The latest murder of three Baton Rouge police officers has rattled our already fragile sense of safety and reminds us—as if we needed reminding—that we live in an age of hatred, a hatred that fuels terror and ends in murder. And the nearly daily dish of bad news leaves many of us are asking how we arrived at such a place.
There are many paths that lead here. Lawlessness resulted in heinous targeted killings of police offices. A cavalier prejudice resulted in the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille—both victims of suspicion before they generally became victims. As are many black men—including those we revere and in positions of authority.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-South Carolina), one of two blacks in the U.S Senate, shared a personal story how within a year he was pulled over seven times. “Was I speeding sometimes? Sure. But the vast majority of the time I was pulled over for driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood or something else just as trivial.” All this while an elected official.
Scott shared similar stories involving his brother and a staffer who was “pulled over so many times here in D.C. for absolutely no reason other than driving a nice car.” The staffer eventually downgraded his car for an average car because “he was tired of being targeted.” Scott said such stories are quite common. “[I]magine the frustration, the irritation, the sense of a loss of dignity that accompanies each of those stops,” Scott told his Senate colleagues.
I cannot relate to that story. It’s never happened to me, but I can empathize. I can also empathize with a neighbor who in the 1950s would drive through Madisonville on the way to Evansville to visit family. He was pulled over every time and told he’d either have to pay the cop five bucks to get through or spend the night in jail. His crime was being black in the era of segregation.
I understand better now the optic in which his children and grandchildren perceive law enforcement. It’s part of their family story. We are told that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children to the third and fourth generation. Indeed, the sins of those comfortable with Jim Crow while injustice was perpetrated against an entire race (sometimes their neighbors) is being realized in the fear and distrust fomenting on our city streets today. It doesn’t justify violence one bit. But unequal treatment under what was once considered “the law” partly explains the deep frustration and animus.
Compromising the rule of law where the majority race has one set of rules while minorities have another, amply set the stage of tragedy. In response to the Baton Rouge attack, President Obama said “We as a nation have to be loud and clear that nothing justifies violence against law enforcement. Attacks on police are an attack on all of us, and the rule of law that makes society possible.” The statement in itself should be heralded by everyone.
Even Planned Parenthood weighed in on Facebook with a graphic of a black mother embracing her son. The caption underneath read “You deserve to parent your child without fear that he or she will be hurt or killed. Freedom from violence is reproductive justice.” Whatever one thinks about what it means to be free from violence, abortion rights probably don’t come to mind—even if permitted under cover of the “rule of law.”
We’re learning a painful lesson that brokenness comes in many forms and when injustice is perpetrated toward any member of community, the entire community suffers. If there will be reconciliation, we must begin conversations about right and wrong, and talk in moral categories. As parents we ought to talk with our kids about justice and righteousness and what it means to be gracious, kind and forgiving. As citizens we must practice the things that foster hope and healing.
A beautiful picture of this was taken when Caroline Smith, the 10-year-old daughter of slain Dallas Police Officer Sgt. Mike Smith presented a bracelet to 2-year-old Lyncoln Zamarripa who also lost her father in the July 7 attack. Smith didn’t care that Lincoln was biracial, only that she lost her dad and both were grieving together. So may we learn out of the mouths and hearts of babes.
Richard Nelson is the executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Center, a nonprofit public policy organization. He resides in Cadiz with his wife and children.