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Policing in the Age of Trump

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These are contentious times. 

While the deafening events of April 7 in Hemming Park are now fading into quiet meetings in lawyers’ offices, this mother is still heartsick. I saw scared kids—same age as my own—shell shocked and horrified by Officer Friendly’s alter-ego. 

The numerous videos that were posted online immediately after the anti-military-action rally weren’t fun to watch. Police officers using force—punching, pulling, tackling, and throwing down other human beings—is always a horrifying sight. 

Now that the dust has settled, we know that a progressive protester, wearing a mask, ran behind invading Trump supporter Gary Snow.  Whether the action was accidental or intentional may be a question of fact for a jury, but we know the masked man snagged the speaker cord to Snow’s bullhorn, tangling the gigantic Trump flag and angering Snow.  Then all hell broke loose.

And our young, mostly suburban, white protesters saw with their own eyes what happened when their “nation,” for a brief moment, turned into “a colony.”

Author Chris Hayes, in his new book, A Colony in a Nation, describes it this way:

“Depending on who you are, the sight of an officer can produce either a warm sense of safety and contentment or a plummeting feeling of terror.”

Our daughter felt the latter as her college town, Cleveland, prepared to welcome then-nominee Donald Trump for the 2016 Republican National Convention. Troops moved into the campus’s empty summer dorms, and the students were told to go home. Classes were suspended. 

The “big, burly men with guns” unsettled her, she said.  She told me she felt like her college campus had been transformed into an occupied military zone. I was glad she’d be coming home.

 And then I was heartsick—for her, for her brothers, and for all of our young people. Our daughter’s grandpa was a policeman, after all. As was her uncle, my brother. The police have always been our family—not objects of fear or derision. But our children don’t have my memories of the tall, handsome man in blue who, having taken off his gun, hoisted me up to his shoulder where I could read the first letters I ever learned: “JPD.”

And our children were too young to remember their own father getting called out in the middle of the night to provide legal counsel in officer-involved shootings. 

Our children, like the young leaders of the JPC, were never tuned in to our continuing breakfast-table conversations about police training, the “matrix of force,” the soldier-adrenaline that kicks in when a situation goes bad, the physiological narrowing of perception.  The kids weren’t aware that even touching a police officer, in the midst of a confrontational situation, could trigger the reflexes of a warrior.  They hadn’t yet learned that once the decision to use force is made by one officer, the rest swoop in to secure the peace like a troupe of choreographed dancers.

When the police feel besieged, (and there’s no doubt that since Dallas, they often do), they circle the wagons. Clamp down. Protect each other. Protect their own. It’s human nature. 

I’m guilty of the same. Mama-bear instincts kicked in for me and for other women in Jacksonville—Claire Goforth, Karen Morian, Diane Melendez—when we saw our city’s young being manhandled in Ax Handle Park.

While the experienced instigator who admits to pushing to the edge of the law has thus far escaped arrest, we try to take heart in the small victories: A sheriff who, three days after the Hemming Park arrests, vowed to take a look at how his officers manage political protests. 

Three days later the same sheriff, Mike Williams, faced an ex-officer who cried “foul” on his own use-of–force case from 2012. Williams decided to take responsibility for the mistakes that led to that officer’s fatal shooting of a young father. Sheriff Williams came clean with the family of Davinian Williams, acknowledging that his agency’s training errors led up to the latter’s tragic death. The sheriff promised to try to do better. 

And the family appreciated it. 

It was a moment that TED Talk guru Brene Brown might call, “the power of vulnerability.” 

“Truth and courage,” Brown says, “are not always comfortable. But they are never weakness.”  

These are contentious times. But maybe angry bluster doesn’t always get to win.

Maybe we’re learning that there’s a difference between strength and mere loudness, a distinction between courage and bullying. 

Maybe, over time, it’s the quiet victories that matter most.

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