Alan Paton, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Cry the Beloved Country, hailed as one of the best novels of the last century writes an eternally relevant story of brokenness, an agonizing story of Stephen Kumalo, a Zulu priest who attempts to heal his family sundered by South Africa’s apartheid: his sister a prostitute, his brother a labor protestor, his son Absalom, arrested for murder of a white man. Shattering, but at the same time breathtakingly hopeful, Stephen’s odyssey to heal his family is a parable of his beloved country so in need of healing. Payton draws us in, not letting us escape the pain, the obligation or the hope.
…a single incident of police brutality or one person with an assault weapon can tear into a long-developed fabric of trust.”
We too cannot escape the pain or the obligation left in the horrifying wake of the recent spate of shootings. We witness the grieving mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, coworkers and friends. Lives lost; families torn apart; communities torn apart, a nation torn by anger, a nation grieving, bewildered. We are in pain. We cry for our beloved country.
And yet…on the most elemental level, the fear is shared: A mother kissing her son, sending him to school, fearing he won’t return. A woman kissing her policeman husband off to work, fearing he won’t return. Adrenalin high; wariness high. Law enforcement leaders from across the country committed to community oriented policing, “officers walking around to be seen, but putting themselves in a position to be assaulted,” notes Jim Bueerman, President of the Police Foundation. Add to this weapons of all kinds that almost anyone can buy anytime. The mix is volatile, a tinderbox.
And yet…police protecting those protesting against them: ministers linking arms with police at Black Lives Matter rallies, faith leaders who reach out to police, inviting them to worship services.
Three Areas for Change
We must screw up our courage to face head on the tragedies of the last two weeks, but we must not let these horrors blind us to changes, some of them seismic, occurring across the nation, changes that seem to be happening in three areas. We may weep, but we are not paralyzed. Changes must be applauded, encouraged, supported and proclaimed.
The first I would describe as the relational, the need to get under labels, under the badge, under skin color to shared humanity, a shared mission for a safe and healthy community in which families can thrive: joint police/community rallies and peace marches; School Resource Officers in Seattle who do not arrest but forge relationships with youth; officers who tutor children in Santa Rosa; officers who host barbecues in Camden’s hot spots, and who run a mobile playground program; faith leaders visiting a community’s most volatile offenders with police via Operation Night Light in Boston; Bishop Harris in Detroit working with police trying to stop a crowd moving from anger to rage; Police Explorer Scouts; Police Athletic League; “Why Did You Stop Me” curricula in Salinas and other cities; police as school “faculty members” in Newport News; Youth Crime Watch in Memphis; a Police Ice Cream Truck in Boston (Yes, really!).
Second, changes in policing: police being evaluated not just on arrests, but on positive links to the community in Watts, California; monthly meeting between Nashville’s police chief and faith leaders and quarterly with the larger faith community (at an officer-involved shooting faith leaders expressed full support for the department, noting that the shooting was an aberration); changes in academy training including community voices/concerns in Long Beach; Holocaust folded into police academy training in Nashville; faith community working “under the tape” in full partnership with the police, easing pain, helping pull the neighborhood together in many cities; making investigations regarding police shootings “transparent” in many cities or given to a third party (the prosecutor’s office in Salinas); training on de-escalation of use of force; social workers stationed in almost all police precincts in Boston.
Third, the community. Police are not responsible for the quality of education or the economy or for fathers who sire but not care for their children. Yet they are the first to feel the brunt when these “systems” fail. Communities, in partnership with the local, county and federal governments must invest heavily in those “systems.” Our spending is wildly disproportionate as massive amounts of money are poured into arrest, prosecution and imprisonment. Yet hope is manifest: Tax measures in San Jose, Oakland, Salinas and Santa Rosa have provided significant funding for prevention and intervention. Many cities that have launched comprehensive violence prevention strategies forging collective action involving schools, public health, education, work force development, faith-based and community-based organizations, the philanthropic community and others have seen changes, some of them dramatic. Yet…it is frail: a single incident of police brutality or one person with an assault weapon can tear into a long-developed fabric of trust.
Perhaps, at its deepest level, we’ve got know that we’re in this together, that we see each other as valuable, precious. An old, Hassidic tale may say it best. The rabbi asks his students, “How can we determine the hour of dawn, when the night ends and the day begins?” One of his students suggested, “When from a distance you can distinguish between a dog and a sheep?” “No,” came the answer from the rabbi. “Is it when one can distinguish between a fig tree and a grapevine?” ventured a second student. “No,” replied the rabbi. “Please tell us the answer,” pleaded the students. “It is,” said the wise teacher, “when you can look into the face of human beings and you have enough light in you to recognize them as your brothers and sisters. Up until then, it is night, and darkness is still with us.”
There is so much darkness, especially now. I participate in a monthly Faith-Based Community of Practice, and a Law Enforcement Community of Practice conference call for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. This has given me a real taste of what’s going on, a feel of the pulse, and a certainty, despite almost daily challenges, that positive change is underway. Through these calls and in visits to cities across the nation, I have seen many many shining lights, and many more being lit every day, even now as I write, so I know that darkness will not prevail.