Thursday, September 22, 2016

Lives That Matter

Thus far, I have refrained from commenting on the violence and distrust between black civilians and police officers. This was mainly due to the fact that I was not a member of either demographic and therefore probably did not have much to add. In the interest of full disclosure, I probably still don’t have much to add but feel moved to write this anyway.

What has fueled this fire more than anything is our desire to adapt unfolding narratives into our existing worldview instead of allowing our worldview to be shaped by the circumstances of each individual event. The “lives matter” movements of both the black and blue persuasion have a tendency to canonize their representatives, in part, by demonizing those on the other side of the issue. 

This is often accomplished utilizing succinct Facebook memes that (depending on your ideological persuasion) decry the shooting victims as “thugs” whose bad choices brought their inevitable demise upon them or the officers as “violent racists” who are allowed to carry out their darkest impulses with impunity simply because they have a badge.

I cannot imagine what it must be like to serve as a police officer. To begin every shift knowing that I will spend the majority of my time interacting with people who – at best – are unhappy to see me and at worst wish me bodily harm. The split second decisions they make under duress will be endlessly scrutinized by a public that seems far more willing to magnify their mistakes than celebrate their triumphs. Their families must learn to co-exist with the nagging thought that one day they may get the call that they most fear. The call that their mommy, daddy, sister, brother, son, daughter, husband or wife has been taken from them. That all of their hopes and plans for the future have been shattered by a traffic stop gone horribly wrong.

Just as foreign to me as being a police officer is the overwhelming fear that I might suffer abuse at the hands of one. I have no idea what it is like to feel targeted by law enforcement because of my skin. To live with the knowledge that I may not be given the benefit of the doubt afforded to those of a different ethnicity. I cannot fathom growing up around relatives whose basic rights were violated by those sworn to protect them. In a wry irony, they too fear the same call. The call that their mommy, daddy, sister, brother, son, daughter, husband or wife has been taken from them. That all of their hopes and plans for the future have been shattered by a traffic stop gone horribly wrong.

I was struck by the poignant statements made by Parkland Hospital surgeon Dr. Brian Williams in the wake of the Dallas police shootings. While being recognized for his heroic efforts to save the murdered officers, he offered this:

“There's this dichotomy where I'm standing with law enforcement, but I also personally feel that angst that comes when you cross the path of an officer in uniform and you're fearing for your safety. I've been there, and I understand that,"

He detailed what it was like to be treated differently when he shed his white coat and was just another black male behind the wheel of a car. I could not dismiss his perception simple because I was unable to duplicate it. Instead I was forced to wrestle with its origins.

Along the same lines, I recently served as a jury foreman for a Federal criminal case. The defendant was a black male and the case centered on a traffic stop ostensibly initiated due to seatbelt violation observed by a stationary officer several hundred feet away at night. Our jury was made up of black and white individuals of both genders and while the “I just happened to spot the absence of a seatbelt” narrative didn’t hold water among any of us, it was apparent that baseless traffic stops and fear of the police was something that the black members of our group were more acutely aware of.

Ultimately, we reached a unanimous guilty verdict but I was reminded by the reaction of my fellow jurors that there is a validity to these fears that I can be too quick to dismiss.

The truth is that both sides must take time to process what happened before reflexively branding their surrogate as a victim. Every black male shot by police is not an innocent bystander publicly executed by a bigoted cop and not every police officer that pulls the trigger on a black male has enough (or any) justification for their actions. Until everyone accepts that reality we cannot begin the process of restoring trust between those who serve and those they are sworn to protect.  

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