On justice


Sitting here tonight watching CNN’s coverage of the NYC protests in the wake of yesterday’s decision not to indict NYPD office Daniel Pantaleo after the choking death of Eric Garner.  Right at this moment, the protestors are completely silent.  It’s a “die in.”  They’re lying on their backs on the street, arms crossed over their chest.

I don’t know that their protest, as strange and powerful as it is, will do any good.  The people who will respond to it, be affected by it, are after all the people who already sympathize.  And from what I can tell–and from common sense, or at least the naive belief that we’re by and large a good people, a compassionate people–a lot of people sympathize.  We use the word “outraged” a lot these days, but this seems to be one of those cases, especially coming so quickly on the heels of the Ferguson case, that has genuinely startled people by the sheer, brutal injustice of the outcome.

“A lot of people,” but unfortunately that group doesn’t seem to include the police.  If ever there was a time for the police to acknowledge the righteousness of the outrage people feel, this is it.  That doesn’t have to include an admission of culpability. It just has to be human.

Instead, the NYPD was outraged itself by NY Mayor Bill de Blasio’s blunt statements of concern.  At a press conference Thursday, Patrick Lynch of the unfortunately named Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association had this to say:

Police officers feel like they are being thrown under the bus…  Look, last night, the protesters — we may not agree with their message, but we were protecting their right to do it. That’s what they should be saying.

So what we should be saying is that the police are benevolent angels because they’re still out there protecting the people who are protesting them.  That is, the police are still doing their job.

It can’t be easy to be a cop in a big city.  The stress level must be extraordinary.  But what I keep coming back to, each time something like this happens, and fuck if it isn’t happening with terrible regularity, is this question: why does it seem as if the only tactical law enforcement response to a stressful situation is to kill someone?  And in particular to kill someone who is unarmed, and black?  How can that be the only option, given the extensive training these people receive?  And how is it possible not to see these responses as being rooted in something ugly and disheartening in the make-up of our police departments?

I’m positive that there are good, compassionate cops in every city in the country and in the world.  But I wonder if there isn’t something inherently flawed in the system, if it doesn’t also attract exactly the kind of person who will be predisposed to making the wrong decision.  It’s a position of power toward which only a certain kind of person will gravitate, and I think it’s worth asking what kind of person that is.

And again… yes, there are good cops.  But if you’re a cop and you can’t understand that you aren’t being thrown under the  bus — that saying such a thing is a horrible metaphor when we’re talking about people who have actually been murdered by the very people hired to protect them (because the police really are supposed to protect everyone, even suspicious black men selling cigarettes) — then you have no right to carry a weapon and have the legal authority to use force on anyone.  You probably shouldn’t even be allowed in public.

No, you should be mortified by what’s happened.  By what’s happening, it seems like, every day.  And you should be out there protecting those protestors from anyone who tries to stop them, humbly and silently, and recognize that you — like those protestors — are also a citizen, and have a vested interest in a just society.  Instead of having a chip on your shoulder because you’re doing your job and people are still angry about a couple of murdered black men.

I don’t know what will help right at the moment.  But I wish that some high-ranking police official would come forward and acknowledge that what’s happened — Garner’s death, but also the lack of an indictment — is just wrong.  Not that it was unfortunate, or tragic, and not suggest that “reforms” have to be considered.  Just say that it’s wrong, and say that the prosecutor and the grand jury got it wrong too.

What they’re doing now is predictable and understandable.  They’re protecting themselves, circling the wagons.  Everyone does it, has done it for ages.  But there’s a time, maybe, to just fall on your sword and ask for forgiveness.

About the author

Tom Howard

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019).

He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fierce Pretty Things won the 2018 Blue Light Books Fiction Prize, and his individual stories have won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction, the Indiana Review Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Innovative Short Fiction Prize, the Willow Springs Ficiton Prize, the Rash Award in Fiction, and the Robert J. DeMott Award for Short Prose.

He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

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