The following is written by a very dear old friend, ministerial colleague,native Charlottean, and former police officer, Rev. Bryan Jackson. Bryan has been kind enough to allow me to share this thought-provoking commentary here, for which I am most grateful. While it was written as a single piece, I am presenting to you in two parts with Bryan’s permission. Part 2 will appear tomorrow.
“Race,” Policing, and the Theological and Social Divide: Reflections on Recent Events in Charlotte and Elsewhere
The problem might not be race. The problem may be misunderstanding, and possibly the hamstringing of a political process by certain groups whose cause is boosted by the inflammatory response of both the news and social media, compounded by a growing refusal to communicate with one another and acknowledge the possibility that some truth likely exists on both sides of a rather odd argument.
At some point in the American psyche it became fashionable to disregard public officials giving lawful and reasonable commands. It is not sensible to walk away from, flee, or advance on a police officer telling you to “Keep your hands where I can see them and don’t move,” or “Drop the gun!” Most describe it to me as “Not normal.” How many times in the course of a given week have you personally witnessed an incident like this? They don’t happen frequently (thankfully) and tend to be the result (usually) of someone not acting in our best interest. Yes, they are increasing. Irrespective of one’s race or ethnicity, putting an officer’s safety and the safety of other innocent civilians in jeopardy simply because one doesn’t “agree” with the law or believe that one is immune to civil authority is unwise and unhelpful.
All of this, of course, reflects a much larger problem. We have regressed to a sort of adolescent, stunted development that points to a “Me, me” and “But what about me?” semi-consciousness that seems to have invaded the American psychological landscape, along with the psychopathology of reality television and brings with it a false certainty that says, “Hey, I can do whatever the hell I want to, by God; I’m an American.” Instead of taking the higher road, we seem of late to have adopted the attitudes and actions that demonstrate that there might some truth in what others in the world community say about us.
To those who do take the “This is America, I’ll do as I please” position, I simply say, “Fine. You keep thinking that. Cops are going to continue to do what they have been sworn to do.” As an aside, America is a republic. You know—an “and to the republic for which it stands….” sort of thing. We have rights, but actually more privileges than rights.
Do I believe we have come to terms with our role in the creation and execution of slavery? Absolutely not. Do I believe we have reconciled the persecution of African-Americans, Native Americans, Japanese-Americans, and others? No. As a descendant of a Cherokee family whose patriarch was a slaveholder, I have much to reflect on until the day I die; some of it good, some of it not so good. I was born with white skin, denoted in this day and time as a privilege, that covers many veins and arteries attached to a damaged heart that pumps both Euro-American and Native American blood. Perhaps my heart is more damaged than I thought, and is so worn and cynical that it just cannot “feel” appropriately for these black men. And yet, I think it does feel for them. Believe it or not, as a former law enforcement officer (LEO), I do feel for black males, known and unknown to me: for those I’ve arrested, for those who backed me up at three in the morning on traffic stops; for those I’ve ministered to and prayed with as they lay dying, for the men I call friends today. But I see them more as men than black men, and maybe that’s my problem, I don’t know. Perhaps I suffer from some strange form of reverse color blindness.
I have friends who are extremely dear to me but with whom I vehemently disagree on this subject of police shootings. Do I disagree with the peaceful protests? Never. It is a duty to follow one’s conscience. There are things to which I would publicly protest. Do I disagree with these friends about the notion of a law enforcement contingent out to kill black males? Yes. As a former officer, I just don’t see the gain in it, and it especially doesn’t make sense given that some of these officers doing the shooting have been African-American men, often led by African-American sergeants, captains and chiefs. If I’m wrong and it is discovered that this is factual, I will be the first to condemn it and ask, “How can we use our best thinking and agency to eliminate this poison and do better as humans?”
