04142021 Peter Berger

Peter Berger

Here’s a riddle from Poor Elijah. How can you tell the difference between the Russian Federal Assembly and the United States Congress?

The trick is to wait for a Presidential speech. If the entire audience stands and applauds in unison, it’s the Russian assembly. If half the audience stands and applauds in unison while the other half sits on their hands, it’s Congress.

Party discipline when there’s only one party is especially dangerous. When there are two parties, it might not be as dangerous, but it looks just as ridiculous, especially when your good standing as a Republican means you can’t applaud a reduction in child poverty.

Most issues are more nuanced than simply yes or no. Even when your decision seems clear, even after you’ve made that decision, the subtleties don’t go away. Implementing decisions adds even more complexity. We want finality, but governing is usually more complicated than agree or disagree, sit or stand.

People sometimes die at the hands of the police. That regrettable reality shouldn’t surprise us given that we commonly call the police to protect us from people who pose a danger by breaking the law. But black Americans, in proportion to their share of the population, are more than twice as likely as white Americans to be killed by a law enforcement officer.

It’s reasonable to consider that this racial disproportion may be due, at least in part, to the correlation between poverty and crime, that poor people are more likely to be touched by crime and therefore more likely to deal with the police. But that doesn’t explain the serial shootings and deaths of black Americans in custody that have shaped the headlines over the past year.

Regardless of the racial disproportion, better training officers to deal with volatile encounters without resorting to excessive force, and dismissing and indicting those who abuse their authority will benefit white people, too.

We need to recognize that all those headlined deaths, and those that didn’t make headlines, while equally tragic for family and friends are nonetheless different as to cause and circumstance. All officers called to a scene aren’t equally culpable. A handcuffed man who dies under an officers’ knee doesn’t pose the same threat as a teenaged girl armed with a knife.

Even assuming neither should have died, we can’t allow our grief and rage to blind us to the differences. We need to retain the desire and the ability to reason. Judging justly requires more than merely standing or sitting.

Mounting evidence suggests that white supremacists are serving in law enforcement agencies. No new law, whether named after George Floyd or Crispus Attucks, will remedy that bigotry. Neither will yielding to marchers’ demands to “defund the police,” especially when those marchers, both black and white, expect the police to protect them.

None of this means that things shouldn’t change or can’t improve. They should, they must, and they can. Sometimes those reforms will be matters of policy and training. In other cases the changes will mean better screening and dismissal of problematic officers.

It’s often said that good police officers appreciate when bad officers are disciplined or dismissed. When critics have said the same thing about teachers, my response has more often been to wish those critics and reformers would stop treating me like I’m incompetent or malicious just because some of my colleagues are, or that my lapses stem from the same causes.

I recoil in my teacher’s soul at any plan or promise to “reimagine” public institutions. I know what that sunny turn of phrase has meant at school – public relations, pipedreams, irrelevancies, and impracticalities.

Teachers are called to be knowledgeable and to preserve a safe learning environment, just as law enforcement officers are rightly expected to protect and serve the public fairly and effectively.

I have to respond to every eruption and subtle change in my classroom. Some arise without warning. Others snowball and defy all my efforts to defuse them.

Even in my small arena I haven’t always responded correctly, whether through my ignorance, misunderstanding, misjudgment, or temper, and I’ve more than once felt obliged to explain and apologize to my students. I’ve learned to use humor and patience, measured anger and an assurance of fairness, the tone of my voice and the look in my eye.

Competent police officers have developed equivalent skills and perspective. But I still can’t imagine what it must be like to make life and death decisions with a gun on my belt and without sufficient time to reflect.

None of this, however, accounts for so many black men shot in the back. It doesn’t account for George Floyd, let alone an epidemic of George Floyds.

Two centuries ago as the Civil War neared its conclusion, Mr. Lincoln cautioned us that it would be no less than just if the war were to continue “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”

Slavery is over.

The worst of segregation is over.

But racial injustice is still drawing blood.

The fault sometimes lies with individual officers who enforce our laws, and those wrongs must be judged and made right.

The greater fault lies with the men and women we elect to make our laws and, through those representatives, with us.

And the fury of justice awaits us all.

Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.

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