This weekend, dozens of protests sprang up all throughout Orange County. This morning, I went to one held in Irvine, the textbook definition of the suburbia. It was a peaceful march that led to a demonstration at Irvine Civic Center where the Irvine Police Department is headquartered. I have five quick reflections from my time, and then I’d like to expound on what I spent the rest of the day thinking about.
1. He shouldn’t have been, but my favorite person at the rally was a South Asian dad. He was there with his daughters. They must have been in their early teens and they had these beautiful, ornate signs and portraits while he had half a piece of oak tag on which he hastily wrote a slogan. He would run ahead of them, so he could take pictures of them in the crowd and he kept his distance so as not to embarrass them. But you knew he kept his eyes on them the whole time. This was very moving to me and he was not the only one proud of his kids today.
2. Towards the end of the rally at the Civic Center, many people shared from a central bullhorn and spoke passionately from their personal experiences. I was struck by how many mentioned being kicked out of their homes and ostracized from their families due to differences in opinions. Families are being torn apart, and when you see the depth of the passion of the people who are involved, you can understand why. It’s just heartbreaking to see, and I want to believe that there’s a better way to deepen understanding and find common ground.
3. There was a moment before the march as the crowd was still gathering. I was sipping on my watery coffee and looking around when I thought I saw one of our church kids. Now, there were a lot of young people at the demonstration, but there was one who looked like a specific church kid. A certain small one, who wears her hair shoulder length and carries a Fjallraven backpack. From far away, a dead ringer. And a thought hit me with a great deal of emotion. I thought about how sorry I am that we’re asking our children to fight the battles we should have already won. I didn’t know what to do with that feeling. I sipped on my coffee.
I have lots of thoughts about the demonstration. But those were some that resonated on a very emotional wavelength with me.
Now, despite what people may think, I try to make it a point not to persuade people to my point of view. I like to think that my goal is to educate on both sides. If you can’t find the humanity in someone’s argument, you can’t build consensus. Without consensus, there’s no sustainable progress.
I’m sure that it’s apparent by now that I agree with many of the things that the Black Lives Matter movement. Namely, I believe that black lives matter. I believe that bad policing needs to be held to account. I believe that steps need to be taken to undo systemic bias and injustice. I believe that policy and reform have the power to reshape the relationship that the general public has with law enforcement for the better of our entire society. I believe lots more stuff.
As I marched alongside different people, It was clear that people’s convictions are as diverse as the stories that they carry with them. Our thoughts and feelings are nuanced and while hashtags have their purpose, they could hardly capture a full story. Today, I wanted to expand on a little more of mine.
Like the rest of the country, I am appalled at the actions of many law enforcement personnel. Still, I love the police in principle. These are some reasons why.
1. When there is danger, they run towards it.
I grew up in New York City, and I’m old enough to remember what the smoke looked like on 9/11. You could see it rising all the way up from where I lived in Queens. Police are not predominantly bullies and villains, they are the type of people who can see a building on fire and run towards it. There is a special kind of bravery that compels these brave women and men to see innocent people, danger and say “I’m going to stand between.”
2. It’s An Impossible Job
A while back, I listened to a TedTalk about the impossible task that soldiers have overseas. On one day, they give out aid and build rapport with local citizens. On the next day, they have to stop heinous criminals with lethal force. We praise the police when we see them breakdancing with kids or shooting hoops, but the fact of the matter is that in the next moment their job could involve taking down a violent criminal. Everyone they meet during the day is experiencing the worst day of their lives. It takes a saintly level of composure to do that with fresh patience and poise every day.
3. They Get Spat On By The People They Protect
There are police on the front line who are just as outraged as the protestors. Yet, they put on the uniform, stand on the line and endure abuse by the people they’ve come to protect. Believe me, I’ve seen every video of when a cop snaps, but there are unheralded heroes who bear the weight of guilt for their colleague’s sins despite deserving none of abuse themselves. I think next to cops, maybe lawyers and IRS agents are the most hated occupation, but they don’t have an awesome NWA song for people to blare in your face.
