The New Normal

“It’s almost impossible to hold officers accountable, barring incredible circumstances. The public just accepts that this is what police had to do.”

In an intelligent and brave piece published recently by America magazine, the national Jesuit Catholic weekly, Margot Patterson compares the difficulty of exposing the truth in cases of police brutality and possible racial profiling to the scandal of sexual abuse of children by priests in the Roman Catholic Church and its systematic cover-up by certain church authorities. Patterson writes:

“The immense authority given law enforcement, the reluctance of the public to question it even in suspicious circumstances, the shielding of abusive officers by their colleagues and superiors and the inattention to complaints about police misconduct bring to mind the clerical sex abuse scandal within the church. Both situations involve a betrayal of public trust, with abuse directed against the most vulnerable and powerless.” 

A betrayal of public trust, with abuse directed against the most vulnerable and powerless. What to make of the cases of Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, John Crawford III, Sam DuBose, Eric Garner, and a slow-motion litany of far too many others?

We might begin by standing with citizens of all races who reject the highly problematic notion, applied variously in each of these cases, and no doubt many future ones, that this is what police “had to do.” As the father of four children, two of them black as the beautiful night, pondering the cases of Tamir Rice, in particular, and then Sandra Bland, I begin to understand and feel ever more palpably what the prophet Jeremiah calls “a fire in the bones.”

The political and racialized ironies are thicker than mud covering a freshly dug grave. The state of Ohio, where I reside, and where Tamir Rice was shot dead in a playground, is an “open carry” state. I wonder, sincerely, in those few fated seconds as the squad car sped onto the scene, and the officer opened fire on the boy within two seconds of arrival, whether an armed witness with a registered weapon, preferably white–i.e. “not dangerous looking, a “good upstanding citizen”–could have legally defended Tamir Rice against the locked-and-loaded police bearing down upon him? If not, why not?
Tamir.RiceBecause, as the logic goes, we must presume the police “are doing what they have to do.” The victim “should have known better.” He must have “got what he deserved.” Even if one grants the point (a grand jury did; I and many others do not), what about the rights of our hypothetical, law-abiding, stand your ground, gun-carrying citizen? Gun play in America — joined inextricably with race – is a cynical, ugly, zero sum game. Everybody loses. But with respect to so-called equal protection under the law, it is black folks who end up far more often in the graveyard.
(As has been well-documented – see the Guardian’s extraordinary project, “The Counted” — unarmed black men are more than twice as likely to be killed by police as other Americans. Moreover, as Patterson notes, citing a report by Amnesty International, laws in many of the 50 states regarding the use of lethal force by law enforcement do not meet international human rights standards.)
As Thomas Merton asked some fifty years ago, does it make sense for Christians to “pray for peace” in our cities, and then to go about our lives as usual? As Merton concludes, God will not help us, God can not help us, if we continue to rationalize state-sanctioned evil under the guise of “procedural error,” “he looked threatening,” or “she had it coming.” The burgeoning statistics are bleak enough, surely, but the names and faces are heartbreaking. (Unless they’re not.) The new normal, after all, is not new. What is horrifying is our accommodation to “the way things are,” our seeming acceptance of realities that should not be.

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