A Political Mine Field
The other day, a friend passed a car that was stopped on the shoulder of the road with the young black driver outside being questioned by two uniformed police officers and one in civilian clothes. My friend made a U-turn and slowly drove by the scene, making it clear that she was watching, but what was she watching? She would not have noticed or given it a second thought if the motorist was white but he wasn’t. My friend’s antennae were up because she worried that she was witnessing a case of improper if not illegal police profiling of a young African American who had done nothing wrong, other than being a young African American.
(Photo /Nathan Dumlao)
Possibly, or possibly in this relatively sleepy, predominantly white, suburban town, several officers often respond to motor vehicle stops if for no other reason than they may have little else to occupy their time at the time. So maybe the car had a cracked windshield and maybe the car was speeding and maybe the color of his skin had nothing to do with anything other than to catch the interest of my friend who happened to be passing by. Maybe.
Now, suppose the young African American motorist had refused to get out of his car, defiantly demanding to know why he was stopped and being met with a stony stare and the officer’s words, “please exit the vehicle.” And still the motorist holds his ground while the officer’s temperature begins to rise and the situation is regressing into a power struggle and the young African American reaches into the glove box to find his license and suddenly the officer tears the door open, believing the young African American may be reaching for a weapon, and he pulls the young African American out of the car, forces him to the ground, all while the youth is yelling and getting increasingly agitated because he has seen this scene play out on the evening news where a young, unarmed African American is shot dead by a fearful, angry police officer, for the crime of being an impolite African American. Maybe.
Fortunately my friend did not stop her car and she did not begin taping the event with her cell phone, which would have been a passive aggressive and not so subtle sign critical of police, because she thought something bad was going down. And you can see how tempers can flare and a relatively benign situation can swiftly and suddenly explode out of proportion and escalate into a potentially serious confrontation. Too many people and too many police live in hair trigger worlds where the wrong assumptions can turn very badly, very quickly. In this case, there was no impropriety, the police had been polite, the motorist had not objected and he was given a summons for speeding 50 in a 40 mph zone and for having an obstructed view because of the cracked windshield. Was my friend wrong for slowing down and letting the officers know that she was watching? Would her actions be seen by the officers as confrontational and adding to the us vs. them mentality of too many police officers? Or would the officers understand that in this world people are hypervigilant against violence against African Americans and that as long as the officers are acting appropriately, they have nothing to worry about.
Which leads me to an issue that scares the shit out of me and that is the call to “defund the police” and how this incredibly incendiary and volatile issue will become a louder and louder drumbeat from the Republicans and could lead to their taking back majorities in Congress, a truly frightening prospect and add to that the possibility of Trump being returned to the White House and you have the worst of all worlds, the mother of all nightmare scenarios, but it could happen.
I know that the words mean different things to different people, and that to some, “defund the police” means realigning police budgets to provide more training and changing the way that police respond to traffic violations or other relatively minor incidents while to others “defund the police” means complete dismantling and ending funding to police, shut down the police departments and start from ground zero to create an altogether new way of enforcing laws.
The Defundthepolice.org website, representing the Black Lives Matter movement, makes it clear that “abolishing the police does not mean the abolishing of community safety.” It talks of alternatives to police services with “more effective methods of providing safety and security to our communities — methods that reject the murder and brutalization of Black people.”
The website calls for a repeal of “outdated laws and bylaws” and setting new priorities to provide public health and social support and eliminate over-reliance on police surveillance and enforcement. It further says that law enforcement must shift funding away from military-grade weapons and overly-invasive and intrusive technologies. For more visit Defund the Police, org.
Most, if not all of the people I know are not far right wingers and I would guess that most Americans do not identify as conspiracy theorists or white supremacists or trumpers, for that matter. For most people, the overarching number one issue is safety in their homes, in their neighborhoods. With crime rates rising in the cities that are generally Democratic strongholds, regardless of the reasons, from high unemployment, fears about COVID-19, suspicion of police, it doesn’t matter, because anything that is perceived as a threat to security can quickly push the most moderate of people into the far right camp and that goes for whites and people of color because there is nothing more important than their safety and the safety of their children. Recall how the Nazis gained support by their incessant repetition of the big lie that the Jews were destroying German society.
We must tread carefully while still moving forcefully ahead in changing the ways that police officers do their work and we must not lose sight of the reality that most police want to enforce the laws and don’t want to land in the middle of political battles. Because if the message is interpreted to mean that the police have to go, it will guarantee Republican victories in the House, Senate and presidency in 2024 because perceived threats to security can quickly transform middle of the roaders to raging right wing nuts. Beware.
This piece first appeared in Medium.
Editor's note: Phil Garber has been a Journalist for 40 years and has won the journalist of the year award twice from the New Jersey Press Association. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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