The easily-predicted meme of the moment coming from law enforcement officials and their many political allies is a threefold rebuke to the entire criminal justice reform movement—not just #BlackLivesMatter but all of us who consider fighting the mass criminalization of people of color (and the engineered economic immiseration of people of color—most specifically Black people) to be the nation’s most urgent unfinished business.
The three main “beats” of the post-Dallas pushback are these:
- The police put their lives on the line every day for public safety and deserve appreciation and deep respect for that;
- They have been horribly smeared by a handful of opportunistic Black radicals, but the silent majority rejects the smear;
- They are decent and honorable people who should not be smeared on account of handful of rogue individuals who wear the badge.
This is precisely what I would expect the police establishment to say at this moment. I would likewise expect to hear it from African-American police officials, like Dallas Police Chief David Brown. You don’t rise in law enforcement as a Black person without fervently and repeatedly reaffirming your True Blue colors.
What is deeply dispiriting, however, is the number of people in political leadership and in the commentariat who mouth the exact same memes: 99% of police officers are great public servants, blah blah blah.
Of course they are great public servants. Of course they deserve our respect as brave and hard-working individuals. Of course police-community relations are a two-way street.
All of this is true, and all of it misses the point of a broken system that reflects an entire culture suffused in a very deep endemic and structural racism. Michael Eric Dyson said it best in his Sunday Times op-ed.
We are supposed to stand up and cheer the “sensitivity” training that officers in Dallas and few other places now receive. But seriously, does anyone believe that this training even scratches the surface of the tribal on-the-job training that junior officers receive from senior members of their particular force? Senior members who teach the greenhorns that it’s “us vs. them” and “kill or be killed” out there on the street?
Because of the shock of the Dallas shootings and the way the incident is being played, there is a real danger that religious and civic moderates will now pull back from their required duty of truthtelling and ceaseless agitation for structural change. There is a real chance that the natural allies of #BlackLivesMatter will now shrink back from confrontation. That would be an even sadder outcome than the smoldering bitterness and rage we now see on all sides of the policing issue.
We in religious leadership in particular need to look soberly at our duty in a sobering and deeply sad time. We say we understand systems of oppression. We say we have done our homework and understand how deeply white supremacy and white privilege are encoded in every dimension of our psychological and social lives. We say we see clearly how hundreds of thousands of decent and humane individuals—the women and men who maintain the thin blue line—can nevertheless be serving in a system that is profoundly hostile to mostly poor people of color and that is therefore deeply evil.
We progressive clergy types and theology professors say that we “get” all this. Well and good. But now, more than ever before, our teaching ministry is urgently needed in the public square. It must be an uncompromising and courageous ministry. No false equivalence between centuries of anti-Black police abuse and the actions of a single madman in Dallas. No mincing of words about the ongoing need to shake the very foundations of white supremacy.
The words of Frederick Douglass resound as tellingly today as they did in 1860: “It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.”