Coddling Ourselves

His name was George Floyd.

I wasn’t there. I’ve watched as much video as I can get my hands on, but that only goes so far. I’ve been present at scenes that would look very different if you started the video a few seconds sooner. I’m acutely conscious that I don’t know what I don’t know. At the same time, there’s no denying what we do know: a man was on the ground, cuffed, and a police officer knelt on his neck. Not by accident, in the middle of a fight, for a moment to get the cuffs on. Not to hold him down because he was a danger to himself or others. But long past any point where it might have been necessary or reasonable, long past the point where he lost consciousness, long past the point where the paramedics on scene asked him to move so they could check Floyd’s pulse, the officer was still kneeling on his neck. 

We must have effective police protection; we don’t want to live in a society where the criminals run the streets unmolested. At the same time, we also don’t want to live in a society where…

  • a police officer with no reason but a personal grudge puts an old man on a domestic terror watch list, and consequently ruins his reputation and his business (jurisdiction near me; I personally know the man)
  • a retirement-aged ex-con has his legitimate business destroyed by constant harassment from police officers determined to drive him out of town (one of the officers in question told me the story)
  • a pastor, pulled over in a routine traffic stop, has thousands of dollars–a cash gift donated to support his ministry to the poorest of the poor–stolen from him via civil forfeiture (the pastor is a friend of a friend)
  • police officers arrest a man at his place of business, beat and torture him for hours (jurisdiction near me; I personally know the man)
  • a young woman pulled over in a late-night traffic stop on a deserted road is cuffed to her steering wheel and raped by the officer (jurisdiction near me; the woman is a friend of a friend)
  • a young man, known to be unarmed and threatening no one, was attacked, beaten, cuffed, choked, repeatedly threatened, and died in custody (jurisdiction near me, I know a family member)
  • a young man, badly injured in a motor vehicle accident, lying on the pavement screaming in pain, was repeatedly kicked and told to shut up by responding officers. He was left lying in the roadway for nearly an hour before finally getting ambulance transport; he died of his wounds (two of my friends were involved in the accident and witnessed the incident)
  • a police officer, arresting a mouthy but compliant drunk man, stood him up next to the open back door of the cruiser, then (after looking around to be sure there were no witnesses) kneed him in the groin. As the man collapsed, retching, the officer shoved him into the back of the car for transport to the station (the officer’s partner was a teacher of mine and told me the story)

In all eight of the above cases, nothing bad happened to the officers in question. No investigation, no charges filed, not so much as a news story. To repeat, we don’t want to live in a society where criminals run the streets unmolested. Especially if the criminals in question are wearing badges. 

Remember, I’m not a reporter or Internal Affairs investigator; I don’t sit on a civilian review panel or work for Amnesty International. I don’t go looking for this stuff. I’m a middle-aged citizen; the cases I listed above are just incidents I’ve happened upon in the course of 25 years of ordinary adult life. The victims include white, black, Asian, Arab. While race is a factor, this is about power without accountability. The badge gives power over citizens of every race, particularly if they’re poor; that power can often be abused with impunity.

Consider Minneapolis as a case in point: before George Floyd, we had Philando Castile and Justine Damond. Is race a factor? Obviously; Castile’s killer was acquitted. It took the killing of Damond—a blonde, white, yoga instructor visiting from Australia—to get the first-ever conviction of an on-duty police officer in that jurisdiction. (And I suspect her identity as a foreign national was key to getting that conviction.) Is race the only factor? Clearly not, or Damond would still be alive.

The problem isn’t that most police officers are bad. The problem is that we aren’t weeding out the bad ones effectively. The wide discretion that comes with the job attracts a certain number of violent predators, and our system of checks and balances is failing. We’re using “Most officers are good people” as an excuse for failing to deal with the bad ones. How’s that working out?

Peaceful means of change are available and can work, but only if the majority gets involved. That needs to happen, because the alternatives are not attractive.

Effective action requires repentance in multiple dimensions. The uninvolved majority must repent of inaction and willful ignorance of the evil things that are being done in our name. We must also repent of our willful ignorance of the ugly realities that must be dealt with to keep the streets safe. For most of us, a police officer accused of misconduct could say, “Look, you just don’t understand what it’s like out there, what it takes to keep you safe!” — and he’d have a point, wouldn’t he? If we’re going to provide effective review, then we need to understand. It’s one thing to pay cops to arrest bad guys; that’s fine. But it’s morally bankrupt to pay cops so we don’t have to know. It’s past time to stop coddling ourselves. 

Meanwhile, many protesters need to repent of doing things that are cathartic, but not effective. If your point is that everybody, including police, should respect other people’s basic rights, looting a bunch of stores is not the best argument ever. One of the basic tenets of classical Christian just war theory is that the violence must be used toward a clear, attainable, and righteous end. Tackling the officer off George Floyd’s neck meets those criteria; walking out of a burning Target with a TV and a new pair of Nikes does not. It’s too much, too late, and aimed in the wrong direction.

We have to stop demanding that Someone In Authority swoop in and fix it. We are a government of the people. We are in authority, whether we want to be or not. So let’s do the thing. It’s time to clean house. Recall the elected officials in the relevant chain of command. Give their replacements 6 months to show some progress; recall anybody who isn’t helping. Make it clear that we don’t want an inquisition; the job is to attract good officers who want to work with other good officers, and weed out the rest. Lather, rinse, repeat until we get results. Having participated in recall efforts, I can tell you that this is going to be a lot more work than sitting on our collective butts at home and ignoring the problem. It’s going to be more work than setting cars on fire and looting the local Target, too. Thing is, it can work. Isn’t it time we did something effective?  

It is our responsibility to change what must be changed. So “let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” (Jonah 3:8-9) We have peaceful means of change in our hands. Let’s use it before it’s too late.

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