Editor’s note: In the wake of nationwide protests demanding justice for George Floyd, we are sharing some of our previous coverage about how to end systematic racism in America. For more, see this collection of stories from our archive.
“It’s okay mommy…. It’s okay, I’m right here with you…”
Those were the words of four-year-old Dae’Anna, consoling her mother Lavish Reynolds after she witnessed the police shoot and kill her boyfriend Philando Castile.
Those words are now scarred into the psyche of America, much like words that came before it: “Hands up, don’t shoot.” “I can’t breathe.” “It’s not real.”
If you haven’t realized that the system of policing isn’t working for the black community, you haven’t been paying attention. Just hours after the killing of Alton Sterling, a four-year-old child witnessed someone getting shot and bleeding out while she sat in the backseat. The system didn’t work for her, her mother or for Philando Castile. The system didn’t work for Alton Sterling, or for Mike Brown, or for Freddie Gray or for countless others.
But here’s something we miss in this climate of police violence: the system of policing isn’t working for those working in law enforcement either. It doesn’t serve anyone.
When I watched the video taken by Lavish Reynolds, I was blown away by the cool and calm demeanor in her voice and how it was offset by the complete panic in the voice of the officer. His was filled with fear.
And why wouldn’t it be? Behind that trigger lies a man who just took the life of another man in front of a child. I’ve worked with enough people in prison, as well as veterans who have taken the lives of others, to know that no human being is immune to the fear, guilt and shame that comes with the taking of another’s life.
The system of policing is one that relies on violence, fear, repression and a colonizer mentality. But the individuals who are employed to enforce that mentality are human beings with a human psyche, just like any other. It’s silly to assume that these men and women aren’t impacted by the violence they witness and participate in every day. No human being can participate in the levels of heightened violence that police are engaged in without being affected by it.
The tragedy in Dallas is a response from a people within a community that has lived with that fear and violence for generations. If you belong to a community that is constantly facing murder, incarceration and dehumanization, it should come as no surprise when members of that community decide that they have had enough and react with violence. It is tragic, yet should not be surprising if you can see their perspective. Similarly, just because police experience that violence from “the other side,” it should not surprise us that it may affect them in similar ways, and that they may similarly react with outbursts of violence.
Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that “the white man’s personality is greatly distorted by segregation, and his soul is greatly scarred.” He said that the work of defeating segregation was for the “bodies of black folks and the souls of white folks.” He understood that to be a white supremacist, to hold hatred in your heart for so many and to inflict violence on others destroys your soul.
Others have written about the history of policing in the United States — especially in the South — and its roots in the slave patrol. So it should come as no great leap to consider that participating in policing in 21st century America could scar one’s soul.
This is not about being an apologist for the individuals responsible for the killing of black life. It is not about comparing the suffering of black communities to that of law enforcement. But in nonviolence, we know that if you don’t understand the perspective of those who you are in conflict with, you do not understand the conflict. You do not need to agree with, excuse or justify the other’s perspective, you simply need to understand it so you can see the complete picture.
And part of the picture looks like this: Cops are human. They work for an institution with historical ties to slavery and a long legacy of racism. They are indoctrinated in a culture of “us vs. them,” of doing “whatever is necessary so you get home,” of fear, distrust, and dehumanization of those deemed as being on “the other side.” They are taught to fear for their lives. They are trained almost exclusively in tactics of violence and repression. They are sent into situations of conflict every day with those limited tools, into communities where they are playing out tensions that have been brewing for hundreds of years.
Looking at that picture, no one should be surprised at incidents of police violence, and we should all understand that to some extent, it is rooted in the spiritual and emotional degradation that results from being immersed in such a violent institution.
I’ve been thinking lately about Eric Casebolt, the officer who responded to a call at a pool party in McKinney, Texas and proceeded to throw a young girl onto the ground and point his gun at other teenagers.
Casebolt should have been fired immediately, and his record should follow him everywhere, preventing him from ever having employment as a cop or even as a security guard.
If we look more into the history of that conflict, the story of Casebolt’s own trauma begins to emerge. The pool party was the third call that he attended to that day. His first was a suicide where he witnessed a man blow his head off in front of his family, and had to console the family. Immediately after, he was called to another attempted suicide, where he had to talk a young girl down from jumping off a ledge — also in front of her family. By the time he reached the pool party, he was an emotional wreck.
Again, that’s not to excuse his actions as an individual. But understanding that context and perspective also allows us to point our fingers at the larger culprit: a system of policing that didn’t care enough about Casebolt’s mental health that they couldn’t even give him the rest of the day off. A culture of machismo that doesn’t give space for cops like Casebolt to grieve or process what he just went through.
When the system comes together to defend cops like Casebolt, their defense of him is a smokescreen. The system doesn’t care about any individuals — the individuals are dispensable. It is trying to distract us from the fact that the system itself is corrupt. If the system truly cared about the people who work in the system, it would create fundamental changes to stop the killings of black people, thereby decreasing the chances of retaliatory killings like the ones in Dallas.
But for us, the more we focus our anger on the individual who pulled the trigger, the more we are letting the system off the hook. And the more the system defends the individual, the more we want to see him or her locked up, as if they are the problem. Hook, line and sinker.
Individual accountability requires healing, and a space for the perpetrator of the harm to feel remorse for their actions. I’ve learned over time that people can’t empathize with the pain that they caused until their own pain and story has been honored. So, can we build a movement that honors the pain of the officers, creates spaces to help them see the pain that they cause, and — following the example of former Baltimore officer Michael Wood — allows them to defect from a system that doesn’t serve them either?
And can we hold that level of compassion without pacifying our righteous indignation towards a system that doesn’t value human life? How do we build a fierce and powerful resistance movement that addresses the individual and the system? What does it look like to hold individuals accountable with compassion, and systems accountable with indignation?
#AltonSterling, #PhilandoCastile and #Dallas are sobering reminders that violent institutions are causing human death on all sides. And until we find justice for all people, their spirits will be with us, nudging us to answer those questions.
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