Fire Next Time? No. A Fire Drill


 

 I suspect before too long the list of police officers killed by those outraged over the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown will grow. New York’s Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos are but the first to fall. Indeed, the day after the Brooklyn officers were assassinated, another officer was shot and killed in Tarpon Springs, Florida.
         These deaths accomplish nothing.
         Outrage is our new national drug of choice. It stupefies and blinds – a form of self-indulgence that changes nothing.
         After the grand jury investigating the death of Eric Garner elected not to indict the police officer who took him into custody, I saw a poet, Claudine Rankin, give an interview. She was sorrowful about the lack of an indictment. How would future generations judge us as a result?, she asked.
         Rankin is a woman of color, and a powerful writer. Her remark struck me as naïve.
         What about the slave ships? The plantations? The families, cultures and people destroyed? Jim Crow? Lynching? Mass incarceration? A dream denied in a society increasingly polarized between extremes of rich and poor  -- the color line now intertwined with class divisions? These are the deeper sources of sorrow for which judgment is due.
         Killing police officers is like attacking the ushers at the football stadium after your team loses. Men and women in uniform are as much spectators of the social conditions yielding a sense of despair as the people they police. Police aren’t the problem; the social conditions that make the police necessary are.
         Consider the insight of Plato, writing centuries ago in The Republic. He argued that in a well-ordered community, individuals played distinctive roles, just as, in his view, a well-ordered soul was composed of discrete attributes. Philosopher-kings ruled, guardians took care to assure the laws were obeyed, and the great mass of folks were involved in the day-to-day tasks of living. 
Guardians don’t make the laws; they may not even understand them. Their role is spirited defense of laws given to them by others. In his famous allegory of the metals, Plato likened reason and the role of philosopher kings to gold, spiritedness and the role of guardians to silver, and appetites to bronze.
         One needn’t subscribe to Plato’s political philosophy to see the utility of the concept of roles in a society. Police officers don’t make laws; they enforce laws enacted by others. When it comes to confrontations between police officers and citizens, the rule-makers are legislators and courts. Put another way, if you don’t like the snarl or bark of an officer, blame the men and women holding their leash.
         Does race matter in the United States? Absolutely. Young black men are treated as presumptive criminals in many communities. Police officers stop them, frisk them, arrest them, and, when the young men resist arrest, use force to take them into custody. Some of these young men are injured and killed. It has become routine.
         But why do you think police officers are doing this? An over-inclusive criminal code gives officers the right to stop almost anyone on suspicion that, at some point during the day, they have committed a crime. The law requires us to submit to an arrest or an effort to take us into custody. The law gives officers the right to use reasonable force to overcome resistance and take us into custody.
         Police officers aren’t making these rules up. They are doing what a society steeped in racism and class privilege expects of them. In other words, the guardians are doing the bidding of others, and those others are our lawmakers, our judges, and those who purchase power in the United States – corporations and the rich.
         Attacking the officers for discrete acts of violence misses the larger point, the point that is worth attacking: our social and economic institutions are steeped in privilege. We celebrate inequality, even as it destroys the fabric of our communities.
         At various points in our history -- at the time of the Civil War, during the depression -- our two-party political system was transformed by discontent with the existing party alignments. These pressures resulted in what are known to political scientists as critical realignments, and the creation of new parties. We are on the cusp of such an alignment now, and ought not to waste energy on self-destructive outrage.
         The approval ratings of members of Congress are at an all-time low, according the Gallup polls. That’s because the parties are spouting rhetoric that does not reflect the felt necessity of the lives we are living. The gap between rich and poor is growing; our prospects diminish both at home and in the world at large.
         Is it any wonder that the streets are tense?
         I grieve when I see folks take aim at officers. The crisis afoot is not about police misconduct. It is about a loss of hope, about a debt too long unpaid, about failed rhetoric, and a reality grown too harsh any longer to be borne in silence. It is about a loss of faith in our institutions, and, frankly, in ourselves.
         I’m not surprised that the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner did not yield indictments. I never expected indictments. The law, candidly, favors police officers in lethal force cases such as these. 
         Should the law be changed? Absolutely. Will it? Not if our solution is cop-killing. That will just strengthen the hand of those who give marching orders to law enforcement.
         My prediction?
         There will be a few more weeks, perhaps months, of earnest sound and fury, a few more senseless killings, and then a return to sullen despair. We’ve yet to hit bottom; we still prefer outrage to change.
         There’s a reason Ismaaiyl Brinsley, the cop-killer in Brooklyn, turned his gun on himself after the murders. His rage consumed him. He had nothing to offer in its place. Nothing.
         This isn’t the fire next time. It’s just a fire drill. We’ve yet to produce leaders with vision of a better world, and the determination to bring it about. Like sheep, we’ve gone astray.

 

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