In theory police officers should be one of the most welcome presences in our communities. Their job is to protect the neighborhood and serve its citizens. We should be eager to engage our law enforcement officials if there are problems where we live, and we should also celebrate their work. I can’t speak for all black men but my individual relationship with the police is…complicated.
A Complicated Relationship
I’ve never been arrested or charged with a crime, but in many ways I constantly feel like a suspect. I remember one incident in particular when I was in high school.
There was the time when a white cop assumed that me and my best friend (also black and male) had a girl with us in the car against her will. This girl happened to be white and she also happened to be my girlfriend at the time. He even went so far as to question us about our ages and ask the young lady point-blank if she was with us voluntarily. Who knew a quick stop at the 7-Eleven could cast doubts on your morality and make you feel like a victim of your own skin?
Another time I got pulled over, ostensibly for speeding, and searched. The cop gives me the standard, “Do you know how fast you were going?” and “License and registration” small talk, but then he asks me if I have any drugs in the car. He tells me to pop the trunk and he finds nothing. Then he tells me to get out of the car and empty my pockets. Nothing. Then he starts searching the car. He finds the cheap gas station cigars I use on long drives and asks, “Is there pot in these?” I guess that’s something drug users do, replace the tobacco with weed. I didn’t know that and I didn’t do that. He gives me a ticket for speeding and drives off.
And of course there are the countless times when I gather with my other black, male friends and we are acutely aware of how quickly an innocuous encounter can turn ominous. I remember going out to a restaurant with a group of four other black men. One of us happened to own a sleek, black Land Rover into which we all piled. After we were all in it occurred to us that a group of young black men in a nice, late-model SUV were prime targets for unwanted attention from the police. We joked about it all the way to our destination, but the driver stayed right at the speed limit the whole time. We all knew without saying it that where two or three Black men are gathered, it seems, there will be cops, or at least an overly attentive store clerk.
I know these men and women, by and large, are just doing their jobs. More than that, they truly want to serve and make their communities a better place. I can’t begin to fathom what goes through an officer’s mind in certain situations. I’m sure many of them have been in circumstances that have necessitated violent, even lethal force. It’s tough to shut down that instinct on a moment’s notice. And, similar to cops in a high-stress situation, we’ve all had to make a critical decision very quickly in the midst of uncertain circumstances. We may have made the wrong decision in that moment, and we and others spend a lifetime analyzing what should have happened differently.
Others may object, “That’s not a race thing. I’ve had negative encounters with the cops, too.” Or, “It’s not only white cops that stop black people. Black cops do it, too.” And yet others may say, “You just have to use common sense. Don’t put yourself in situations that beg for an altercation.”
All of these objections hold varying degrees of validity. But they fail to factor in the history of the disproportionate number of arrests of blacks by the police. In addition, there is a pattern of lethal violence and miscarried justice perpetuated toward blacks by those in authority (for instance here , here , and here). Under that weight of fear and unrighteousness, I wrestle to see the police as allies and protectors. Eric Garner, the man who died after police put him in an illegal chokehold, sums it up well. Just before he was physically detained by several officers he says, “Every time you see me you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it!”
I suspect that many who read this post will criticize my perspective. They will think that none of this history or the current events justify mob action as in the case of Ferguson, Missouri. I would agree if the point is that violence is not an appropriate response. I would, however, ask that we pause to consider the level and extent of injustice that many blacks have experienced at the hands of law enforcement officers. Anger is a reasonable response to the death of an unarmed teen, especially in light of so many similar incidents. Should we be so quick to condemn the emotions and legal protests involved in these situations?
When I see Michael Brown or the countless other young black men who get in life-threatening or life-ending altercations with the police I see myself. I see my son. And I know I may not be safe. The multiple graduate degrees I’m pursuing won’t protect me. My Standard English-speaking won’t protect me. Not even, apparently, will the universal sign of surrender, two hands up in the air, protect me. And when those who are supposed to protect you are the ones you need protection from, to whom will you turn?
Real Justice Has Come and Will Come Again
I echo the sentiment “I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness” (Ecc. 3:16). Yet the Lord promises restoration. He promises a re-creation. One is coming and will come again. And “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law” (Is. 42:3-4).
Jesus Christ, the true Authority, quotes these very passages from Isaiah in Matthew 12. But He not only speaks about justice, He brings it about. In the very next verses he heals a man who has a withered hand and many others who follow Him. But Christ’s greatest act of justice was on the cross. There He suffered the most cosmic injustice—that of the only truly innocent man who ever lived dying the criminal’s death that we deserve. Yet Christ’s resurrection from the dead assures us that justice is coming to the world. If Jesus could suffer injustice but conquer it through love, then we can do the same.
So while my own relationship with the police is complicated, my relationship with Christ moves me beyond complexity into the simplicity and the sacrifice of love. We fight for justice now because we know that is what Jesus wants. Yet we can also endure injustice because we know that is what Jesus did for us.