KingMidget's Ramblings

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Maybe It’s More Than Racism


I touched on this yesterday in a comment over at athingirldotcom, and it’s a thing I’ve been pondering for quite some time. Before I get to my thought, I just want to be clear that I believe there is a problem with racism in law enforcement, just as there is racism in just about every other profession and in every corner of this country. At some level, it’s impossible to deny that racism is as much a part of the human condition as religion is.

Somebody on CNN said yesterday that racism didn’t exist until 500 years ago when the Catholic Church began its missionary activities in places where brown people lived. I think that’s somewhat ridiculous. There is a need in many humans to feel better than others, superior to others, to rule and to command. And guess what is the most apparent characteristic upon which to base those “needs”? Skin color. It is the thing we see before we see or know anything else about other humans we come into personal contact with. And it is unchangeable. Once you’re white, you’re always white. Ditto with black and brown. So, yeah … racism has existed as long as humans have walked the earth and come across people with different colored skin.

I also want to make sure to acknowledge that there are “bad cops” in the ranks and in the commanders’ suites. Again, just like in any other profession. And I get that because of their role in our society, bad cops are a particularly bad thing. They have so much power behind their badge, the impact of one bad cop creates huge ripples.

But here’s the thing … I don’t think that all of these incidents are a reflection of racism. Working in downtown Sacramento for almost 22 years — where the homeless problem has worsened each and every year, where the instances of mentally ill individuals walking the streets have become too numerous to keep track of, and where so many people are simply not all there — I saw enough interactions between police officers and these types of individuals to understand just how difficult, and potentially impossible, their job is.

Yes, many officers may not have to deal with this type of population on a constant or regular basis, but my guess is that most do. Because that is the role we have assigned to them — to deal with the “problems” in our society so we don’t have to. We want to be able to turn our backs on the homeless and the mentally ill and the drug-addicted, and expect somebody else to deal with it. Just do it quietly and don’t disturb us.

It is understandable, therefore, if officers crack every now and then. They have one of the most difficult jobs that exist today. They travel in human muck every day, muck that the rest of us privileged masses want nothing to do with. And we demand that these officers do so with perfection. Make no mistakes, show no weakness, never, ever crack. While most of them likely have inadequate training before they are hired and don’t receive the kind of resources, support, and therapy they need once they are on the job, and their unions protect them, no matter how bad their actions. (A topic for another post — how unions representing government employees, including teachers and police, are creating far more problems than they are solving.)

Decades ago, we underwent a grand experiment. Institutions for the mentally ill were shut down. Since then we have utterly failed at providing the needed services and supports for the previously institutionalized to survive in the community and far too many of them wander the streets, without homes and without help. For decades also, law enforcement has become more and more militarized and militant in many of our communities. It is a toxic mix we have created on the streets of America, and it has nothing to do with race.

And sometimes an officer cracks. He or she goes too far and abuses a citizen, police brutality, and sometimes that citizen is injured or killed as a result. Sometimes the victims of this abuse and violence are black. Sometimes they aren’t. It is not always racism, even when the bad cop is white and the victim of the abuse is black or brown. It may be nothing more than bad training, a bad day, or something completely unrelated to the color of skin. Understand, I’m not condoning or excusing any of this. I’m just trying to provide an alternate explanation for some of this.

The last time I was pulled over by a cop, I was on my way to work. I exited my neighborhood, turning left behind a two-door car. The driver in front of me was driving slowly and when he pulled over to the right lane, I passed him and I glanced at him as I did so. It’s a thing I do. I look into the cars around me, I look at the drivers, I see what’s around me as I drive along. I’ve never just stared straight ahead while driving.

Once I was past him, I changed lanes and drove in front of him to the next major intersection, where I turned right. With my blinker on, I pulled to a complete stop, waited for traffic to clear and then made my turn. The other driver in that little two-door car, turned behind me and then a flashing light appeared on his dashboard. I pulled over to the shoulder on a road that was backed up with rush hour traffic.

The gentleman in the car behind me got out of his car and came to my window, asking for my license and registration. He was dressed entirely in black – black pants, black jacket and there was no law enforcement insignia showing. And, oh by the way, I’m white and he was black. I told him I had no idea who he was and I wasn’t giving anything to him.

At that point he unzipped his jacket enough to show that he was a lieutenant with the Sheriff’s Boating and Waterways Division. During the next couple of minutes, he told me he was citing me for reckless driving, that I upset him when I glared at him as I passed him, and that it “was the wrong day” for me to do that to him. I handed over my registration and license and he went back to his car to write me up. I waited a moment or two and then couldn’t take it anymore. I was baffled by what he said and I wanted to plead my case.

