In all of the time I have been blogging here, I have never before found myself on the same theme for as long as I am finding myself writing about violence perpetrated out of fear, prejudice and/or hatred. But given what happened in Baton Rouge over the weekend, here I am again.
I had made a commitment to myself this weekend that I would not write another piece on violence for a while. I thought I’d said all that I knew to say, for one (and, if you missed what I’ve said and want to know, this is probably the best overall statement). And, in the interest of doing my tiny bit for our collective mental health, I wanted to break the cycle of sadness and find something else to write about.
I’m going back on that commitment. I choose to write, in what I hope will be the last blog post on this subject for a long time, but fear won’t be, about what happened in Baton Rouge.
According to reports, the entire tragic incident in Baton Rouge this weekend took less than 10 minutes. Three officers were killed, three more wounded (one very critically but still clinging to life as I write this) before the shooter lost his life. As in Dallas, the assailant targeted police officers and was punishingly effective in carrying out his chosen mission.
And as in Dallas, men and women in law enforcement, of different races and ages and ethnicities and backgrounds, worked as swiftly as they could to get civilians out of harm’s way by putting themselves in it.
Perhaps I have a particular affinity for the men and women in law enforcement because of my time on Tampa’s city council, a time during which I came to appreciate the hard work, the daily courage and the remarkable compassion of so many officers. Perhaps it’s because my wife spent three years working with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department. Either way, I know that so many of the men and women who wear a badge also have a chosen mission, but it isn’t one of destruction and hate. It is one of supporting and sustaining life . . . not just family or friends, but strangers and even those who might happily see them harmed or dead.
We’ve seen some horrific video of officers shooting civilians unjustly. We’ve seen other videos that are horrific but ambiguous about culpability. And some show us officers, given good reason to fear for their lives, nonetheless speaking over and over again to the person who is the perceived threat to stop behaving in a threatening manner. They instruct, then they warn, then, desperately, they threaten, taking and extending the risk that they themselves will be shot, their own voices silenced forever.
Watching and listening to these particular videos, one knows for certain that the officer does not wish to do what training and prudence ultimately will tell them they should do. They are taking more risks than the manual says they should. They are doing it because, as a simple matter of fact, these officers live to serve and to protect, not to destroy.
I think of the two detectives shot by a lone gunman in Tampa many years ago when I was on Council. The two detectives, both fathers, saw in their suspect a grieving father who had accidentally shot his two-year-old son. What they actually had in their car was a murderer who would choose to murder again, and again, and again, before finally ending his own life.
Because they were compassionate, they had given him more freedom of movement than was consistent with maximum control of a suspect. They paid for their compassion with their lives.
Fear and prejudice dominate the news right now. It’s the thread linking stories about black lives ended by law enforcement with stories about terrorist attacks with stories of ambushes of police officers. Each story is driven by fear of and prejudice against some “type” of person. Each story’s central event is the killing of someone, or of many, who simply did not deserve to die.
In the aftermath, there is a poignant story that, sadly, is being overwhelmed by the next brutal and hateful assault. We need to create space for that second story to be heard.
It’s the story of a police chief in Dallas, a son of the city, raised in an era of discrimination, rising to the top of his profession, struggling to build both a first-class police force and a relationship between officers and the community that is one of mutual respect and appreciation. It’s the story of people of every race and background mourning together the loss of a son, a husband, a father, who may or may not have been treated fairly, but will be deeply missed nonetheless by those who knew and loved him.
It’s the story of people celebrating freedom, fleeing terror, then coming together to comfort and assist each other in finding lost loved ones and grieving when they are tragically found.
It’s the story of one people made up of all people. The story of humanity struggling to preserve its humanity against the onslaught of hatred.
I’m hoping and praying humanity wins.