Police are our friends, right? Very early in school, this is what we are taught. They are here to “protect and serve.” They put their lives on the line every day they go to work. We are to honor and respect them as our protectors. Right?
Black and minority families learn different. While I was learning in school that I would be protected by police officers, I was learning at home that I needed to protect myself from police officers. They were the ones with the guns and the freedom to use them against me if they felt so inclined.
At seven and eight years old, I didn’t believe my father when he would tell me this. He was just an old, angry Black man still holding onto injustices of the past. I was living in a new age of peace and equality. Times had changed and he needed to change with them. There was no need for me to watch old footage of police officers siccing their dogs on Black people, ripping the clothes off Black people, knocking them off their feet and into brick walls with water canons.
As a child, I didn’t need to be exposed to the brutality inflicted upon my ancestors in the days of traditional slavery*. I didn’t need to see the chained and bloody, screaming or dead bodies of slaves being dragged off the Amistad to sink in the ocean or be eaten by sharks. Nor did I need the scenes of Alex Haley’s Roots to flash before my young eyes — before I could comprehend why people who looked like my mother would do such things to people who looked like my father. And, to this day, I still have the horrific picture in my mind of a Black man hung upside down by his ankles to two poles so a white man could cleave him in half with a massive cane knife, while the man’s African brothers and sisters were marched by in chains.
But I did see those things. And sure, it would have been easier had I been older, but I did need to see those images and learn the terrible history of my people. So did my peers and others in my school and in my town.
Now everyone needs to stop hiding from the true, hateful history of this nation, a past that continues to perpetuate distrust and violence in our communities. To Black people, the white police of today represent a heritage of horrors. Evidence of this heritage can still be seen on the badges of many sheriff’s departments: interlocking triangles that harken to the badges worn by slave patrols.
And, sadly, there are people determined to re-enact the actions of their forefathers. George Floyd was just one of the latest in a long history of Black men killed by white authorities. The time for change was 400 years ago. The time for change is now. Violence will continue to beget more violence until the cycle is broken.
Imagine you have a friend, a white police officer. He’s of average height and build, with dark hair and peaceful brown eyes. One day he arrives at your front door in his standard uniform and knocks. You open the door to his friendly face and feel instantly at ease.
Now picture this same man training for the SWAT team. He’s in full riot gear, with helmet and face shield. There are no recognizable features to distinguish your friend from any other officer of average height and build. What’s your reaction when he’s in your neighborhood now? Confusion? Fear? Anger?
I used to want to be a police officer. I was torn between that and being an “army man.” When I showed my father evidence of my desire, scribbled in crayon at school, my education on white brutality began in earnest. So too did my fear and anger toward white police officers, which included the “resource officers” in every school I attended.
I know this brutal legacy does not affect all white people. I’ve met many truly decent human beings who happened to be white. I have met some truly nasty people who happened to be Black.
A few of these decent white people work in this prison. A couple of them are in the Special Operations Group (SOG) that is supposed to respond to outbreaks of violence. When I see them in their standard corrections officer uniform, I feel the instant ease of mutual respect and appreciation built over years of rapport. However, when I see them in their SOG gear and sunglasses — as happened today — I feel a tightness in my chest. My body is asking me if I want to fight them or flee from the situation.
As the public debates rage about the need for drastic policing reform, including the militarization (or demilitarization) of police forces, think about my words. Ask yourself, Do I want people to meet our police with a feeling of ease and trust, or tension and fear? Do you want the cycle of violence to continue? Or are we finally ready to break the cycle of brutality that will otherwise destroy us all?
We all must be willing to engage in conversations about systemic racism, inequality, and racial disparity. Encourage others to participate in seeking solutions, rather than lamenting the dismal situations in which we find ourselves. We have a bitter, yet perfect opportunity to enact policy changes that actually improve public safety, like a return to the type of community policing by which those being protected know the people who are protecting them.
And let practice follow policy. Union leaders and police chiefs need to hold their officers accountable, no longer tolerating extreme force. Citizens need to speak up when they see injustices, not just stand silently by with camera in hand. Community and business leaders need to get involved in the conversation and help fund the justice and equity initiatives. And, most importantly, officers need to remember who they wanted to be before they allowed their hearts to harden toward their fellow human beings.
It’s time for our police to exemplify the ideals we teach our children. I want my nieces and nephews to feel safe in this world. And, if God sees fit to bless me with children, I want to be able to tell them truthfully, “The police are your friends.”
*I say “traditional slavery” because slavery still exists and is legal in our society. The 13th Amendment abolishes slavery “except as punishment for a crime.” Hence the explosion of the Prison Industrial Complex and the national crisis of mass incarceration.
If you’re tired of the enduring systems of injustice and oppression and are interested in getting involved in enacting positive social change, reach out to the NAACP, Restorative Justice Institute of Maine, The Poor People’s Campaign, Black Lives Matter Global Network, or Campaign Zero. Ask what you can do. And educate yourself and participate in voting processes. Vote for local, state and federal leaders worthy of your support. Change only comes through unity, so please join the fight for our future.