Race and excessive police force

December 31st, 2014

Two weekends in December

Just when it seemed it couldn’t get any more difficult to talk about, it did. For weeks in the fall of 2014, after the shootings of unarmed African-American males by police officers in several cities, a confused narrative about race and policing in the United States broke out in street protests and Twitter campaigns featuring hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #SupportDarrenWilson. To many, the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, were visible injustices pointing to the persistence of racism in American life. Others resisted the racial implications and saw, in the fires and looting that accompanied the mostly peaceful protests, a dangerous disregard for police authority.

Then, on successive weekends in December, the debate was in the news again, first as tens of thousands of demonstrators in major cities across the country marched in rallies with titles like “Justice for All” and “Millions March,” demanding attention for the inequitable treatment of African-American males in the criminal justice system. Then on the following Saturday, December 21, two New York City police officers were gunned down in their patrol car in Brooklyn by a troubled man who had suggested on social media that he was planning to kill police. With passions inflamed and people polarized, the question in the air was and is, Is there a way for us to move forward in a conversation that has lingered in American culture for so many years?

The incidents and the aftermath

The high-profile deaths of Brown, Rice and Garner sparked the initial wave of protests, and the circumstances in each case were troubling. Michael Brown was shot by Officer Darren Wilson in what Wilson later said was a struggle that felt very threatening to him. However, several witnesses said that Brown had his hands up and appeared to be surrendering when Wilson fired his last shots. Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy, was shot by Cleveland police after he was reported to be carrying a gun on a playground. It turned out to be a toy gun. Eric Garner was put in a chokehold during an arrest for selling cigarettes illegally on a street corner and later died. In a video of the incident, he can be heard saying repeatedly, “I can’t breathe,” a phrase that protestors have taken up.

In the cases involving Brown and Garner, grand juries declined to indict the officers involved, prompting new protests. Grand jury action is still pending in the case involving Rice. There was large-scale property damage in Ferguson, Missouri, surrounding protests over the grand jury decision on November 24. This was not the rule, however, as most demonstrations were not violent and destructive.

What is the question?

But what were the protests about, and what things needed to change? There was outrage over the deaths of unarmed African-American males and the subsequent decisions by grand juries not to indict. The use of massive displays of force by Ferguson police officers during August protests raised concerns about the increased militarization of American police departments. The perception that many police departments use excessive force and racial profiling in approaching African-American males led to the adoption of the “Black Lives Matter” slogan. All of these themes combined in the protests, along with calls for wearable cameras on police officers, more consequences for officers who commit abuses and better community relations.

Meanwhile, and especially in the wake of the shootings of the NYPD officers in December, there were renewed calls to support police and to understand the challenges of policing effectively. New York Times columnist David Brooks stated that “racist police brutality has to be punished. But respect has to be paid. Police serve by walking that hazardous line where civilization meets disorder.”

For some, questions of race were less relevant than the breakdown in trust between police and the communities they serve. Reihan Salam, writing for Slate magazine, said, “There is no question that something has gone badly wrong with policing in many of our cities. When high-crime neighborhoods grow to distrust local law enforcement, local law enforcement finds it more difficult to do its job. Anger and anxiety build, and sometimes it explodes.”

What would Jesus do?

For Christians, having just come through the season of Christmas and hearing again in the Scriptures how the infant Jesus was seen as a threat to the reigning powers, there is a natural inclination and a theological imperative to stand with the powerless. Jesus himself was abused and put to death by an unjust system with a monopoly on force. Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz Weber noted in a recent Advent sermon that “the Christ child on whom we await … would be born in a land controlled by an empire that he was not a member of.” He would be born into a system where some citizens enjoyed the protection of “the powers that be,” while others did not.

Jesus taught his followers how to respond to unjust treatment. When they were forced to walk a mile, as Roman soldiers could compel a person to do, Jesus told them to “go with them two” (Matthew 5:41). When a centurion asked Jesus to come heal his servant, Jesus recognized and responded to the military man’s humanity and faith (Luke 7:2-10). And when Pilate confronted Jesus with his authority to put him to death, Jesus responded by pointing to God as the one true authority (John 19:10-11).

Responding constructively

“Churches can make a huge difference in urging nonviolence and constructive ways forward,” says the Reverend Susan Henry-Crowe, top executive at the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church. While she has urged major reforms in policing methods, Henry-Crowe recognizes the human realities of policing. Quoted in a United Methodist News Service article, she says, “I understand why police departments would be fearful … They don’t know when someone may be carrying a gun or not, so I have a lot of sympathy for police departments and their charge and their responsibility.”

Erin Hawkins, top executive at the United Methodist General Commission on Religion and Race, strikes a similar theme as quoted in the same article. Hawkins says, “There are decades of tension in terms of relationship between law enforcement and especially poor, ethnic communities … Churches need to do their own thinking about what are the ways we heal that gap.”

A continuation of an old struggle?

At the same time that the Millions March was winding down in New York City on December 14, a new Hollywood movie was premiering in the city. “Selma” tells the story of one of the most dramatic moments in the American Civil Rights Movement, when protestors seeking voting rights were met with excessive police force in front of television cameras broadcasting the scene to the world. Wendell Pierce, who plays the Reverend Hosea Williams in the film, drew comparisons with the current protests as he stood with other cast members. “What we are dealing with now is that we just lifted the veil on an ongoing issue that we’ve been fighting for a very long [time],” Pierce said. “It’s not even a parallel, it’s the same. It’s a continuation of vigilance that was needed. Civil rights are always depicted as something that was historic and has ended, but it’s an ongoing vigilance.”

Oprah Winfrey, another cast member, praised the protests but wondered aloud if there was enough clarity about the issues to make a difference. “It’s a wonderful thing that people are protesting,” Winfrey told New York magazine. “But in order for real change to happen, you’ve got to figure out what [it] is you want first. I think that’s the first question. So you’re not just marching.” 

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