It’s also important to take things in systematic perspective. During the past few years where black males have been shot by police, a percentage of the public (and certainly elements of the media) seem to disregard the criminal histories of some of these persons as if those histories have had no bearing on their respective behavior at the time of the shootings, which strikes me as a complete breakdown in the understanding of human behavior in general and criminal behavior in particular. Such histories serve to “establish a pattern,” as it is known in criminal law and procedure. This disregard paints a false picture of the defendant, the officer involved, and the situation in general. It is irresponsible and immoral. Regarding the Charlotte, N.C. incident, some will say Keith Scott’s past as a violent felon has nothing to do with his actions the day of the shooting. Even when the past directly influences the present? Interesting perspective. Are all of these shooting victims actually innocent? Despite Michael Brown’s violent behavior (caught on video stealing and roughing up a store clerk prior to his encounter with Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri) was he in fact “innocent?” How, exactly, do we define “innocent?”
The other day a friend and ministry colleague pointed me to a recent blog of the Los Angeles Police Protective League that recommends police officers “redeploy” and “create distance” when faced with an armed suspect. In other words, officers, do not enforce; evacuate. Retreat. Turn your back on the citizens you are sworn to protect and just run, after all. Thus, in such a scenario, after effectively spaying and neutering our police personnel, we can now experience a full-fledged, national psychosis.
Many of the aforementioned social media and non-social media friends are fellow clergy/professional ministry leaders. What I disagree with is their certainty. Before the facts of each case are brought to bear, many have tried and convicted the police. Most of these people have advanced—often very advanced—education and degrees. They are sure, for example, that in the Charlotte incident an “innocent black man just waiting on his son to get out of school” was killed for no reason by another black man in a militant uniform. Despite Mr. Scott’s lengthy criminal record as a convicted felon and his violent past, they remain undaunted. Basically, we’re talking about “failure to comply” in general, and all these shootings over the past few years reflect that: failure, neglect, or outright refusal to obey an official directive. Americans don’t like to comply; something to do with the narcissism I mentioned earlier. And it’s causing a lot of problems.
I watched the video of one Charlotte area clergyperson who, using the microphone and her position to her advantage, spoke of the “righteous rage” the community has arguably earned, as if her group and those she was representing had a patent on the subject. Yet, a couple of days later I watched a video of a friend—a clergyperson who has spent her entire life and career in the cause for human rights, peace, justice, and equity—speak eloquently about her own experience of the Charlotte protests and, while she issued a challenge to the community to deal with the realities of these shootings, she did so with her usual grace and professionalism. Still, she and I view these incidents from very different vantage points. I will continue to respect hers (and her) regardless, staying in the tension of the reality that we’re going to have to agree to disagree.
Again, these are cherished colleagues who nevertheless have made it their life’s mission to make race, not the interpretation of our ideas about it, but race itself, as the focal point of their “pulpits.” And some of these folks have very powerful pulpits. Some are projecting a surety that the officer in question has overreacted. That’s akin to my attempting to practice parish nursing, teach my colleague’s theology class, write a thesis on in-depth peacemaking, or preach a sermon series on restorative justice. Because I haven’t worn their “uniform” or studied their “statutes,” so to speak, I’m not qualified to do it.
But minds seem to be made up. Attempts at reason and accountability now seem pointless for some, and yet they sometimes adopt a rather condescending position: I’m unenlightened and stubborn—I don’t “get it.” Besides, they say no police accountability exists (though it most certainly does—more than you’ll find in the ministry—trust me). Hence, from my point of view, there’s a misunderstanding problem as opposed to a racial one. Academic professionals, theologians, and much of the public voice their certainty. I, for one, am not certain about these incidents; I’m thunderstruck by so much premature blame and illogical language and behavior. Experience tells me there is a great chasm between hours or days of theological or philosophical refection and the sometimes instantaneous decisions LEO’s must make. And I can always tell when I’m dealing with someone who has never even remotely been in the position of having to make a life-altering, split-second decision.
Which brings me to this thought: How can we best offer prayer and concern for the officers’ families and wishes the way so many have chosen to focus on the victim’s families? Aren’t they too deserving of the same respect?
The Rev. Bryan Jackson is a Charlotte, North Carolina native and graduate of the 91st Recruit Class of the Charlotte Police Academy. Now an ordained minister and writer, he resides in Washington State. All rights of this article are reserved to Rev. Jackson. ©
Rev. Amy here. I look forward to your remarks on Part 1 of Rev. Bryan’s excellent commentary regarding this critical issue facing us.