ no matter how ‘hard working,’ no matter how ‘filled with Duckworth/Tough grit.’
And the fear explodes when any black male must choose fight or flight when approached by white cops, or ultimately, when insane members of our society choose to rain terror down on us from parking garages with high powered rifles.
And the fear explodes when American lawmakers refuse to keep weapons of mass destruction out of our communities because our own neighbors are so desperately scared that they believe they are insufficiently male without the instant ability to kill a dozen or more people.
And the fear explodes because violence almost always leads to more violence, not less. And we are living in a vicious spiral.
Where do we start?
We must acknowledge the real courage of the Dallas cops and their supervisors to dress on Thursday night in summer uniforms and not riot gear. That was a powerful statement about being a community police force and not an occupying army. It seems logical, it is the way I was trained, but these days it still required real courage.
Since Ferguson I have been begging cops to do this, and now I feel betrayed… and yet… I will keep asking police to not look like combat military, to not look like RoboCops, to stop using vicious acronyms like “SWAT” (a creation of Daryl Gates’ horrifically racist LAPD of the 1970s), to get out of their cars and walk and talk, because good cops behave like members of their community, and the good cops I have known — on and off the job — have been incredibly brave people.
And we must acknowledge that we are guilty. We claim tolerance but we choose segregated communities for our homes and segregated schools for our children. We say we want to make things better but we don’t really want to pay taxes to begin to repair inequities. We say we want change but we tolerate awful people in government because the political will for change requires ‘too’ much time and ‘too’ much work. We claim to prize diversity but who do our kids see every day?
And our schools must do much more if we are ever going to see change. If your school lacks diversity who are you visiting via Skype and Google Hangout? If your school lacks diversity what kinds of field trips are you taking? If your school has wealth how are you sharing that? Is your PTO sharing its proceeds with a school without resources? Could that PTO fund joint field trips?
^ the Edenwald Houses. I always looked up. I was always afraid.
Listen. All the people who died in Minneapolis, in Baton Rouge, in Dallas, died simply because of what they looked like — and because frightened people allowed themselves to act solely on that fear — though obviously one act was premeditated in ways the other two were not.
Listen. Police deserve respect and they get very little except on days like this. Few “thank them for their service.” No one discounts restaurant meals for retired cops on Police Memorial Day. No airline has pre-boarding for police officers who are travelling. No one provides free lifetime health care for former cops. And you know my thought? The folks most likely to scream about #CopLivesMatter are also most likely to yell and curse about cops any time they get a ticket.
But cops cannot expect impoverished and abused communities to solve this. Police do represent the society that oppresses these communities, and they have to do the work to show those communities that they are partners in both political and social democracy. This is NOT a zero-sum game. Cops get safer as community relations improve.
Listen. Racism has been America’s fatal flaw since the 17th Century. If legal conditions have improved, the essential beliefs in white supremacy — in a hierarchy of places of origin, of religions, of accents, and most especially of skin color — remain our original and ongoing sin. And we need to call ourselves and our neighbors, our coworkers and our leaders on what we are going to do to change that.
Today my personal knowledge of American history is bookended by snipers in Dallas. That’s ugly on so many levels. Today I find myself — once more — caught in a middle which should not exist. I should not be asked to choose between pride in my history as a police officer and my belief in equitable and constant support for civil and human rights. Today I see this nation rushing in the wrong direction. That police shootings of African-Americans are increasing is a sign of fear overruling our humanity. That people will vote for Donald Drumpf is a sign of fear overruling our humanity. That people think personal arsenals are an answer is a sign of fear overruling our humanity. That cops feel more comfortable dressed for battle than dressed for community interaction is a sign of fear overruling our humanity.
A very long time ago I wrote about what was wrong with our expectations for police. Today we are beyond that. We must deal with the context of our failures as a culture.
Today Donald Drumpf called the murders in Dallas “an attack on America.” That is a lie. The murders in Dallas are America. This is what we have let our nation become.
What are we going to do about that?
- Ira Socol