black and blue lives matter
I am the child of two police officers.
My parents are respected veterans of their profession: my mother began her career doing undercover drug busts in the narcotics unit before settling in evidence handling, and now works to transport and guard prison inmates. My father worked Chicago’s interstates for years as a highway patrol officer before finally making the rank of acting master sergeant and retiring a few years ago.
For many of my formative years, I saw only one parent while the other deliberately worked long hours to make a living. Early on, I recognized the discomfiting, unspoken truth that every time my mom and dad went out on a shift, there was a chance they wouldn’t be coming home. I know – it probably sounds cliché – but I think every child of cops comes to internalize this message: that what your parents do is tough and dangerous and often puts their lives at risk.
Because I grew up in a nice, white suburb, I never understood why people called cops “pigs” or said things like “fuck the police.” Seeing the militarized, hyperbolic ways that police in Ferguson and elsewhere have responded to peaceful protesters has been a complete shock. For all the love I have for police in my heart, these actions naturally harken to mind images of attack dogs and fire hoses, tear gas and billy clubs, reminiscent of this land’s bruised and ugly not-so-distant past. It was, after all, local and federal police who chose to enforce immoral laws and disregard righteous ones, thereby unleashing all sorts of evil on black protesters. In the past few months many Americans have learned how difficult it is to divorce the history of the policing profession from the legacies of its most horrific incarnations in this country.
Because of my family background and the small organizing I’ve done locally against police violence, people keep asking my “opinion” on the protests sparked by the August 9th killing of Mike Brown and my “stance” on the December killings of two New York City police officers.
To take them one at a time, I’ll first condemn the slayings of officers Oscar Ramos and Wenjian Liu without a second thought. I am filled with unspeakable rage and pain at the deaths of these two men who I never knew, public servants who were victims of a sad psychosomatic revenge fantasy. (I try not to see my parents in dead or injured cops, but the mind always finds the bitterest connections: Officer Ramos, who was studying to be a police chaplain, reflects the kind of deep personal faith that both my parents have always tried to instill in me. I see in Officer Liu my father, who served as one of the only Asian American troopers in Illinois.)
Those of us with family in the field will tell you about the unique form of social outrage that’s unleashed whenever a police officer is killed. Every time something brutish and tragic happens to an officer in our state or elsewhere, my parents and their friends speak of the fallen as if they were distant family, speaking in hushed tones and shaking their heads for days afterwards. It could have been any of them.
As recent national events have reflected, there is also a specially elevated release of societal rage and lament whenever a(n unarmed) civilian (of color) has their life taken by a representative of the state under questionable circumstances. As writer Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, in both of these instances – when a cop kills or is killed – we see a distinct communal emergence of anger and grief that is entirely legitimate. We naturally hold our government representatives to higher standards, so and something terrible happens that involves law enforcement we are allowed to feel exceptionally upset.
This is the paradigm at play whenever we’re having a discussion about unjust police killings of civilians or civilian killings of police. This logic isn’t alien to our sense of conscience – it’s why we believe that all sexual abuse is terrible, but sexual abuse on the part of clergy and religious leaders is particularly despicable; it’s why our laws acknowledge that although violence between children is perfectly contemptible, this negligence at the hands of a parent is another level of abhorrent.
I was privileged enough to grow up around law enforcement, and I respect and cherish plenty of great cops. I know that few of them are unapologetically, blatantly racist – those are the ones who tend to get fired. It seems to me that the plethora of implicit racial biases and prejudices that all of us have are simply operating with much higher stakes for police officers. I think these prejudices are wicked, and we must work to eliminate them especially when lives are at stake. This should speak to the importance of more effective training, finding better ways to weed out and fully castigate the bad apples, and encouraging officers to critically engage with things like race, white privilege, and mass incarceration – issues which many police departments seem reticent to acknowledge, issues which swaths of (white) Americans remain blissfully ignorant of.
Now. on the killing of Mike Brown: like my friend Morgan, I don’t believe that police officers are somehow more racist than your average white person. Yet after several centuries of black men being cast exclusively as savage demon rape/kill monsters in America’s collective imagination, it would be a miracle if this tradition didn’t manifest itself as latent internalized bias that bleeds into and affects most everything we do, from the most banal of decisions (should I cross this sidewalk? should I make eye contact with this guy?) to the most severe (this man has something that might be a gun, should I shoot? this person is approaching me quickly, are they a threat?). Notably, the very words Darren Wilson used to describe Mike Brown played right into this heavily racialized framework: in his testimony before the grand jury, he tellingly referred to the teenager as a superhuman “Hulk…monster” and a “demon.”
What I want to tell anyone who asks my “stance” on the Ferguson protests is that yes, black lives matter. Eric Garner’s life mattered, Akai Gurley’s life mattered, John Crawford’s life mattered, Mike Brown’s life mattered, Tamir Rice’s life mattered, Kiwane Carrington’s life mattered. They were fathers, boyfriends, sons, college-bound seniors, twelve year olds on the playground, children in our college town of Champaign, but it didn’t matter – all of them and hundreds more were indelibly swallowed up by the expansive chasm of white “colorblind” racism, their killers thus far held unaccountable. Many believe this (not to mention the booming mass incarceration business) to be a form of modern-day lynching (and Jim Crow).
Here’s what people don’t understand: none of this goes against the fact that blue lives matter. Yes, as Rage Against the Machine prophesied, “some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses.” And yes, as in all professions, there is sometimes moral corruption and painful bureaucracy. But there are also countless cops who despise the legacies of oppression that inform policing’s uncomfortable history, who work as kind and caring and flawed human beings to make positive differences in their communities. There are so many of these. Many police, like my parents, also share marginalized racial or sexual/gender identities, and strive to represent and respect all citizens from their positions of advantage.
All that to say, police officers in our country do not deserve to be injured or arbitrarily killed. Your local cops are probably not the Khmer Rouge or the SS, and because cops and civilians are not mutually opposing factions in a mass, countrywide civil war, there is no inconsistency in condemning the illegitimate slayings of unarmed civilians and the slayings of police officers. In fact, if you aren’t doing both, I’d venture to say you’re missing the point.
Which is, of course, that both black and blue lives matter. Especially if you believe that each human being holds some kind of divine spark – the very breath of God – within them, then it cannot be anything less than a sin and unconscionable evil when Eric Garner’s breath was illegally choked from his lungs. If you truly believe in the dignity of all human life, then it cannot be anything but anathema, a heresy of the highest kind, when Oscar Ramos’ and Wenjian Liu’s bodies were violated with metal bullets.
In some ways, those who assassinate public servants and those who uphold racist policing practices have more in common than they’d like to think. They will both have to answer for the blood on their hands; they are both condemned by their brother’s blood, which is crying out at them from the ground.