Just over a year ago, hundreds of people rallied at Lake Sacajawea to “back the blue” in the wake of the slaying of Cowlitz County sheriff’s deputy Justin DeRosier.
Fast forward 13 months. Hundreds of demonstrators here have joined millions of others across the nation to protest police brutality in the wake of the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police.
At least in the public perception, police have gone from hero to villain.
No doubt about it my mind. George Floyd was murdered by police officers. And my hope here is they get convicted. And the peaceful demonstrators who have demanded reform across the nation are justified, even while those who loot and instigate violence deserve equally strong condemnation.
Still, this is typical of American politics: An overreaction to a very real, deeply rooted and complex problem.
And such extreme shifts of the pendulum get in the way of serious discussion and dialogue.
Cops are like most people. In the course of 41 years in journalism in this community, I’ve met good cops and bad cops; dedicated cops and lazy cops; polite and honest cops; arrogant and crooked cops. As a profession they’re just like other employee groups: Some are excellent, some are bad and most are average. But at least one other thing is for sure: They should be expected to behave at a higher moral standard, because to enforce the law they first must uphold the law — and because they’re authorized to use guns and nightsticks.
Vilifying the whole profession, as some protesters are now doing, serves no purpose and has spawned problematic proposals such as banning the use of tear gas, prohibiting all no-knock warrants and yanking significant police funding. I ask, do you want criminals to run rampant? Do you want an officer to respond when a burglar is entering your business? What do you want police to use to stop riots and looters in lieu of tear gas, real bullets and billy clubs? And should police really have to give a calling card to a well-armed drug dealer before serving an arrest warrant?
The rhetoric has gotten so out of hand that some people even are demanding cancellation of the cartoon show “Paw Patrol,” a Nickelodeon cartoon show that features a police dog.
In addition, the class trashing continues to pour gasoline on the anger, leading to a vicious cycle of riots and heavy-handed police response.
As a white man in an overwhelmingly white community, I can’t pretend to fully comprehend the pent up anger of the African-American community.
The George Floyd incident ignited a megaton of emotional TNT that can’t be ignored and brushed aside with more study committees and workshops. We do need to rethink how we spend our law enforcement budgets. We do need to reconsider our war on drugs in light of a broader, more holistic social policy that focuses on reform instead of incarceration, which leads to a disproportionate share of black arrests. We do need to reinforce African-American families and bolster the entire middle class so they, too, can live the American Dream.
But how we shape and frame political conflicts ultimately determines how and whether we resolve them. Escalating violence and hate-filled rhetoric at this point is counterproductive to the cause of police reform, and it just gives ammunition to the radical right, who in some cases is instigating even more trouble.
There isn’t room in this column to debate whether violence is ever morally justified as a means to achieving political ends. I personally don’t believe that it is except as a means of self-defense. And having watched this tragedy unfold, and having stood among demonstrators and counter-demonstrators, what I see is needed is more dialogue, not more rhetoric that stereotypes and dehumanizes either side.
We need respect, and we need to work at earning it. Police and black leaders all have an interest in extending an olive branch and start the conversation.
But the onus is on the police to move that forward. They are, after all, supposed to be the peacekeepers. And with more than a century of abuse and profiling at the hands of law enforcement, the African-American community is justifiably wary.
Without a genuine and respectful rapprochement, the cycle of violence will just continue.
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!