It happens all too often. I turn on the evening news and cringe at another shooting involving a white officer and black male victim. Officer-involved shooting victims such as Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and Philando Castile have become household names.
Unfortunately, our thinking about these victims and discussion about these tragedies is fraught with polarization and division. Some people are pro-officers; others are pro-black lives matters. And competing voices urge us to decide: Whose side are you on?
As the daughter of a retired police officer, a former officer myself and a black woman, I have a unique perspective on these events. Here are a few things that are helpful to keep in mind.
Why All the Shootings?
Hundreds of people die each year from officer involved shootings. The majority of those shooting victims aren’t black, but the fact remains that unarmed blacks are killed at a higher rate than other races.
Why do these things happen? Why are blacks killed at a higher rate than whites? Before we point the finger at our officers by assuming they’re all untrustworthy racists — and before we vilify the victims by digging up criminal histories — we must take a step back. We must look at the framework of our larger society, the society the officers and black males operate within. It is time we consider the imbedded systemic racism existing covertly within our society.
First, consider the historical framework. In our not-so-distant past, officers were hosing black protestors in the streets, and blacks who were seen as a threat were murdered in alleys or bludgeoned beyond recognition with batons. Thus for years, there has been an ever growing tension between the black community and our officers, and many blacks are taught to distrust (or even hate) police officers and view them as the enemy. Of course, history alone doesn’t explain the shootings; it merely helps us understand that these issues aren’t recent developments.
Second, consider the cultural framework. The media often portrays blacks, particularly black males, as dangerous criminals or predators. Society often buys into these perceptions. Think about it: In many instances, an officer is dispatched to an area because of a citizen’s phone call. Now who observes a young black child playing in a park and assumes he’s dangerous? Who sees a black man sitting at an elementary school and assumes he’s a predator? Or who sees a black male running down the street and thinks, “criminal”? We must look at each shooting as an individual case, but we shouldn’t be blinded to the fact that each shooting exists within a historical and cultural tapestry.
Whose Side Are You On?
The media will show us images of slain officers in uniform and vacant patrol cars, meanwhile broadcasting images of angry family members, city-wide protests or even riots. The talk of the day will center on, “Whose side are you on?”
Many voices will say the victims are at fault. They should have obeyed the officer’s commands; they shouldn’t have run or resisted arrest. Other voices will argue that the officers are at fault. All officers are racist and not to be trusted.
But both viewpoints are wrong. We must be careful not to allow the few to represent the whole. We cannot see a few officers who have misused their power and assume that all officers adhere to such practices. We cannot see a few black males that committed a crime and assume that they were all up to ‘no good.’
I recall many sleepless nights researching ways to improve the community I patrolled. And I’m not alone. I know many officers who spend their evenings walking the streets and talking with the residents about their hopes, dreams and fears. I know many officers who are weighed down by the evil they see day in and day out; they see the worst that people do to one another and must find the strength to continue. I know many who suit up every day and kiss their spouse and kids as if it could be their last, as the spouses are haunted by the fear that they may never see their loved ones again. I know all of the little moments they miss, all the holidays they’ve worked through, all the family celebrations they’ve skipped to work and serve citizens who may never appreciate their sacrifice.
However, I also know the very real struggle of being black in America. I am all too familiar with the hateful rhetoric and negative treatment of blacks. I’m mindful of how people can expect the worst of blacks, despite their efforts to ‘be a good person’. I’ve felt the awkward feeling when something is stolen from a coworker and I’m the first person everyone looks at, even though I live an upright life.
Nevertheless, we don’t have to choose a side to sympathize with. We can be both pro-officers and pro-black lives matter. We can value officers’ lives and question someone’s decisions. We can believe most officers are honest and upright and analyze whether an officer should be held legally responsible for disregarding the life of another. We can acknowledge that, yes, all lives matter and that black lives matter. (And to say black lives matter doesn’t negate anything; it simply calls attention to what should be true within our larger society but isn’t. Many Black Americans would like for others to acknowledge that they cannot be slain in the street by those sworn to protect them.) So as we process these tragedies, may we stop rushing to extremes and stand on solid middle ground.
The Way Forward
How do we move forward? First we need to understand that these shootings are symptoms of a larger deep-seeded problem. Unfair sentencing within courts, biased hiring practices and racial zoning and land use all point to a larger, structural issue.
Second, we need to understand our responsibility as Christians. We need to pray for our broken world, view law enforcement officers as people in need of the gospel, seek unity in our churches (not merely in representation), and believe that silence is not an option. After all, God’s word tells us that all people are made in the image and likeness of God and have inherent worth and value. We must share our truth with a hurting world.
Within our churches, we can also intentionally develop deep, healthy relationships with church members that look nothing like us. Elders can speak with their black congregates (among other people groups) to get their perspective. Pastors can create spaces in which the body can come together to dialogue about these tragedies.
Refrain from being dismissive or ignoring the issue because race is a sensitive topic. Pray for wisdom and opportunities to address these issues. Be more than social media warriors. And refrain from remaining silent. As the late Dr. King says, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
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Image Credit: Tony Webster, Wikimedia Commons