Every shocking police killing of a person of color brings another wave of sadness and anger through Greenlining’s office. As an organization that works every day for racial equity but doesn’t directly deal with policing or criminal justice, shootings like the recent deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile leave us feeling simultaneously outraged and helpless.
Then, Thursday night, the sniper attack that killed five Dallas police officers added another layer of madness and despair.
And, like millions of other Americans, we grope for answers.
I claim no great expertise, here, but it seems to me that much of the problem lies at the intersection of racism, militarized police culture and the wider culture of violence in America.
That racism still exists in our society is simply not open to debate. It’s here and it’s real. While racism is manifestly all around us, I don’t actually believe most it is conscious or deliberate. While I find it preposterous when my fellow whites claim they “don’t see race,” I have no doubt that many of them genuinely believe it. The fact that they do see race while believing they don’t makes it that much harder to address.
But unconscious racism doesn’t need to be deadly. Most bigots live their daily lives without doing any physical harm to anyone.
Badges and guns change things. Maybe it’s time to get rid of them.
U.S. police forces almost universally operate as a sort of junior military. Their officers are given military-style ranks: sergeant, captain, lieutenant. They wear military-style uniforms. And of course, they carry guns. By most accounts, police culture has a militaristic feel. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “the majority of police recruits receive their training in academies with a stress-based military orientation.”
The essence of military training and culture is an us-vs.-them mentality. On the battlefield, that’s inevitable and probably unavoidable. In communities and neighborhoods, it’s inherently dysfunctional. And if you add even just a bit of unconscious racism, you know full well who the “them” is going to be.
And that, sadly, aligns perfectly with a nation plagued by the world’s highest rate of gun ownership and a culture saturated with violence.
But must it be this way? Was it handed down to Moses on stone tablets that a uniformed, militarized force is the only way to maintain order in society? Might there be another way?
A lot of what we ask police to do has nothing to do with militarized policing. You don’t need guns or military ranks to deal with speeders or litterers. A good case can be made that handcuffs and jails fail miserably at addressing social challenges like drug use and prostitution.
What if we reimagined police as a non-military public assistance force? What if we dealt with social issues as social issues, not crimes, and made a serious attempt to implement restorative justice? Why on earth do we need uniformed men with guns to address a broken taillight?
Yes, I know there are some truly violent, scary people out there, and we will always need some amount of armed force to deal with them. But why do we insist on using that model where it’s not needed and clearly doesn’t work?
Still, after Dallas, one can’t help but feel while we must reform our police, such reform can’t happen in a vacuum. Somehow, some way, we must rethink a culture that sees force and violence as the cure to most problems. We must get away from the grotesque thought process of the NRA leader who said, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.”
The irony is overwhelming. The Dallas police department has been praised as a model of reform and transparency. The protest was peaceful, and from early in the night one can see pictures of cops and protesters standing together and smiling. And then, madness.
As so often seems the case, the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. show the way:
Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
Somehow, some way, we must put those words into practice.