The Ferguson riots got me thinking. When something takes hold of my obsessive mind, I grind on it until I practically get on my own nerves thinking about how to think about it. I have mastered trying to stay somewhere inside of a calm, reassuring middle ground on most topics and I attempt to wield a righteous sword of fairness all the time. But like I said, the Ferguson rioting really got to me. And then the Eric Garner case upset me too, although in a totally different way. That ambivalence with which I approach most every debate found itself being tested as I looked for that perfect dose of rationality in the controversy over who is the “good guy” and who is the “bad guy” these days.
One of my favorite topics to teach my students is the Civil Rights Movement. It can get uncomfortable talking about the times in our history when human beings behaved so shamefully. I share with my students my mother’s childhood stories about growing up in a middle class white Birmingham neighborhood in the sixties and how she was told that black people wore razors on their shoes so they could kick little kids. It changed her psyche as a child, it bred hatred in some, and my mom was just plain afraid of black people. I show my students the photographs of the Klan marches and we listen to historic speeches. We watch footage of famous protests. Interestingly, I’ve often invited my mother to visit my classroom as a guest speaker, hoping she will enlighten my students to the very different generation they are growing up in nowadays. She always refuses my requests, cutting her eyes at me and saying in a hushed whisper, “Why do we still have to keep talking about all that?”
My dad, on the other hand, grew up pure poor white trash, so in our home the law of the land was to never, ever utter the word n—-r (see? I can’t even write it). Black people and poor white people like my dad lived side by side in the grimy parts of town that oozed of crime and discrimination. Even growing up in the deep, deep South, my sister and I were still taught not to judge and not to think too highly of ourselves, because we were but one generation removed from the lowest rung on the social ladder. My dad felt slighted his whole life and passed onto us not to dislike anyone because of things people had no control over. Being married to my dad for so many years evolved my mom a little bit, but her parents never changed. I heard my grandparents utter every hateful racial slur in the racist vernacular when I was growing up. I think of my Papa even now when I watch the news. He would be coming outside of himself over the things happening in America between blacks and whites. So, while I have become somewhat pious and indignant about a lot of topics as I’ve grown, and I know I’m opinionated about everything and perhaps a little too arrogant sometimes, I definitely didn’t grow up to be a bigot.
I also bear the scars of a woman who has loved a police officer. A 30-year veteran of law enforcement brings a unique and difficult dynamic to intimate relationships, and any woman who has endured life as a cop’s wife knows things about race relations and the human capacity for tolerance that absolutely no media coverage on CNN will be able to do justice to. Living with a police officer and learning how to tread through stormy waters with a delicately damaged soul are something akin to riding Space Mountain: exciting, exhilarating, and fun with little moments of terror sprinkled in. The hero in those marriages is also the woman waiting at home with patience and nerves of steel to see what version of trauma walks through the door each night.
Police officers are lied to dozens of times each day, every day. What if your children or your spouse or your coworkers told you so many lies in just one day between waking and sleeping hours that you lost count? Imagine the frustration of not being able to pry a straight answer out of anybody about simple topics that don’t even require dishonesty. Habitual lying. How long you could stand it?
Consider spending just one day, just one, having almost every person you approach be rude to you for no reason. What if you noticed that people avoided you, averted their eyes, moved away from you just a little when you got too close. How would that damage your humanity? How would it hamper that need in all of us to be accepted and liked?
How about if someone you didn’t even know, someone you were polite and respectful to, mouthed off and murmured names about you under their breath. Again, for absolutely no reason. How many people would have to be totally defiant to you before you started to scab over and harden from the endless rejection?
What if you saw someone in distress and you tried to help them but they wouldn’t do anything you asked them to do to cooperate? What if they fought you, hit you, blatantly disrespected you, spit in your face? At what point would you walk away?
One person didn’t bring this on alone. Their work has made them this way.
Police officers are damaged. Their insides are leathered from the disrespect they are forced to endure each day at the hands of all the lowest, most despised members of society, people of all colors and ethnicities. No other profession carries with it the amount of emotional whipping-down that a police officer experiences. They bring their feelings home with them because they can’t unsee what they’ve seen at work on any given day. They inadvertently snap orders and unleash rapid-fire lines of questioning to their loved ones when they don’t get enough details. They are unnecessarily suspicious of everyone, and they interrogate every decision simply because they crave straight, definitive answers from people. They bark orders and demand quick and obedient responses because they are tired from every day being a really, really long day. They often forget to offer compliments, and they sometimes neglect to use please and thank you, because those gestures so often go reciprocated on a day-to-day basis. They are unintentionally firm and impersonal with people they love because it’s only on rare occasions that they are treated with kindness themselves.
