As of right now, the citizens of Ferguson, Missouri are preparing for the worst and hoping for the best regarding the potential fallout from the grand jury decision. It is believed that if police officer Darren Wilson is not indicted for the shooting death of Michael Brown, the streets will erupt in violence.
The sad reality is that no matter what the outcome, Ferguson will lose. It will lose because Michael Brown’s death, while extremely tragic, was just one example of a greater issue: the police and the public have become enemies in our society.
Gone are the days of the Andy Griffith show, where the sheriff is idealized as a community leader. Now, we all have our heart rate jump up when we see a police car behind us. Even if we think we are doing everything right, we can’t shake the feeling that they can find a reason, or make up one, to pull us over any time they want. Instead of public servants, the police feel like predators looking for an excuse to put us under the microscope.
How else could the phrase “speed trap” become common vernacular. Of course, I am talking from the majority. I can’t imagine how minorities and people who survive in the “legally gray” areas of society must live in terror every single day.
All that being said, the police aren’t enjoying any of this either. Every time they walk up to a car they have to wonder if it will be their last time. Imagine having a job where you never have a happy customer. Even a tech support line gets to make a customer’s day every now and then, but police pretty much have 100% negative interactions all day long with the public.
Interacting with people all day long from the position of being a threat takes a mental and emotional toll. The reality is that it is a bad relationship for society, and we are making our own volatile powder keg.
If police are never in a position to have a positive interaction with public, there is no hope for the healthy public relations.
Protestestors in Ferguson have adopted this very profound mantra, “Who do you protect? Who do you serve?” In business, you can always tell a company is doomed when they develop cultural animosity toward their customers. You can’t have someone be your customer and your enemy at the same time. If the citizens of Ferguson—or of any town—are enemies, then they are not being served or protected. And when a police force looks more like a military force, well you can pretty much tell where things stand.
With over 2.4 million people incarcerated, the majority of which are nonviolent
offenders, America has the largest prison population in the world. Over 60% of those incarcerated are minorities, and black citizens are sentenced to prison an average of 20% longer than white citizens. Many have argued that our harsh criminalization of nonviolent offenses, like possession of marijuana, have directly targeted minority communities. We even brought back debtor’s prison by forcing the poor to pay large fees for legal services (not a lawyer, I mean PAYING their own fees while being prosecuted.) While it is hidden throughout complicated laws, the reality is we have criminalized poverty.
Ferguson has it worse than many places. For a town with a majority population of black citizens, the police force is mostly white. When people aren’t represented by those in power, it will make anything worse. Heck, that is the whole basis for the American Revolution. That being said, we would be foolish to categorize the events in Ferguson as an exception. This is a growing issue everywhere. Those on the margins of society are continually being portrayed as the enemies or the invaders. This means those in power keep making laws to make life harder for those without.
The reason Ferguson loses no matter what is that the media, bloggers, and pundits are all framing this story entirely between the police and the citizens. The reality is that it’s not just the police, it is all of us. We have a poison in our culture, along with a whole heap of stupid laws, that place the police and the citizens of this country as enemies of each other. Until we empower the police to help the communities they are in, their power will always be seen as threatening instead of peacekeeping. Until we decriminalize poverty, we will have a public that lives in fear of authority. Until our goal is to heal our entire communities, instead of simply trying to weed out people we don’t want, we will continue to have violence.
As Jesus showed us 2, 000 years ago, the only righteous function of power is to lift up others. It is why he healed the sick and made the lame to walk. It is also why babies are born to parents, why children go to school, and why the mentally ill attend recovery centers. Power is a function by which we can protect someone from themself and then help them develop into productive members of society. If we have lost this goal in our common life, then we have all lost.