Going Beyond the Blame Game
The last nine months have brought us several cases of destructive urban riots, ostensibly in protest of excessive police violence. We have also seen targeted assassinations of police officers in New York City and threats of such deliberate murder in other areas around the country. There's been no shortage of coverage and discussion about these events and the "vast gulf" between law enforcement and the citizenry they police. But we'd like to add something else to the mix: perspective.
The Ugly Truth
Too often, the passions, fears, and pain surrounding these events lead otherwise rational people down the dark road of dogma. Lines are drawn, sides are taken, and positions become entrenched. We'd ask that you avoid this - or at least take a step back from it - if even for just a few moments, because we cannot begin to rationally analyze our societal problems unless we are willing to accept that both sides are right to a certain degree.
There are instances of police abuse. Not all cops are heroes - some are little more than bullies who enjoy the privilege of being sanctioned to commit violence. Others, hardened by the constant exposure to the worst society has to offer, have simply become jaded and cavalier in their dealings with the public. Eric Harris, while shot accidentally by Oklahoma police, is quite deliberately told "Fuck your breath," when he complains of an inability to breathe. In South Carolina, Walter Scott is shot in the back while fleeing from police. Citizen video of the shooting contradicts sworn statements from officers about the interaction, and includes what appears to be an officer planting evidence to bolster the tale told to investigators. It happens and more often than we care to admit.
There are violent, predatory young criminals. Not all of those harmed or killed by police are innocent angels - some, quite frankly, earned the treatment they received, however young they might have been. Michael Brown, the eighteen-year-old man whose shooting sparked riots in Ferguson, Missouri, was the perpetrator of a bold and brazen convenience store robbery that very day, and surveillance video shows him physically intimidating and manhandling the owner when he tried to stop the theft. Autopsy results supported the story of the officer who shot him, with close range physical damage and a gunshot to the hand in a struggle for the pistol, and contradicted tales of the man being shot in the back while surrendering or fleeing. That happens, too.
There are those who look, not for opportunities to better themselves or their community, but for opportunities to profit and to victimize others under the guise of "social justice." Those who pillage and burn any neighborhood, much less their own, are not seeking justice or engaging in any legitimate form of protest. This is especially true when they aren't even residents with a vested interest but are little more than paid thugs and agitators.
Admitting the existence and responsibility of one does not deny the existence of others - nor does it excuse their behavior. Denying it, however, perpetuates the cycle of tribalism that divides our communities.
The Simple Facts
For decades, we have allowed an "us versus them" mentality to take root. It's divided us by race, by economic status, by political connections, and by professions. It's led to a contest of victimhood, to see which group can be more aggrieved and persecuted - a contest that has broadened and sharpened that divide. And we have allowed it to happen. As Shakespeare wrote, the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves.
We hire police to enforce our laws. It is that simple. We grant them the right to use violence as they deem situationally appropriate to force compliance with the rules we have adopted. This makes them neither heroes nor villains, just employees performing a task we ourselves have set for them. And when we allow laws to be passed that say, "You cannot do 'x'," we are silently adding, "and we've hired people to make sure you obey, to the point where they may hurt or kill you."
Fewer laws would necessarily require less law enforcement, creating less opportunity for violence and abuse from either side.
The chain of events that led to Baltimore burning began when cops picked up a man for carrying a type of knife that is perfectly legal in other parts of the country. Likewise, a young NYPD officer was murdered because he questioned a man he believed to be carrying a concealed handgun - which wouldn't have been worth in a second glance in over half a dozen states where no permit is required to do such a thing. And, in that same city, police - unintentional though it may have been - caused the death of a man because another citizen complained that he was illegally selling cigarettes. It could well be argued that none of those deaths would have occurred but for a local ordinance that citizens allowed to be on the books.
"We, the People" bear responsibility here because we have lazily allowed government - big and small - to dictate our societal values rather than reflect them. We have also bought into that divisiveness, frequently looking for some way to blame our faults, failings, and underachievement on some "other" rather than owning and correcting them. We've become, in many ways, a nation of spoiled, violent children with a penchant for both avoiding admission of wrongdoing and acting out when forced to confront it. Since members of law enforcement are drawn from our ranks, they exhibit many of the same traits, enhanced by a legal standard that often exempts them from some of the very laws they enforce. Thomas Sowell recently summed up the effect quite well when he wrote, "You cannot take any people, of any color, and exempt them from the requirements of civilization — including work, behavioral standards, personal responsibility, and all the other basic things that the clever intelligentsia disdain — without ruinous consequences to them and to society at large."
So What Do We Do?
We have created this monster. We have fostered the corruption of our communities; we have allowed an overabundance of laws, criminalizing all sorts of behavior; we have internalized the "us versus them" mentality; and we have accepted a double-standard of the application of laws and regulation between police and "civilians." We will not get past this - or even get through this - if we don't make some serious changes in the way we think, the way we act, and the way we treat each other.
We can choose to stop glaring across the gulf of our differences and instead see what we hold in common. We need to remember that we are all, hard as it may be to see at times, peers. Whatever our role, whatever our grievance, whatever resentment or fears we harbor, we are all American citizens and, short of death, there are few things more naturally leveling than that. We have the right and duty to protest abuses. We have the right to remain secure in our persons and property. We can engage in both at the same time and with mutual respect.
We need to police our own, and to stop protecting those whose exploitations and abuses damage our communities and further divide us as a society. We need to own the fact that none of us is perfect, and that fools and villains exist in every segment of society. We cannot work on solutions while we simultaneously protect those intent on causing further harm. We cannot build trust while we lie and prevaricate to avoid "ratting out our own kind."
We need to stop being pawns, allowing our actions and opinions to be shaped by the agenda-driven propaganda being spewed by politicians and the media. The Blame Game is a tool to expand power for people far removed from the events "on the ground." When these events fade from public view and the rubble is cleared, who has profited? Special interest groups have added to their "street cred" and their coffers. Politicians have added more laws and built more sound bytes for their next election cycle. Federal agencies have stuck their nose further into the business of local law enforcement. But has anyone actually gotten to the root of the problem and solved anything?
We need to own, not only the problems, but the solutions. Rather than fault the police for enforcing laws, ordinances, and regulations that run counter to our communities' values, we need to take the time and effort required to bring them into alignment. We need to examine what is on the books, to think about the effects of those rules, and to force our way into the lives of legislators and city officials who pass them in order to influence their direction. We also, all of us, must be held to the same standard. Laws must be enforced equally for all citizens - from a corner grocer to a street cop to a state governor - for them to have legitimacy and to avoid resentment, resistance, and scorn.
Police are hired to enforce our laws, which do not appear by magic. If we fail to become a significant part of their formation... our employees will do their job. People may die. Cities may burn. And we will all, to some degree, carry the stain of having done nothing to prevent it because we were too busy blaming someone else.