By Jeff Kelling
I spent much of Friday morning in a state of abject sadness. Americans had celebrated the country’s independence for a fleeting moment, it seemed, before the ever-lurking specter of senseless violence enveloped us with its dark cloud again.
The names Alton Sterling and Philando Castile had taken their place in the awful roll call of people of color who have died in encounters with police.
And so by Wednesday and Thursday, with a din that served to effectively mute more constructive voices, social media and other contributors to our lives that are so often absent quiet or reflection were filled mostly with anger and division. (Anger is not unjustified in some quarters regarding our country’s issues with violence; division only serves to worsen the problem.)
Then came Friday morning, and the news out of Dallas. Five police officers were dead at the hands of a disturbed African-American man whose inner demons had driven him to an action he somehow believed, apparently, was justifiable retaliation. Was I shocked? Yes. Was I in disbelief? No.
Most of all, I was heartbroken over a week that had seen seven deaths too many, and those deaths’ connection to a very clear and present problem in our society. I believe several things in my heart:
I believe the vast majority of people in the Black Lives Matter movement and its offshoots long for not just fewer police shootings, but for positive police-community relationships in distressed neighborhoods and communities. They long for lower crime rates, fewer homicides, more jobs, fewer imprisoned men, and children with hope for their futures and a belief that police officers are their protectors and allies.
I believe the vast majority of police officers are decent, honorable public servants who have chosen a difficult, sometimes dangerous, usually thankless career field because they care about people and believe in the motto, “to serve and protect.”
I believe that for the past several years particularly, humming underneath the din of angry voices talking past one another, many more people than we might suspect have been quietly striving to bridge divides in this matter – police, community leaders, and just everyday people.
When the news broke out of Dallas, my sadness was rooted in a sense things might escalate. I feared people riding the fence between anger and division on one hand, and hope in the power of dialogue and understanding on the other, would lean toward the former.
Instead, glory be, the past 96 hours have produced a growing wave of stories suggesting that from the bloody ground of Baton Rouge, St. Paul and Dallas, the seeds planted by those who have quietly striven for dialogue and understanding may be sprouting.
Sunday, I learned that Snoop Dogg and fellow rapper the Game had on Friday led dozens of gang members and citizens in Los Angeles on a peaceful march to an LAPD graduation for 37 rookie officers. According to a CBS News report, Snoop Dogg shook hands with police officials and wished the new graduates luck. “We wish that they have a better understanding with the people so that they can do their job, peacefully, and make it home safely, just like we want to make it home safely.”
LA Police Chief Charlie Beck pleaded with the officers not to let what happened in Dallas interfere with their pledge to uphold the law fairly for all. He said after graduates reported to work for their first day Sunday, they would encounter some people experiencing the worst days of their lives. “Given their circumstances you might act in a similar fashion,” Beck said. “Have empathy. Look into people’s hearts. … Help them.”
Monday, I saw a video showing people at a Black Lives Matter protest crossing the street to counter-protestors. What ensued was not confrontation but dialogue, followed by corporate prayer that included the police officer whose responsibility moments before had been to keep the groups separate in order to avoid confontation and possible violence.
Minutes ago, someone shared news of a Monday night meeting in Raleigh, N.C. during which rival gang members declared a truce that left a local district court judge “cautiously optimistic.”
These are just a few of multiple examples over the past few days that also make me cautiously optimistic. I’m not naïve. The issues that contribute to this terrible problem are systemic. This country needs criminal justice reform, an end to the “school-to-prison pipeline” that plagues many inner-city communities, and numerous other changes that only a combination of policy reforms and heart changes can bring about.
I can’t imagine a year passing without at least a few police-civilian encounters ending in the killing of someone. Law enforcement, as its name implies, must sometimes include the use of force. Cell phone cameras and police body cameras will continue to capture encounters that devolve into violence. For my money that use of modern technology can help provide a greater level of accountability, and could in time be one factor in reducing tragedies.
But love, paradoxically, has proven over human history to be the most powerful weapon of all. So I’ll close with a quote from some dude I’ve never heard of, the Game, spoken at that LAPD graduation.
“I love you. No matter what race you’re from, no matter where you come from, no matter what gang you’re from or what police force you stand for, what badge you put on, what school you teach — whoever you are, in the world, if you are a human being and you have ears and eyes to see, this is a day of change. Respect it, understand it, love it, embrace yourself for positivity.”