On a recent television news show former Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey analyzed the video from a police body camera of the police encounter with Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta that led to Brooks’ death. Not surprisingly, Chief Ramsey saw no reason for lethal force.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump, attempting to deny that there prevails a policing problem in America, insists that 99% of America’s police are good people. He appears to echo his either dishonest or ignorant advisors who deny the existence of systemic racism in America.
Besides problems of policing and racism, there is a third problem in this country – the lethal admixture of racism with policing. With the long list of unarmed black men, boys, women and girls killed by white police, measured against the abysmally low rates of indictments, disciplinary actions, dismissals, charges and convictions, nobody in America should maintain smugly that only 1% of police are rotten. It isn’t just individual police officers we are talking about anyway; it’s the system – an old, incestuous system that exonerated white, sometimes hooded, vigilantes who lynched scores of black humans (like Emmett Till) just as it exonerates white police murderers today.
“Let us be very clear. This American problem is not primarily about policing; it is about racism.”
Can we ever rid America of racism when its laws, education, economy and religion were all birthed in a context and time where white lives alone mattered? The prophet Jeremiah asked rhetorically, “Can a leopard change its spots?” We cannot rid America of racism per se. We can, however, regulate and legislate police behaviors that could satisfactorily reduce their murderous blitz on black Americans.
In 2013 the Supreme Court of the United States gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Chief Justice John Roberts argued that “The conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterizes [sic] voting in the covered jurisdictions.” (Roberts and the other four usual suspects on the court steadfastly avoid applying that same reasoning to truly obsolete law, especially aspects of the Second Amendment, but that’s another story.) So, racism is over? Black voters no longer need protection?
Who suffers the most from this deplorable decision? Black voters. Roberts’ premise and judgment were both wrong. Republicans in many states continue to purge voter lists (Georgia Governor Brian Kemp being the most iniquitous example) and their blatant gerrymandering flourishes with Supreme Court indifference.
For decades the same Supreme Court has repeatedly widened police powers and indemnified police against consequences of brutality. Its 5-4 decision in 2001 allows police to handcuff, arrest and jail persons for jaywalking or other minor offenses that formerly required a mere fine. Only last week they declined to hear a challenge to police “qualified immunity.” Who suffers the most – and dies the most – from these deplorable judgments? Black people. Systemic racism is alive and evil.
The Supreme Court that many American Christians think is now “pro-life” is certainly not that to black people; perhaps their lives don’t matter.
The national pledge lies with impunity in its final phrase of “with liberty and justice for all,” since blacks are convicted and punished more than anybody else. This whole American experiment – constitution, marketplace, educational system and three branches of governance – is riddled with assumptions, policies and laws that have historically benefitted white lives more than others. The American experiment has failed because it has been inequitable, unfair, unjust and discriminatory from the start, sanctioned by segments of a religion which propagated it while benefitting enormously from it.
Therefore, I say, we should “defund” the America that now exists. Doing so requires a process with at least five steps.
The people of the United States need reformation that is not only Constitutional but also religious, ecclesiastical and certainly evangelical. Reformation calls for repentance. Those who often call for prayers for the president “against his enemies” might serve America better by calling him and themselves to repentance. And genuine repentance calls for restitution (to descendants of indigenous peoples and enslaved African people, whose stolen freedom and labor built the platform for America’s incredible wealth).
“The national pledge lies with impunity in its final phrase of ‘with liberty and justice for all,’ since blacks are convicted and punished more than anybody else.”
We also need reorientation (making e pluribus unum a robust truth rather than an empty Latin phrase – out of many, one) whereby we recognize that each one of us is equally valid in the sight of our Creator. Our elementary and high school syllabi must include truths about America that don’t glorify whites while vilifying blacks or omit from history the savage deeds of whites on the one hand and the accomplishments of persons of color on the other. And, finally, we need the radical and thoroughgoing reorganization that must flow from these.
This is the America we should expect, work toward and fund.
The steps outlined above are what we need but may never receive.
Who will do this when Congress and state legislatures are still occupied and gerrymandered by mostly white men who still deny the prevalence of systemic racism?
Who will do this when the country’s highest elected official and many other leaders at every level of government are patently racist?
Who will do this when courts at every level of the justice system are stacked with white men and white women who generally leave black voters behind, or white women who seemingly scorn Brown v. Board?
Who will do this when Trump has appointed more white circuit judges in areas of large black populations as well as U.S. attorneys (at least one of whom defends Dred Scott as sound law) who can be counted on to bend to political pressure, while firing those who investigate him and his friends?
Who will do this when the loudest evangelical supporters and defenders of Trump’s rhetoric, actions and policies are predominately white men whose evangel is often bad news – not good – for black citizens?
Who will do this when some of the most prominent black evangelicals are fixated on large campuses, prosperity, personal salvation and pop psychology, more than salvific justice for all?
The cry, “Black Lives Matter,” was born in agony, injustice, abuse, death and murder by the American state. Anyone who responds with “All Lives Matter” just doesn’t get it. If each person who speaks that phrase could be made to walk, slowly, through just four days in the life of a black person in America’s racist history – one day in slavery, one in segregation, one in the civil rights era and one as a black male in the 21st century, I dare say they might just “get it.”
We will not change American culture or reform America’s economic, educational and governmental systems any time soon. But we must start somewhere, and perhaps in this national moment of reckoning, America’s policing can be that place.
Among the needed changes are these: Train police recruits for two full years. Many European nations with few or no police shootings do that. Focus on recruits’ emotional and mental intelligence and interpersonal and problem-solving skills more than their brawn. Put in place a one-strike rule that guarantees dismissal on the first act of abuse or unjustified force and a national registry of abuse-offenders that prevents employment elsewhere in law enforcement. Discontinue slavery-by-police where black people are deemed deserving of separation from family by jail, of being “sold” on the bail bond auction block, of rape by arrest or lynching by gun.
“The Supreme Court that many American Christians think is now ‘pro-life’ is certainly not that to black people.”
Finally, let us as people of faith lead the way in the growing grassroots campaign to reform the nation’s policing system. This must include electing and supporting public officeholders who will restore the police reforms that the Obama-Holder team instituted – and which the Trump-Sessions-Barr team has systematically dismantled, leading us into dysfunction and destruction.
At the same time, let us be very clear. This American problem is not primarily about policing; it is about racism. Mr. Trump, Mr. Barr and Mr. White Police Officer, black lives matter – just as much as yours.
This article first appeared in the Baptist News Global on June 29, 2020.
Michael Friday is an organizational leadership specialist and consultant. He is author of And Lead Us Not Into Dysfunction.
Photograph located at https://www.google.com/search?q=photo+of+police+on+floyd%27s+neck&sxsrf=ALeKk01-Z6paBXlzcjqf8VZ_ZH_VPO01_w:1600549759521&tbm=isch&source=iu&ictx=1&fir=Ua524E-8iSLg0M%252CFEm3gBRu4VRX8M%252C_&vet=1&usg=AI4_-kQWw7_A0yvKYSRRIprj59f6idMXBw&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjD1fG-kPbrAhWKhOAKHeTvDWYQ9QF6BAgIEDI#imgrc=Ua524E-8iSLg0M