|Resident John West (L) hands a rose to a police officer, showing his appreciation with help in cleanup efforts in Ferguson, Missouri, August 19, 2014. Photo: REUTERS/Mark Kauzlarich|
One of my friends is in love with a police officer. She has been struggling with how to respond and process the events in Ferguson, but she is doing so from a slightly different angle than a lot of us. None of our struggles or contemplations are more or less valid than the next and, obviously, the families and friends of those involved are the ones who are being forced to endure the most pain, but I feel like the perspective of my friend is unique enough to use as a lens to explore some of the issues.
My friend is not immune to or unaware of the scourge of racism in this country. She is not hard hearted, and she can relate to and respect the views I expressed in my previous post about Michael Brown, Travon Martin, and all of the other young non-white males who have been taken from us violently and far too young. She is also sensitive to the harsher criticisms of law enforcement in this country because she knows better than most that many of those aren’t fair either, and it hurts.
I sort of know where she is coming from. My many connections to the military has put me in the position of having to hear people make snap judgments and sweeping generalizations both in general and when something in particular happens. It hurts on a personal level to have people condemn all the members of an entire profession because of the acts of a few, both alleged and proven. You know that isn’t what your partner, your sibling, or your friend is like, but people just go ahead and make harsh statements anyway. You want to defend the people you care about as well as all of the many colleagues you know to be like your loved one. You are deeply and intimately involved, but you aren’t quite ONE of them so you aren’t sure what you can say or do, and there isn’t a clear support system for you. You turn to your friends, but you aren’t always sure that they get it either – especially when one (like me) says something that makes it harder for you to tell exactly where they stand. Where is there steady ground? Is this going to happen to the person that you love? If it DOES turn out that the person in a similar position to your loved one actually DID do what they are being accused of – by law or public opinion – then will people think that negates your overall stance or, worse, is somehow an indictment of the character of your partner, family member, or friend?
It occurs to me that it is probably exactly these sorts of feelings, this sort of unsteady ground, that is being experienced by people on all “sides” of this situation and many more like it.
For my friend, and I hope I am characterizing her position correctly, there is no simple or straightforward viewing of this tragedy. There are victims, but there may not be any villains. I’m not sure if she understands that this is my view as well, nor am I sure that my words are clear or sufficient enough to explain the complexities involved in the situation, her views, or my own. Hopefully you will forgive my clumsy and inartful articulation.
As I stated in that previous post, I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t there. I am inclined to wait for the results of the federal investigation before I condemn the actions of anyone. No, I don't automatically support Officer Wilson or assume his total innocence. I also don't automatically condemn him or assume his total villiany. My support of depicting Michael Brown as an overall good kid who, like the rest of us, may have made mistakes doesn't undermine my stance that judgments about the exact events leading to his death are premature. Whether he did something wrong, whether the officer did something wrong, whether they both could have done better, or whether the whole situation was a tragic outcome spurred by a larger societal problem that made them both victims -- none of that would make this kid a bad kid who deserved to die... and if the roles were reversed I would say the same thing about the officer. I regret any premature (because at this point they are all premature) condemnations of Officer Wilson, too, and I find it appalling that assumptions about his guilt have forced him into hiding and put his safety at risk. That isn't right either, and I doubt it is any more in keeping with Michael Brown’s memory than rioting or looting – which is to say, not at all.
My support of the humanity of one party does not negate my support of the humanity of the other.
Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, I won't believe that the findings extend to all law enforcement officers. Some are bad, most are good -- all groups represent the society they come from. This truth also extends to all parties involved.
I do think that we have real issues with race in this country. I do believe that young non-white males face frequent judgments and assaults that undermine their dignity, safety, and very lives. A simple look at the numbers will tell you that they are much more likely to be incarcerated for offenses that white kids are usually only slapped on the wrist for. Stop and frisk, a program that was only recently halted in New York City, unfairly targeted minorities. It isn’t fair, and it isn’t right. Many law enforcement professionals I know would tell you the same thing.
And I am pretty sure that my friend would as well.
What she would also tell you, though, is that police officers are frequently killed in the line of duty. Every day they face situations that could end in tragedy. Most of them do their best to sort through those situations and confrontations as best as they possibly can. Most of them became police to help others. Most of them try to deescalate situations, stay calm, and be fair. Most of them are just trying to keep us all safe… but those aren’t the ones you hear about.
We want things to be straightforward. To be simple. For there to be victims and villains and nothing in between. We don’t like the shades of gray, the muddled tones, or the fog of fast moving and emotionally charged events. It is for this reason we are so inclined to turn people into caricatures. We cast aspersions on people’s character before we know the facts and we simplify them down to cut outs to fit our over-simplified narrative and view. In so doing, we strip them of their humanity.
I’m writing this because, in writing what I wrote before some of you may have misunderstood my stance and placed me somewhere on the spectrum that I don’t actually want to be – not because I don’t still viscerally feel and believe every word I said, but because I don’t want to be placed on one side or another.
Why don’t I want to take sides? I don’t want to take sides because I don’t think that there should BE sides. As my friend said, a young man died and another man has to live with that and that is a tragedy any way you look at it. I don’t want to be on a side because I want to be all in. Right in the middle with all the rest of the people trying to figure things out and fix the root causes of these tragedies. Something is wrong here and I don’t think that it is the fault of any one group.
If I have to blame someone, then I want to blame myself. I am part of the problem. I sit here in my comfortable life protected from the dangers faced either by minorities or law enforcement. I don’t talk about the problems in our justice system even though, yes, I do strongly believe that there is a need for reform. I also don’t do anything to support the majority of law enforcement who are great people trying to protect all of us. I don’t talk about race because it is uncomfortable. I hold myself righteously above those who have to make split second calls on too little information when lives are on the line, be they law enforcement or every day folks. By failing to do these things I am helping and serving no one but myself.
I want to change and, yes, I want everyone else to do the same. I want to have the discussions about race, militarization of law enforcement equipment, snap decisions, and oversimplifications of other complex human beings for my own cognitive ease. I want to talk about the sensationalization of tragedy, infotainment, and the inclination to try people on all sides in the court of public opinion. In fact, I want to talk about what is behind the push to create, and then choose and dig into, sides.
There are no sides. Not really. Not if you want to stand for truth, justice, and human dignity. We’re all in this together, as messy and muddled as that makes things. We all need to allow for the beauty, ugliness, and complexity of humanity in all its forms.
I think that my friend, who possesses a sharp but insightful wit, put it best when she said: “I’d like to get to the point where we can hate someone because they are an asshole, not for their uniform or melanin level.”
I probably wouldn’t have written in that way. I would have softened it a touch. I would have paraphrased someone else I also admire by saying that I would like to get to the point where we can judge someone not by their uniform or the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. You’ll note, though, that the point is exactly the same and, quite frankly, the incisiveness of her words probably has more impact for most of you than my own attempts at poignancy.
I feel like my words are crude and inadequate to the topic and task at hand. I feel like there is a whole lot of work in front of us. I feel overwhelmed, sad, and very tired. I also feel like this is something that I am going to have to keep trying my best to do. I hope you’ll join me.