Last week more than 100 Seattle police officers filed a civil rights lawsuit saying their right to deny citizens their rights to be free of unnecessary force by them has been denied. Next week hundreds of ordinary people will file a civil rights lawsuit claiming their brains were imploded by the news.
Fortunately, my brain is almost immune to absurdity. I’ve been fully inoculated. I grew up among bullies, so I know all the stupid lines. There’s, “Mommy! Wesley keeps running away from me! Make him stop [running away when I hit him with my stick]!” “Teacher, Wesley keeps forcing my hands down [he does it every time I try to hit him]!” and of course the classic, “Wesley won’t stop screaming and hitting my knee with his stomach!”
The police ought to know better. With any modest restraint on civilians they hear “You’re violating my civil rights!” when the force being used is only enough to prevent criminal violence. But here, the shoe is on the other foot. The SPD has been found to be regularly practicing unnecessary violence on citizens, and these police want to protest “You’re violating my civil rights” just like every screaming drunk who’s ever been held back and prevented from kicking and punching his girlfriend.
I wish the police would look in a mirror.
Some years ago Norm Stamper, police chief during the 1999 WTO mess, returned to Seattle to talk about how he had changed his thinking about the use of force by police. So I was hopeful. I thought, finally someone who has been a police officer has figured out what the problem is, and he’s going to explain it to the others.
While Stamper was able to see problems in the ways police use force, he continually framed it as a consequence of justifiable fear of civilians.
That’s not seeing the reflection in the mirror. I tried to tell him that. I said “What about the fears civilians have of the police? Don’t their fears count for anything?” He said no, that the police serve to protect them. Civilians aren’t targets like the police are.
In fact, a large percentage of the population has learned through day-by-day experience to be terrified of the police and feel themselves to be targeted by them.
It’s reached the point where I’m afraid to cross streets to avoid police because I feel so menaced by them, realizing that anything I do to protect myself only endangers me more by calling attention to myself. So instead I walk straight ahead, eyes downward, hands visible and held steady, so as not to draw the ire of the armed bully who regards every facial tic and every gesture and every look into his eyes as a sign of defiance or criminal guilt or “a threat” justifying assault.
Some may say the bad cops aren’t all the cops. Granted. But, again, it’s the mirror. The bad civilians aren’t all the civilians.
I need evidence that they can see themselves as others see them. As things stand, I can expect them to misunderstand my behavior and think whenever I look into their eyes I’m signaling an intention to attack them.
Some say the fear is the problem. Everyone should stop being afraid. That’s great, but how? The answer lies in getting around the ignorance of the causes of the fears.
If the police could see that my fear of them has a reason, I could begin to fear them less.
Until then, my fears will always be justified. I could be beaten to death by a policeman for raising my hand to protect my face from his strikes. Innocent people have been killed for flinching. I’m truly threatened by their fear of me and by their use of force to protect themselves from every imagined danger I present. That’s the tangle we will remain in as long as they won’t look in the mirror and reflect on the genuine danger they pose to all of us.