I got out of my car and walked back to his. As soon as he looked up and saw me standing by his car, he got more upset, so I backed up. But through his open passenger window, I explained to him what I described above. That nothing I did could have been construed as reckless driving and that I had done nothing wrong. And then I pointed out to him that, at that very time this happened, there were numerous reports of idiots pretending to be cops pulling people over and then raping or robbing them. I pointed out that he had pulled me over in an unmarked car and walked up to my car without identifying himself until I asked him to. And that I was scared.

He then told me he wasn’t going to issue a ticket and drove off, after saying once again that it was the wrong day to cross him.

My point? This was first thing in the morning. He was likely on his way to work, just like I was, and he was already over the edge. Imagine what might have happened if this incident was at the end of a crappy day at work too. Or if I was the last in a line of people he felt had disrespected him. Or … just imagine.

Was it racism because he was black and I was white? Or was it something else.

When a victim is black, it is far too easy to just blame racism. I get that. I wish though that people would look deeper. We expect cops to be perfect in a job that is more difficult, more stressful, more exhausting than most of us can possibly imagine. We send them out with inadequate training, into neighborhoods and communities that are at times like war zones. We expect them to deal with the mentally ill, the domestically violent, the drug-addled, the drunk, and the lowest of the lowest members of our society. They deal with things every day that most of us never have to deal with, let alone on a daily basis. We arm them to the teeth with weapons of war, but fail to provide the mental and emotional weapons they need to survive the environment in which they work.

And worst of all, we attack all of them for the sins of a few, without ever acknowledging the good things most of them do and appreciating the difficult job they have.

Look deeper folks — the easy answer is not always the right answer.

Edited to Add: One more caveat … I get that some of this is based on race. Profiling, for example. I’m just going to say it one more time — I’m not saying racism in law enforcement is a myth.

32 responses to “Maybe It’s More Than Racism

  1. Katie June 6, 2020 at 10:40 am

    A lot of good points. Training, leadership, unions, initial/periodic screening, support to decrease and process stress, and society level health and community changes need to play their vital rolls.
    You getting out of your car and approaching his without getting a gun drawn or ending up prone on the ground with a knee on you, also tells it’s own story.

    • kingmidget June 6, 2020 at 10:42 am

      Your last point — very true.

    • Marie A Bailey June 6, 2020 at 2:40 pm

      I was thinking that too (your latter point). My husband, who is white, often says how one must never argue with a police officer, no matter how wrong you might think he or she is. The point is to not provoke. The trouble (understatement) is that so often there is no provocation, no cause for the homicidal brutality that we’re seeing playing out through cellphone videos. And think: those videos are just the tip of the iceberg that is called racism in this country. What else goes on that isn’t on tape? If it’s more than racism, then it’s a deep sickness in our country’s psyche, that we never really got over the perverse pleasure of owning people, of subjugating people who are different (race, ethnicity, class, sexuality) from the shrinking white minority in power. That’s just my opinion, of course.

      • kingmidget June 6, 2020 at 2:43 pm

        We can see just frequently police lie about what happened now that videos keep coming out after they prepare their reports. That is I think the truly systemic problem. That we cannot trust police officers to be honest in these situations. And until smart phones came along they got away with it. But that trait is so ingrained, they don’t seem capable of stopping.

      • Katie June 6, 2020 at 8:18 pm

        Agreed. Racism does run deep. As long as we restructuring… we can put in some class issues. And not all on the cops, the legislature and court system need some more work. Progress in some areas has happened but how many rich white kids get jailed for drugs? Or executives for drugs? I’ve heard politicians say of white collar criminals “it was nonviolent” but how many issues roll downhill to those hurt most by tax evasion, fraud, and other such crimes? Getting rid of white supremacists with badges on power trips would be a great start.

      • kingmidget June 6, 2020 at 8:20 pm

        Yes. Class is an issue here as well. It’s something I’d like to discuss more, but I wasn’t sure how to do so when I wrote this post. I think that’s another layer – race, mental illness and drug addiction, and class.

      • Marie A Bailey June 7, 2020 at 12:38 pm

        Agreed! The white nationalists would be the “low hanging fruit” while the legal system is so insidiously bad that restructuring will take a long, focused process. Class issues are ingrained too and, as someone who was once on food stamps, those issues may take forever to rectify as class issues cut across race, ethnicity, etc. But, yeah, let’s start with the punks on power trips 🙂

  2. Trent Lewin June 6, 2020 at 11:54 am

    I hear you Mark. I have bad days too, and sometimes I catch myself taking things out on people at work or even people dear to me. I get it. We’re human. But my actions can’t kill anyone. They can’t oppress anyone systematically. With great power comes great responsibility (sorry, comic book quote). The greater the authority, the greater the responsibility. I mean, what if the President of the United States had a bad day and started a war? That wouldn’t be excusable or even understandable. I think police have to be held to a higher standard, and I think we can get that higher standard by very carefully vetting the people who go into the police force, making sure they’re really well trained, and providing support for them in jobs that are admittedly very difficult. We just need very good people in those important positions, as consistently as humanly possible. I fear right now that there are some really prevalent cores of rot in that space.