Police officers lumber about like wounded soldiers, carrying their injuries quietly and stoically. They don’t sleep well. They hurt all over, all the time. Some drink too much. Some have been married and divorced several times because they stop bonding. Some have strained relationships with their children and find themselves isolating, struggling to set down the burdens of a job they are forced to carry around with them all time. They just want to be able to exhale and relax, to shake off images and experiences that they cannot get out of their minds, yet they have the kind of job where they are never really off duty. They’re addicted to the calling, and they obsessively take on extra jobs during their off-hours when that is the exact opposite of what is best for them. They don’t mean to be hard, and they don’t want to be mistrusting. Cops are calloused, and they cannot turn themselves off and on each day just because they come home. Their work has done that to them. The people they have to manage every day, the ones who lack humanity and benevolence and even a trace of decency have suffocated their ability to feel, to hurt, to love, and to trust in normal, healthy ways.
Have you ever answered a 911 call?
I know why Ferguson happened the way it did. The cop was punchy and irritable. Believe me, I know. The kid was belligerent, mouthy and disrespectful. It’s a recipe for disaster that I’ve seen played out many times. If that young man in Ferguson, or if any person on the street for that matter, tested the limits of someone who was locked and loaded 24 hours a day, who can be shocked and stunned when someone gets hurt? That’s the weight I carried around as I watched the events in Ferguson getting bigger and more dramatic.
Police officers don’t join the public service sector for any other reason than to protect and serve. Who would do that work except someone who feels a calling for it? It’s awful work! It’s thankless, violent, dangerous work that pays a pittance. Then once they become police officers, they are sworn to put themselves in danger even after they are totally burned out, whether they still feel the urge to serve and protect or not. They feel fear just like we do, and exhaustion, but they stay shackled to the occupation still, long after the stress of it has worn them down to nubs. There’s deep, pure goodness in all people, even cynical police officers. Dirtbags can be found in every career field. Policemen don’t naturally harbor hate and intolerance, they’re just always on edge. They have to be. Let’s call this what it is. It’s about respect. These folks in bad neighborhoods don’t respect the badge and it’s that chip on their shoulder that people use to justify and excuse really bad behavior. It’s so easy for bleeding heart civil rights protestors to lay down in the street for the cameras but have any those people ever answered a 911 call? I don’t think so.
In the decades since racial equality was mandated by our nation’s highest court, we still fight black-white battles. I know most would think I’m a middle class white woman who can’t possibly understand why we have or need #blacklivesmatter. Perhaps. But I think it’s wrong and unfair to keep blaming absolutely everything on the historical oppression of black people. Once I’d loved a man who had to strap on 40 pounds of protective gear every day just so he could help people, I grew cynical.
Last night two police officers were shot in the head as they sat in their patrol car in New York. They had children. And they signed on with their dispatchers yesterday knowing that today is the day I could get killed. That is the life of a police officer, knowing that every day there is a higher than likely chance someone will try to murder me. Did you know that there’s more of a chance every day of a police officer catching something deadly from accidentally getting stuck with a needle than dying of a gunshot wound? Not even nurses play those odds. Still, they sign on to spend a large portion of their day driving around looking for people who need help. Last night was one of those times when words didn’t come to me. I couldn’t think of anything to say that expresses the injustice of those men losing their lives at the hands of a regular citizen out of pure vengeance. I never once heard anyone utter the words “hate crime,” yet there has never been a better example of it than the assassination of those two law enforcement officers.
Obviously, I have a special affection for police officers. I loved my trooper very deeply and hoped to spend my life with him worrying about his safety rather than without him worrying about it. But his job built walls between us that I couldn’t get through. Still, I pray for him every night and worry for his safety. I have students who have chosen law enforcement as a career, and now I worry and pray for them, too. And when I have the opportunity, I encourage them to limit their time in that calling. Find something else to do if you can, I tell them. Don’t do that to your wife, to your children, to yourself. Images of my worst fears, my deepest dreads and my most terrifying thoughts explode to the surface as I wait to hear names I know when a breaking news story erupts on the television. Those moments come much too often lately, and every week there’s another dead cop. It never gets easier to hear and their job is getting harder. When the next news story flashes across the screen, I hold my breath just a little. That’s what nobody’s talking about in these tragedies…the people at home who live inside this senseless gamble every day. The wives and the children and the parents of policemen and women, waiting to hear that they’ll never see their officer again.
Those are the times when #icantbreathe