Police officers have the worst job in the world. I am not one, but I know several. Dealing with liars, spouse abusers, robbers, and drug abusers for a living wears on a soul like an old shoe. Many of them lose faith in humanity, and allow every interaction become one of accusation, confrontation and suspicion. Plus, the public expects them to be courteous, impartial, and all-knowing about any situation in which they find themselves. Every interaction on duty becomes a potential for a life and death struggle. Cops are never allowed to have a bad day, and if they do, it usually leads to a worse day. Darren Wilson, a six-year veteran of Ferguson P.D., had a really bad day, and it only got worse. His fellow officers are having badder and badder days lately.
Last night, protests continued against Ferguson Police, after Chief Thomas Jackson revealed Wilson’s name. There really is no protecting Officer Wilson from what happened; he shot an unarmed man to death, firing multiple times in separate encounters, with witnesses present. Wilson’s bad days are only just beginning.
The black community in Ferguson, and in many cities large and small, around the country are watching very closely. Their anger is certainly justified. Officer Wilson is white, but it wouldn’t matter if he were black. Their point is that black teenagers are all labeled, profiled, and targeted as “thugs” and are unfairly singled out for harassment.
It is unfair that black many teenagers hold gang-style dress, gang-style, behavior, and gang-style speech as a major influence on their lives. Some teens who dress, behave, and talk like gang-bangers, are, in fact gang-bangers. In Macon, Georgia, near where I live, we see gang-related shootings almost every single day.
People in my city worry when and if this will spread here. If I see a kid I don’t know who looks (how are they supposed to look?) like a gang-banger walking around my suburban, white bread neighborhood, I will notice. If he walks around for three hours and doesn’t seem to have a destination, I might even call the Sheriff to check him out (we’ve had some drug issues in our little enclave). When the deputy shows up, is that harassment? Probably—it’s a public street, and the guy has done nothing wrong. Does that make me a bigot? I hope not. If the kid (politely) came to my door, I wouldn’t answer with a pistol in my hand, and I wouldn’t be scared of him—he might just want a drink of water, be lost, or want to pray for me.
Before you go all “you’re KKK” on me, and ask why I wouldn’t personally ask him “can I help you?”, let me say that I might do that. But it’s a matter of judgment. I don’t have the right to walk out of my house brandishing a pistol to challenge someone about what they’re doing on a public street. I do have the right to walk out and speak to anyone I wish, and I have the right to be armed while doing it (open or concealed). But I am not a hero, and I don’t want to become the next George Zimmermann. To me, better to let the deputy handle it—why? Because the police would know if there were other reports, they’d know if the man were on some BOLO list, they’d know a whole lot more then me.
Back to Ferguson. Adding insult to injury, the police released a video of Michael Brown, the teenager who was killed, attempting to shoplift a $5 item from a convenience store, and when caught, roughing up the clerk. By roughing up, I mean pushing, not sucker punching or viciously attacking. The video is wholly unrelated to, well, anything, unless the store clerk wished to press charges for simple assault or shoplifting. Apparently, he doesn’t, at least he can’t because the perpetrator is dead.
What did this accomplish? Last night, the mostly well-behaved crowd witnessed a more angry group loot the store where the video was recorded. There’s a fine decision by the police. Let’s bring more innocent people into the fray, so they can also have their lives turned upside down. You’d think Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson would think a bit before such an inflammatory and stupid act. It proves nothing about Brown or the shooting. Officer Wilson didn’t know about the video, had never met Brown before, wasn’t investigating the incident, and unless Wilson is omnipotent, could never know that Wilson was the type of kid who’d rough up a store clerk.
That is, unless any black teenager walking in the middle of the street in Ferguson is assumed to be the type of kid who’d rough up a teenager, or try to kill a cop. Nobody in America should live with that assumption hanging over their head. It’s as prejudiced a view as I could imagine. It’s the same prejudice that leads people to suspect all middle-eastern men walking with hijab-adorned women are terrorists and wife beaters. Maybe some are, but that doesn’t mean you can tell by just looking.
Last night, the police withdrew and allowed a convenience store to be looted, along with a couple of other stores, by real gang-bangers. All while peaceful protestors looked on and shouted for them to stop. None of the peaceful protesters tried to stop them physically, and nobody was screaming “help! police!”. So the stores were looted and the police did nothing. What could they do? Any action on their part was simply going to bring more conflict and probably injury to both sides.
When the community loses all trust in the police, and the police can’t discern the real criminals from those they are supposed to protect, the rule of law, private property, and the preservation of our basic rights as Americans breaks down pretty quickly. Until some trust is restored, this impasse is going to continue. At some point, Ferguson’s black community will end up executing vigilante justice, which is just as wrong as the police standing back while criminals flourish.
It’s my hope that the Ferguson protests will lead to constructive conversations and reconciliation. Don’t let the same kind of prejudice that likely caused Brown’s death be turned on all police officers around the country for Wilson’s actions. Just like most black teenagers are not gang-bangers, though they may dress like them and emulate the culture, music, and language, most police officers are not bigoted monsters*. They wear the same uniforms, and do the same jobs, but remember, it’s the worst job in the world, and having a bad day while doing it may lead to tragedy.
*I am not implying that Darren Wilson is a bigoted monster. According to his chief, Wilson is a “gentle, quiet man”. Chief Jackson hasn’t proved himself as a the most reliable source of information at this point, but that doesn’t mean we should assume Wilson is a bigot, or that this was a hate crime. I’ve known a few officers who I’d describe as “gentle” and “quiet” and some have quite the boiling rage just beneath that peaceful surface. You just never know by looking.