    • kingmidget June 6, 2020 at 12:01 pm

      I can’t argue with anything you say, Trent. I completely agree that, given their power and authority, police officers must meet a higher standard. But given everything that is going on, what “good people” would want the job.

      I did not mean to make excuses with my post. I just think the problem is much more multi-layered than blaming racism. Racism is just one factor in a systemic crisis that exists not just in law enforcement, but more broadly in our society as well. We are not dealing effectively with much of anything these days.

      • Trent Lewin June 6, 2020 at 12:03 pm

        Yeah I agree. There’s no one issue lurking behind this mess. It’s nuanced, as they say. Makes it more difficult to tackle. There has to be an answer out there somewhere, though – for our sake, I hope we find one. Maybe the protests are a good start, holding portions of who we are to higher standards even if we haven’t fully diagnosed the thing. We just want results, eh.

      • kingmidget June 6, 2020 at 12:07 pm

        Los Angeles announced that they were cutting $150 million from the law enforcement budget and redirecting the money to programs to help the communities in need. Think about that – they were able to identify that amount relatively quickly and redirect it, apparently without concern regarding meeting law enforcement needs. Maybe every city and county and state should do the same thing. But some of that money needs to stay there to improve training and the quality of le enforcement.

  3. Susannah Bianchi June 6, 2020 at 12:06 pm

    This touched me as you’d expect it to. Nothing is black or white, no pun intended (TRULY) and these 3 months of fear of an enemy we can’t see, especially for an essential worker, unlike myself, who can’t hide in their house, at will, has to be going through hell. I AM NOT MAKING EXCUSES FOR WHAT HAPPENED IN MINNESOTA..but merely pointing out, some of our present events are fueled by what we read, and what we don’t know.

    I am so happy you wrote this. I actually mention you in a post in the on deck circle. Susannah

    • kingmidget June 6, 2020 at 12:09 pm

      Your last point … most of us really don’t know what is actually going on. A thing that has troubled me for decades – we are entirely reliant on what the media wants to show us.

      • Susannah Bianchi June 6, 2020 at 12:11 pm

        No me. We’ve broken up long ago.

      • Susannah Bianchi June 6, 2020 at 12:45 pm

        I HATE THE MEDIA. THE DAYS OF MURRAY KEMPTON, JIMMY BRESLEN, MARY McGRORY, AND MY HERO, PETE HAMILL, ARE GONE FOREVER. THEY WERE REPORTERS YOU COLD TRUST. SIGH

      • kingmidget June 6, 2020 at 12:51 pm

        Was watching CNN yesterday. The “anchor” for that particular hour was talking about something Trump did or said and she followed it up with editorializing about whatever it was. I’m certainly no fan of Trump, but most of the national media has completely lost its way. There is no more reporting devoid of agenda and partisanship.

      • Susannah Bianchi June 6, 2020 at 1:24 pm

        That’s putting it in a NUT shell. We’ve gone native, with the news. Pete Hamill and Nick Pileggi, are the last men standing. Would love to know what they think of their lifelong profession they were so proud of.

      • kingmidget June 6, 2020 at 1:38 pm

        Did you follow the controversy at the NYT about their publication of the Tom Cotton op-ed? Again, not a fan of what he wrote, but when did it happen that newspapers (of record) are only supposed to publish the “right” opinions. Andrew Sullivan wrote a really good piece on this issue a day or two ago.

    • kingmidget June 6, 2020 at 12:21 pm

      As for you mentioning me in an upcoming post … do your worst!! I can take it.

      • Susannah Bianchi June 6, 2020 at 12:42 pm

        NO NO…it was inspired by our discussion on books. All good. I have to stop mewling about whats going on. I complain about the press yet, in my own little corner, I’m doing it too. sigh

  4. gertrudehonestly June 6, 2020 at 1:22 pm

    I just finished reading White Fragility and How to Be an Antiracist. I highly recommend both. I think it has given me a different perspective on things.

  5. Dale June 6, 2020 at 1:45 pm

    Very well said, Mark. Everyone is always so quick to jump on the racism bandwagon… Not that they don’t often have cause, unfortunately. Just not automatically.

  6. John W. Howell June 8, 2020 at 11:39 am

    Good points, Mark. It is tough to stand up and be rational about this subject. You did well.

  7. butimbeautiful June 26, 2020 at 7:08 pm

    I agree. Things are complicated. We have to approach these problems in a rational way, without bringing ideology into it. Although racism is rife both in the US and Australia.

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