I’m still thinking through some things. Here are some of those things.
Chokeholds & Strangleholds
When I first read this, it was very clear. Don’t choke people to death. Easy. But there’s some nuance here. First, there’s a difference between a chokehold and a stranglehold. A chokehold is meant to restrict air by compressing the windpipe. When this is applied, people stop breathing and die. A stranglehold, while sounding more horrific, is the equivalent of rear naked choke, a move that applies pressure to the blood vessels in the neck and renders someone unconscious. It sounds scary, but if you’ve done Jiu Jitsu, it’s something you’re very familiar with. Rendering someone unconscious, can be incredibly valuable, especially when doing with someone who is dangerous and/or someone whose drug use or mental capacities make them incapable of logical/rational thought. A stranglehold can be a very safe and effective tool, but the margin very error is slim. If I’m to err here, it’ll be on the side of
My concern here is not necessarily for the particulars of this method, but for the idea of limiting which tools are available to law enforcement. I’ve had to teach in a number of different contexts for different things, including a New York City public school. In all of these situations, I did not have the power to change a student’s grade levy and kind of penalization for disruptive behavior (I wasn’t looking to choke them out, I promise). And while you don’t need tools of control/enforcement in most situations, when the situation does arrive, it sucks not to have them. I’m not saying that I think it’s happening here, but it can be a slippery slope if people outside of the field begin to legislate HOW people can do their jobs. There’s a need for external oversight, yes, but micromanagement would be counterproductive.
A Division of Responsibility
An interesting proposal I’ve read/heard about includes a separation of responsibilities. It’s an idea based on data that shows the majority of police calls don’t involve violence. It may sound counter intuitive, but what if we increased the size and scope of, lets say, SWAT teams to include violent crimes that typically local police respond to. If that’s the case, then could we limit the scope of your average police officer to your run-of-the-mill police response. This would be non-violent crimes, traffic stops, etc. It could eliminate the need to switch back and forth between kill-or-be-killed, and you have a broken tail-light. It could also very well eliminate the need for these officers to carry lethal weaponry and make it more clear that their responsibilities don’t include the use of lethal force.
The reason this is in the unanswerable question category is that police who are set on killing people will continue to do so and have done so in the most mundane of interventions. There’s another problem if we remove guns from the typical police officer. In America, it’d likely that the person they pull over or confront in a theoretically non-violent situation might very well be armed. We’d be asking police to be sheep in a world of wolves. To be honest, I don’t know if I rule that out, but that isn’t a decision to be made flippantly.
Accountability / Qualified Immunity
Of course police brutality should be held to account. Of course heinous acts should be met with criminal punishment to the full extent of the law. But, the police are trusted to go into the most dangerous situations in our society. They have to make impossible decisions and they have split seconds to do it. How many of us would handle a dangerous situation well. How many of us would get 100% right if we had multiple a day. What about multiple per day over the course of a career. How do we legislate this well?
I feel that there needs to be some grace when it comes to the responsibilities of a police officer, just as you would have for soldiers. Not because the police are militant, but because their job requires discretion at the most consequential of levels. If we punish every good cop who makes a mistake like a villain with a pattern of abuse, I think we do those cops and ourselves a disservice. Qualified immunity in theory isn’t supposed to protect every officer in every situation, no matter how heinous, but it’s been used that way. This is a systemic problem with implementation that needs to be addressed, but qualified immunity on face value isn’t necessarily a bad practice.
I suspect that there will be many aspects of this post or others that upsets the people reading it. Some progressives will be appalled that I more or less posted something akin to Blue Lives Matter. Some conservatives will be shocked that I marched in support of Black Lives Matter. My better friends will know that I’m a complicated sort of a person, that I try to give careful thought to things, that I really do try to listen, not just to the words someone speaks, but the human behind the words. My friends will know that the cognitive dissonance I’m holding in my brain could fill the Grand Canyon. They’ll know that I’m trying my best out here. It might not be good enough, but it’s all I got.