When I retired from the police department, my colleagues organized a retirement ceremony. All in all, a nice gesture. I received many heartfelt hugs and congratulations. One of the traditions when an officer retires is to provide photographs on four cardboard planks: a blank page, a photograph of the officer at the beginning of a career, a photograph of the officer at the end of a career, and another blank page. Fellow officers sign their names and write sentiments on the blank pages ala yearbook style. It was fun to compare the before and after photographs, to remark about how officers changed, how they gained weight, lost hair, turned gray, and developed wrinkles. My folder only had one photograph, the one of me as a rookie.
The practice of negation is a human compulsion, a way for the mind to move through unpleasant experiences, to ignore uncomfortable information, or to deny culpability for injustice.
A good example of negation run amuck is the hubris of Officer Danial Holtzclaw who was convicted of multiple counts of rape, sexual battery, and forcible oral sodomy in 2015, crimes he had committed against poor, African American women. Upon being convicted he infamously cried in court, wailing with remorse. As he was being escorted out of the court room, he spoke to the jury, “How could you do this?” as if he expected to walk out a free man. After all, negation allows someone to view some people as less than credible simply because they are poor, because they are black, and because they are women.
Negation also fails to acknowledge the significant disparities in our criminal justice system, about how African Americans are incarcerated at rates six times higher than for white Americans, and though African Americans are only 13% of the population in the United States, they constitute 40% of all people held in prison and 43% of all death row inmates. Is this because the African American community is more heavily policed? More closely watched? More often the focus of 911 calls?
A What Would You Do video complied by ABC’s John Quiñones depicts a bicycle theft, a startling example of this higher level of vigilance when it comes to African Americans. White people ignore white suspects, easily rationalizing their behavior, but they more immediately intervene when a black suspect is trying to take the bicycle.
Check it out:
And might this hyper vigilance about African American males in particular affect police officers’ judgements, causing them to perceive a threat quicker than they might when encountering white people?
We live in a country where people walk around openly armed with assault rifles (mostly white men), going to stores and restaurants to exercise their 2nd Amendment Rights, but when someone saw John Crawford III carrying a toy BB gun in an Ohio Walmart, they assumed he had ill intent, as did the police officer who shot him. The officers who shot Tamir Rice, rushing up to him before determining what he actually had in his hand, a tactical disaster that belies good police work. I can’t understand why they didn’t approach more cautiously, why they didn’t engage him from a safer distance, why they didn’t give him a chance to drop his Airsoft replica. Perhaps they had already decided what was going on, taking the calling party’s statements at face value, which any experienced police officer knows can be a dangerous practice.
Negation assumes that since we’ve had an African American president we no longer have racial divides in the United States. In reality, though, since President Obama took office, his very citizenship has been questioned, his motives demonized, and his agenda challenged and dismantled at every possible turn by a sectarian congress determined to make sure he cannot succeed. I think many people from minority communities can identify with that dynamic. They know what is going on, about how people who are not straight white men need to work twice as hard for half the credit.
Negation fails to acknowledge the institutional racism that has plagued the United States since the very beginning. Not long before I retired I became ensnared in a debate with a former colleague about the supposed benevolence of the majority of slave owners in the Antebellum South. He asserted that most owners treated their slaves well, coming just short of saying that slavery was a benevolent institution. He said the stories of abuse were often exaggerated by abolitionists for political purposes. Of course, he insisted he wasn’t a racist.
Negation fails to understand that there is a disconnect between police officers and the communities they serve, that criminal justice and social justice have the same ultimate goals: to prevent the strong from exploiting the weak, to ensure the safety and harmony of all communities, and to protect the vulnerable from harm. Law enforcement is not a tally sheet, a numbers game, or a competition. Law enforcement is a human service, and police officers should be well educated about the condition of humanity in all its diversity.
With this understanding, I have supported the Black Lives Matter movement, acknowledging the real emphasis of the movement isn’t to say Black Lives Matter MORE but that Black Lives Matter ALSO, that their lives have impact and importance, that they should be afforded the same opportunities as anyone else, the same consideration, the same respect from those in authority whether a cop, a judge, or a politician.
Though some of the voices claiming allegiance with Black Lives Matter have advocated violence and have even applauded the recent shooting of twelve Dallas Police Officers, they are not part of the main movement. They are not interested in anything productive. They only want to agitate things, destroy communities, and discredit authorities without offering productive ideas about how to mend the fractures overwhelming our society. They are guilty of their own kind of negation.
Most of the people I know who have allied themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement are invested in peaceful means and practical resolutions. They know that equality cannot be achieved without a demand and that the achievement of equality, though elevating some, is painful for others. Yet, they must do it because they believe the United States of America is a country of high ideals and their demonstrations are part of an age-old tradition, part of the process of balancing the scales of justice.
In the last two years I have been participating in conversations about how to reform the criminal justice system, emphasizing that police agencies need to focus on educating officers about human diversity, bias detection, the dangers of profiling, and conflict resolution. I have championed community policing, an approach that employs collaborative methods rather than adversarial approaches to law enforcement.
After all, in a democracy, all citizens should be able to communicate their needs and concerns while expecting officers to respond in good faith, but the reality is that most police agencies are short-staffed, going call to call, having little or no time to learn the communities they patrol. They are encouraged to make as many stops, take as many reports, and arrest as many people as possible because these statistics are easy to measure and quantify.
Sometimes, as in Ferguson, Missouri, municipal governments fund themselves on the prolific issuance of tickets and citations, bench warrants, and jail fees. These tactics amount to a systematic exploitation of underprivileged citizens who have difficulty paying these tickets, who face mounting debts and hard choices between feeding children or paying off tickets, of taking off work to go to court (missing a day’s pay) or relying on luck, hoping they won’t be stopped. But of course, they always get stopped, arrested, and jailed, criminalized because of poverty.
Negation makes it easier to ignore how minority communities are more likely to be impoverished, that minority communities are more likely to have less access to education and opportunity, that they have less resources, less time, less freedom, and fewer options.
Negation makes it easier for people to enjoy their privilege, to pretend they really do value all lives and opportunity while they vote to cut taxes, dismantling the social safety net. They underfund public schools, creating charter systems and school-choice vouchers that in essence create a new system of school segregation. They oppose the expansion of health care coverage, creating an underclass more vulnerable to disease, more likely to suffer debilitating mental health problems, and less likely to live long enough to reach the age of life expectancy. Negation fails to acknowledge that poverty kills.
Negation takes away the first promise in our beloved Declaration of Independence. Without life, there is no liberty, no pursuit of happiness, and that is the whole point of Black Lives Matter.
The lone rookie photograph on my retirement day reminded me of my former privilege, some of which benefits me even today. It also reminded me of the ideal situation in our society: that status of straight white males. The failure to see me as Paula, to acknowledge how I have evolved as a person, as a woman – over 14 years of a 22 year career – is a deliberate negation, an act of negation in the name of their own comfort, the bedrock upon which people build systems that benefit themselves more than others.