“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish as fools.”
Suddenly Martin Luther King Jr.’s words are urgently vital to our nation once again.
In the decades following the volatile 1960s, we as a people seemed to regain our innocence ... at least on the surface. The Cold War’s demise not only melted strained relations between nations, it eased and helped nullify the constant, lingering paranoia that a nuclear bomb could wipe out mankind as we know it … anytime, anywhere. Research into a global plague revealed some glimmers of hope that the disease could at least be managed while searching for a cure. The Civil Rights Movement became a lesson taught from history books.
Recently, an increasing number of incidents has threatened that kingdom of apathy. The shooting of Michael Brown and the ensuing riots just across the river awakened a beast that has since made the summer of 2016 alarmingly bloody. The murder of 49 people in a nightclub in Orlando. The shooting of two black men (Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Philando Castile in Minnesota) by police. The sniper attack in Dallas that killed five officers and wounded many others. The ongoing protests. A race against time to weed out and defuse more planned attacks on officers.
Black Lives Matter proponents demand accountability and justice. Supporters of law enforcement demand compliance and respect for police. Debates regarding gun control are heating up like never before, and the subject of race is being scrutinized as it hasn’t in 50 years.
Is that innocence now shattered once again? Or was it a naive hope that things were now really going to be OK ... a hope that blinded us to new problems (or, perhaps the same old problems in a new form), quietly bubbling under the surface and waiting for a spark?
As this divide and impasse develop more each day, it is clear there are more questions than answers. Is the anger justified? Were the police officers involved in the shootings in the wrong? Is the shooter who killed five officers representative of his community, or is he a lone criminal standing on his own? Did blatant racism survive the Civil Rights era, and if so, why were we so blind as a nation as to push it aside for decades?
Those questions are being presented but not answered. When it comes to the media, I think it is our responsibility to be a home of accurate information, not a fan for the flames of dissension. We were never created to be the bullets in a gun. In the same vein, I would hope politicians choose the road to resolution, using these events as a way to truly bring the country together rather than exploit the pain of so many for posturing and personal gain. Sadly, one only has to watch a few minutes of commercials or news reports this week to already see examples of the low road.
A shame, since today’s instant reach could be utilized in a positive way. In terms of communication, the modern era has helped. Gone are the days of second- and third-hand accounts of violence and corruption, where the passing of information quickly turns into the Telephone Game — whispers in one ear after another that distort the original message almost beyond recognition. “Did you hear about what happened to that guy?” has become “I sent you a link to the camera phone video I was telling you about so you can see it for yourself.”
And unlike the 1960s, it seems both sides are doing a lot more listening.
When trying to explain killing without hesitation, one “Game of Thrones” character said, “Every man is a beast if you put a sword in his hand.”
I don’t believe that. I don’t buy for one second the view that the atmosphere among law enforcement breeds racism and brutality. I have spent too much time with local officers, attended too many ride-alongs. I have seen officers pass up chances time and again to “flex their muscles” or “flaunt their authority” and instead use compassion and patience to resolve high-adrenaline issues with people who may have been mentally compromised or even just angry with their circumstances. I have seen too many officers spend the less hectic hours of their shifts forging positive relationships with children and teenagers, black and white.
These public servants make a modest wage, and yet they put their lives on the line every day for the rest of us. Why? It isn’t to get rich, and it isn’t for glorification (as a matter of fact, most police I know prefer to stay out of the limelight). So it must be that they believe in what they are doing.
Making a blanket statement that the law enforcement community is corrupt and racist, with an underlying agenda, is really giving the majority of the officers the short end of the stick. It also makes their job of protecting the community that much more difficult.
That is not to say the anger is not justified. No one, regardless of race, should have to fear law enforcement when they are simply walking down the street or driving a vehicle. The police community must not only enforce a zero tolerance for unjust brutality (and murder), but also should wear that badge proudly and loudly, so the community will remember who really is in its corner. A “boy’s club” mentality of protecting the guilty can only do more damage (just ask the Catholic Church the effectiveness of that approach).
This also goes both ways … I have witnessed time and again the frustration of our local police departments when trying to investigate a shooting and finding no witnesses willing to cooperate with law enforcement.
But overall, I am so proud of the cooperation and vibe of unity we have here at home in the Riverbend. The support I have seen for our officers in recent days has been overwhelming. I don’t want anything to jeopardize that carefully cultivated environment. To protect what we have built, we have to talk ... and listen.
At the risk of oversimplifying an admittedly complex problem, communication is the key. Every time one side truly hears the other, it gives me hope.
The tears, the peaceful protests, the anger … this time, someone is listening.
I have heard what seems to be every possible take and angle on this topic, but I would like to know yours. Send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, be sure and check out the “Social Justice: Both Sides of the River” art exhibit, devoted to exploring the differences and similarities in humanity and the causes of systemic barriers through music, film and discussion, on display at Jacoby Arts Center in Alton through Aug. 6.