The breach between the police and black citizens threatens America. For officers to embrace universal black criminality is evil and for black folk to see every officer as a threat is dangerous. Both positions are untenable and are the result of American’s historically “peculiar” problem. At this moment, neither ISIS nor Al Qaeda is a greater threat to America than this social schism.
The standoff between the police and black citizens is dangerous. It has and will cost more lives. Officers cannot approach policing the streets as “war.” Policing is dangerous but it is not war. Soldiers and policemen do not have the same mission. A soldier’s objective is to destroy the enemy. An officer’s is to protect citizens, including criminals. These tragic incidents across the nation reveal that police training is insufficient. Officers need training with non-law enforcement professionals – university experts in sociology, ethics, cultural awareness and conflict resolution. Poor ethics are at the core of racism and brutality. Officers should have the integrity to challenge peers who break the law to enforce it. These death cases involving black males, especially, are failures of personal and professional integrity. Shouldn’t one officer have valued Eric Garner’s or Freddie Gray’s life?
On the other hand, black communities must face reality. We cannot live without the police nor collectively vilify them. We must hold them accountable but we cannot discredit them all. We must also take steps to keep our children out of criminal activities. One mother in Baltimore showed us it is possible – just intervene. Our community-village can do better at keeping youths and young adults out of the justice system. We are obligated to guide them. The family-community nexus has to respond. Are we using all our resources – educational, familial, religious, and parental – to properly direct our children? They can live honorably within the law.
Finally, Baltimore typifies the result of collective indifference to old, unsettled grudges. Rioting is about grievances. Riots are never logical. Every day in one city or another, a black male loses his life because of a confrontation with unethical officers but racism often fuels these tragic encounters. Jesus said, “By this will all men know you are my disciples, that you love one another” (John 13:35). Love grieves the loss of any life. Love supersedes the colors black and blue. So, what does Baltimore demonstrate? It shows we do not love one another. If sworn men and women of the law can precipitate a death without feeling, then there is no love anywhere in society.
No country can survive divided. America will not survive if the chasm between whites and blacks becomes as an impassable. Police officers and black communities have an opportunity but will we seize it? As chaplain on a university campus of nearly 1,600 black young adults, I am concerned that it takes death to make us reason. Why should one more life be sacrificed for officers to understand you can’t kill your way out of past hurts or blacks to realize we can’t riot our way out? Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds, to swim the sea like fish but we have yet to learn the simple art of living together . . . .” I challenge us to love.
Dr. Jeffrey Swain is the Chaplain of the Susie C. Holley Religious Center at Florida Memorial University. He is author of Black and Still Here, A World of Color, Education in America: A Dilemma in the 21st Century, The Soul Unsettled, the Poetry Café for Women and Ancestor of the African Diaspora: A Tribute in Prosetry. He also teaches criminal and constitutional law.