The Ferguson news headlines have subsided for now. The Ferguson hashtag has quited down. The conversations on cable news and talk radio have decreased. They will flare back up in a few weeks when the grand jury releases their decision on whether Officer Darren Wilson should be charged with homicide or whether the shooting of Michael Brown was justified.
During this lull it seems like a good time for me to write and process my thoughts from this incident. Since this story broke open on August 10th, my 32nd birthday, I felt like my feet have been planted in two worlds with a gap that is widening. I am a cop and I am a husband/ father pursuing a trans-ethnic family. We are adopting a child from Haiti. I thought about writing this post in the ensuing days after the Ferguson riots but I wanted to give it some time to percolate. Was what I was thinking then be the same a month from now?
I read a lot of news articles and blog posts as the events in Ferguson unfolded. This story hit several different angles that are hot button issues in United States law enforcement today. Issues like race, use of deadly force, technology (i.e., body cameras), community policing, and the militarization of police were all found within the strains of this one story.
While many of my thoughts could be fleshed out, I only want to share one that I think is the most important. Before doing that, these articles have been the most helpful (and aggravating) in helping me think through this issue:
1. The Citizen, the Centurion, and the Sword by Joshua Waulk. The debate over Ferguson has been framed in two ways depending on your camp: an emotional story line and a factual defense of what took place. Both have their place. This blog post provides a helpful, factual summary of the why and how of cops using deadly force. Action is quicker than reaction. The twenty-one foot rule. Graham v. Connor. This is the vocabulary of cops. To clearly understand and evaluate officer involved shootings an understanding of these facts are needed. Waulk is a former cop and a current pastor and has been involved in a gun battle personally. This is a must read.
2. America in Black and White: Why do so many of respond to Ferguson so differently? by Justin Taylor. This article is helpful for two reasons. First, Taylor boils down the debate over the death of Michael Brown to four positions. To gain any traction in a debate a person needs to fully understand the other side of the argument. There has been far too little of that with Ferguson and Taylor’s blog is a reminder for us to think hard, not think lightly. He also quotes an excerpt from John Piper’s book Bloodlines that is critical for all Christians to understand when as we think about race.
3. Power, Police, and Another Shooting by John Piper. Next to Jesus and the writers of Scripture, John Piper has been the most influential person on my life that I have never met. I am deeply grateful for Christian Hedonism which radically changed the way I viewed what it means to be a Christian. Having said that, this blog post made me want to pull non-existent hair out of my bald head. In the post he links a video that shows an officer involved shooting in St. Louis and concludes, “This video constitutes a powerful call for serious reassessments of how our police are trained and empowered to use their guns.” After reading Joshua Waulk’s blog post, this statement can be easily dismantled as a naive assessment at best. Still, I’m thankful for the tone in which Piper wrote the article which was a humble approach and an acknowledged thankfulness for restraint cops show.
4. Coming (Back) to America: My One Fear by Thabiti Anyabwile. This was another frustrating, but necessary blog post for me to read. It was frustrating because the way in which he writes this imply several things about law enforcement that I don’t know if Anyabwile believes or not. Where this was helpful for me, was the way in which it caused me to try and begin to understand the different perspective and life experiences that a gospel-centered Christian brings to this issue.
5. The Gospel in Black and White: A Missiological Perspective on Ferguson by Bob Bixby. “The black culture values the black community. They value the black collective. It was through community that blacks prevailed through the Civil Rights Movement Era. They feel much more dependent on community than we whites do…Whites on the other hand, simply do not see themselves as a collective.”
Bixby spends several paragraphs explaining this more and it is important for people like me to think and feel this reality more deeply. As a white person, and a majority race, I can’t identify with a black person who feels the weight and emotion of what happened in Ferguson even when he personally is not connected with it. No factual explanation of the incident will erase that emotion.
There is another dynamic here that I see as a cop. There is a divide between whites and blacks when situations like this occur. There is even a greater divide when it comes to the law enforcement community because while I don’t think of myself as a collective regarding my race, I do think of myself as a collective when it comes to my vocation as a peace officer.
Just as black people feel a strong sense of community given their history and minority status, law enforcement officers feel a strong sense of community; especially as the animosity towards us has increased recently. When a cop is killed anywhere in this nation I get an email from the Officer Down Memorial Page. When a cop is killed in the line of duty in my home state, thousands of officers who never knew him will come to the funeral. We wear mourning bands until his body is placed in the ground. We share in the experiences of tragic circumstances that the public doesn’t see. There is a feeling of shared community that develops around the badge.
When these two communities collide, problems erupt. I see a problem with cops having no desire to understand the sense of community blacks have with each other and vice versa. Cops need to understand the painful history of the black community and the black community needs to understand law enforcement tactics and methodology.
Paul talks in I Corinthians 13 about what love, an attribute more important than faith and hope, looks like. “It is patient and kind. It doesn’t envy or boast. It is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.” We need more of this, but this will not happen apart from hearts being changed by the gospel. There may not be common ground we will find on this issue, in this life, but there can be a common love that navigates these troubled waters with kindness.
We have an example set before us. Jesus did not see us in our sin and leave us as we were. He didnt stay on the perimeter. He stepped off his throne in heaven and stepped into the messiness of sinful human beings and into our story. He took on flesh, became international, and felt our pain. He took our pain. He made himself as nothing and took the form of a servant and became obedient to the point of death on a cross (Philippians 2:8). This is the humble example we as Christians are called to follow and it is the only way we can ever hope to truly understand the life stories we each bring to the table. Let us count others more significant than ourselves. Let us not look to our own interests but to the interests of others. This is where find full joy. This is the example Jesus left for us.