We would tell ourselves that, "Sure, there are more blacks incarcerated per capita than whites, but that has to do with upbringing and culture. These people that are crying 'foul' are just people wanting more privileges and to free-load off of the system. After all, Bill Cosby said as much in his 'get tough talks', and he's black." This and similar critiques would be our narratives on black society, all the while ignorant of the inherent racism in our own thought processes. The murders of innocent black men and women at the hands of cops have given rise to a beautiful movement known as Black Lives Matter. These women and men have forced us to look closely at what is going on between the black community and police departments. Furthermore, it has caused us to look deeply at our understanding of race and the systems that perpetuate it.
In our day and age, it is impossible to not be inundated with information on any particular subject. In no known time has so much information been so freely available and, at the same time, ignorance run so rampant. With these resources at our disposal, we residents of White America have had two options set before us: accept the reality that people of color are being targeted by police departments or double-down on our desire to remain comfortable with the status quo.
One of the ways that we in White America attempt to silence the cries of the oppressed is to join the chorus of blind worship of authority. In this case, it comes in the form of uncritical devotion to law enforcement.
"It's only a few bad apples that do these bad things," we're told when hearing about police brutality towards citizens, "most cops are good. Most cops just want to protect us and make things safe."
That's a sentiment that rings with truth and optimism, and we in White America take it as gospel. We take it as such because, by most accounts, this is the range of our experiences with police officers. Sure, we may get a ticket or get the cop who has had a bad day, but aside from a few exceptions, we are not afraid for our lives with every interaction with a police officer. Until the countless videos of law enforcement exerting brutality and lethality towards the black community was brought to our attention, we had not understood the situation from another perspective outside of our own. Sadly, there are those who do not wish to see this other perspective, but repeat the "few bad apples" refrain while demanding that all police officers remain free of any critique.
The problem, however, with using the adage of "a few bad apples" is that it does not finish the quote, which is:
"A few bad apples ruins the bunch."
So, what should we logically do with the "few bad apples"? If we were farmers, the answer would be easy: Get rid of them. Throw them out of the barrel before they contaminate the rest. But when it comes to this adage within our police departments and justice system, by and large, we leave them right where they are. These "few bad apples" can kill someone without probable cause—on video—and still be acquitted of wrongdoing and brought back into the force. What's worse, very few officers speak out against the system and its "few bad apples". Those that do actually speak out are ostracized, called a "rat" or a "snitch" and can lose their job or even their life.
Just Doing My Job
I guess we have to take a moment to define what a "good cop" is. First and foremost, I think a "good cop" would be one who doesn't immediately shoot or beat civilians—of any race. A "good cop" would be one who doesn't go out of his or her way to exert their authority over others simply because they can. A "good cop" would be someone who follows the codes and ethics of their job and works within the community. Basically, a "good cop" is someone who is going to do their job properly.
There are over two million people incarcerated in our nation right now. Mumia Abu Jamal rightly calls our United States "The Prison House of Nations". Not since the Roman Empire, has a nation been so eager to incarcerate its citizenry. Right or wrong, all of these men and women currently in our prison system were first incarcerated by a "good cop" or a "bad cop".
A good cop, if they're doing their job properly, will arrest and put nonviolent drug users in jail where they will, if lucky, be put on probation and pay fines. The other group of nonviolent drug offenders will be sentenced to prison time where they will lose their jobs, their homes, possessions, and have a record that will follow them to every future interview for employment upon their release.
A good cop, performing their job properly, will incarcerate or write a homeless person a ticket for vagrancy, throw out all of their belongings, and tear up their temporary lodgings to prevent them from staying there. The homeless person, of course does not have the money to pay for the ticket, so they get a warrant put out for them. A good cop, performing his job as trained, will arrest this homeless person, thus adding another victim to our prison system.
A good police officer, following the rules of their position, will tear gas and arrest protestors who desire change against big corporations, government, and within law enforcement.
Being an activist, I have witnessed all of these events described. Sometimes, on numerous occasions. I can attest to these actions and even some of the police officers apologizing to their victim(s) while performing the duties of their job.
Its About Love
As a retired, 11-year Firefighter and Chaplain, I also have first-hand experience with police officers on the other spectrum. I have worked many incidents with police officers, including "patching them up" after a violent call. I've seen the good and patient officer who, instead of taking a belligerent man who was high on speed to jail, made sure he got safely into the hospital to detox. I've also witnessed the prejudiced, hand-on-the-holster officer who attempted to strike fear into a teenager who had wrecked their car—threatening the kid with jail time while me and my fellow firefighters were attempting to bandage the child's wounds and check for life-threatening injuries. I've gladly worked alongside the police officers who displayed patience and compassion and have hotly argued with the cops who were looking for nothing more than an opportunity to exert authority over another.
Whenever I speak out on police violence, I am all-too-often countered with this idea that I am somehow creating hate by demanding justice. As a priest and one who believes that we are all God's beloved children, we have to love one another. There is no argument on this from me. But to truly love someone means that you also have to be a truth-teller. To truly have love present in a situation, justice has to also be there. That's why we have to cry out and demand change when our brothers and sisters are being gunned down by police officers. This is what love looks like.
Now, I understand that to the privileged and those that hold power, this type of love can look like oppression. After all, we're demanding that they treat others equally and fairly. By default, someone with privilege has to give up power in order to treat others fairly and justly. But demanding that law enforcement stop performing the heinous acts that they have freely been able to get away with without consequence for as long as modern law enforcement was conceived is not oppressing or hating any police officer. This is love. This is justice. Pure and simple.
To stand and praise law enforcement without also being critical of what is a systemic cancer in the public safety business is not loving cops—this is nothing more than blind hero worship. That serves no one. But to be courageous and call out injustice—even when it's inconvenient to our social status and national narrative—is to truly show love.
These cries of injustice are not coming from some void. Despite what many of us in White America think, the poor, the vulnerable, and people of color do not fear interactions with law enforcement from mere murmurs and whispers. These things are actually happening and until we stop and listen, nothing will change.
Other than when it was required, when was the last time you hung out with the poor or people of color? When was the last time you found yourself "on the wrong side of the tracks" —in a place of town or a neighborhood that was considered "unsafe"? As a follower of Jesus, these are the places that my ministry has led me. Only when we befriend and love the poor, the oppressed, and the vulnerable can we ever hope to make change. Until we in White America can come out from our gated communities and attempt to see things from their perspective, things will remain the same.
Be bold. Speak up and speak out. Engage with your local police officers. Do not be afraid to talk to them about current events and engage in truth-telling. Set up a local forum where your local police department and the poor and vulnerable in your community can come together and talk freely. Only until we see one another as fellow sisters and brothers, will things change and we will no longer have to continue to endure the injustices of the current system.
Finally, until the "good cops" show up and speak up—demanding justice against the bad cops—the system only reveals itself to approve of the corrupt and unjust actions. Silence towards injustice is complicity.