A furry of conversations are taking place around our country that are filled with echoes of pain, violence, racism, and hatred from our past. The issues at the heart of these conversations are not new, only are the victims. Events in Ferguson and New York have again put at odds communities and the police who serve them. Now, even civil rights organizations find themselves at odds about whether to speak-out or to remain silent. Campaigns expressed through demonstrations around the country promote the value of historically oppressed lives. A great divide has emerged with the police on one side and the communities they serve on the other.
There is also a divide forming within the gay community wherein some organizations have reacted publically, in a knee-jerk reaction, with overstated sensational and judgmental statements that miss mark in advocating for equality. Instead, these statements have created internal divides within the gay community, further fracturing our common fight against oppression. These statements have been largely self-serving emotion-based commentaries that criticize the very system that we have relied on for our own civil rights gains. I realize I am making broad and vague statements, but I it serves to real purpose to hurl back criticism at specific organizations and all of this fails to address to real point of the problem. You see, it’s not about Michael Brown or Eric Garner and it is not about black lives, white lives, gay lives or straight lives. It is about all lives, because all lives matter. It is about equality and our common fight as a community, as a minority, and as a country to realize true equality for all people as our Constitution and, specifically, the 14th Amendment, promises.
I’ve been asked a lot over the last several months about “how could this happen in Ferguson?” In my estimation, two things happened. The first is that a police officer shot a person and that person died. Anytime someone dies during an encounter with law enforcement, it is tragic. Nothing we can do at this point will bring that person back whether or not the officer was right or wrong. What happened following this shooting in Ferguson likely has little do to with Michael Brown. I doubt most of the protesters in Ferguson and in all of the cities around the United States ever knew Michael Brown. The other thing that happened in Ferguson and that has happened in communities all around our country is that the police department became disconnected from the community. Trust disappeared and the relationship dissolved resulting in, among other things, at least a perception of racism and the manifestation of an “us vs. them” mentality. This mentality is reinforced by the many images of “militarized police,” who appear largely white, policing communities who appear largely to be of color. Sir Robert Peel’s idea of “the police are the people and the people are the police” couldn’t be further from the truth in communities like Ferguson.
This week’s tragic assassination of two New York police officers in retaliation for the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown illustrates the ultimate result of hatred and racism. These events are echoes of the 1960’s when police stations were bombed and officers attacked during the black civil rights movement. These dynamics are not unlike rivaling gangs where one gang strikes out against the other for the murder of one of its members. When this dynamic is in play, the divide between police and communities only widens.
In the gay community, we have seen similar dynamics occur following Stonewall and a decade later during the white night riots in San Francisco. After gay protesters marched on City Hall, breaking windows and setting police cars on fire, police officers converged on gay bars in the Castro and beat gay people in the streets in what was perceived to be retaliation for the assault on City Hall. The source of this problem was the same; a lack of faith and trust in a system with a history of injustice and inequality.
History is repeating itself over and over and, with each death, the history and burdens of the previous one escalate the emotions and hatred of the past. We need to look at the larger picture and dynamics of what is happening here to understand what needs to change and what our focus needs to be moving forward. It’s not a matter of whether “black lives matter, it’s about embracing the idea that all lives matter.
I’ve been working in law enforcement in one capacity or another now for 36 years and I’ve learned many things. Law enforcement officers are guardians and the enforcers of the Constitution on the street, where it matters most. Our fundamental duty is to serve mankind in a way that reflects the values, ideals, and meaning of our Constitution. We have a system of justice, that while not perfect, is ours and one all of us must honor and respect no matter how much we agree or disagree with an outcome from that system. Our system goes out of its way to provide checks and balances and to honor the due process rights of all. The problem is not the system, but rather a lack of trust and respect for it and those who work within it. It is the relationship between the police and the community that is troubled or missing altogether. Both sides have lost sight of the idea that our system of justice values all lives equally. But that system of justice cannot function properly without the right people to lead it, administer it and support it.
We need to stop spending time trying to find someone to blame and start working on building functional relationships between the police and the communities they serve. This is a two-way street and in order for Peel’s idea that the police are the people and the people are the police, to be realized, police need to stop seeing the community as an adversary and the community needs to stop seeing the police as the enemy. Police executives need to lead a change in the composition of the rank and file of law enforcement agencies so that they truly represent and reflect the communities they serve. Law enforcement needs support for on-going training and conversation about cultures and differences that exist in our country and to value that training as much as they do training on tactics and officer safety because truly these topics are fundamentally connected.
Law enforcement professionals commit their careers to serving the public and they put their lives on the line every day so that we can all feel safe. Law enforcement officers are heroes because they do what most people are unwilling to do. We empower them to make critical split second decisions and entrust them with upholding our Constitutional rights. It is a very tough job worthy of much respect. We must all refocus now together and move away from measuring the value of one person against the other. And, instead of standing on opposite sides of the street, we must stand together with signs that read #AllLivesMatter. Once we can all embrace this idea, we can begin to move beyond “us vs. them” and the pain, violence, racism and hatred of our past.