This is a difficult issue for many of us; just reading the title stirs up anxiety and gets our hearts beating faster. Please bear with me, take a deep breath, and read on as I share a bit.
I attended a Black Lives Matter protest. I kept it a secret from my dear friend because I knew he’d feel betrayed—he’s a policeman and felt the BLM movement was an attack on police. He’d shared with me stories about his experiences on the job. He was having flashbacks to a time when he responded to a fatal accident. A teen had crashed her car while driving intoxicated and died. He had to make the report to her mother, who became suicidal upon receipt of the news. He shared about the anger he felt at the teen because she caused her life to end so soon. In his profession, he often deals with the consequences of decisions people make in their worst moments. As his friend, I helped him process through some of his emotions without judgment and discussed coping strategies to manage his stress and anger. I shared how I could relate as a therapist to the emotional stress, but rather than anger, I often felt despair surrounding some of the things my clients had experienced. For both of us, exercise was our main coping strategy.
At the protest, I felt solidarity with the people there. The protestors seemed to understand that we as a nation still have a long way to go until Black people are truly treated equally. It felt good to stand up for convictions I’d held for years and to be a part of something peaceful that I agreed with. However, toward the end, one of the protesters discussed an upcoming protest. He didn’t want to go because the leaders had coordinated with the police. Knowing the area and community, I was glad to hear they had done so; I’d worked a bit in that community and had witnessed justice done on behalf of a family I cared about. I also knew the police mirrored the ethnic demographics of the area, following national trends in this direction. I felt tension in response to the protester’s sentiment. Are police who are willing to support a peaceful protest the enemy?
While working at an alternative high school in my 20’s, my eyes were opened to the injustices Black people experience. I grew to know and love many people who came from backgrounds different than my own. I heard stories of families, grandparents, tragedies, and hardships. I saw young people working hard, catching the city bus very early in the morning to get to school, caring for their siblings while their parents worked, and doing their very best to graduate high school. I was often the only white person invited to family celebrations. I was uncomfortable at times but always welcome. I made mistakes but was forgiven. I came to know a community that had a very tight, special bond, a community that respected and honored their elders, a community in which people knew how to care for one another.
This same community of people was experiencing a unique hardship. They felt that the system—whether it was schools, health care, or law enforcement—was working against them, not for them. I learned from people and their stories and also through my master’s studies in education. I learned that structural injustices I thought had changed long ago, had not. In fact, the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s was not that long ago. Fifty years is not a lot of time to remedy economic inequalities in a slowly adjusting world. It’s not a long time to reform schools and make resources equally available. It’s not a long time to overcome centuries of trauma, physical and psychological violence, cultural and geographic dislocation; effects of techniques designed to actively break down familial bonds; economic disenfranchisement, and the physiological consequences of these horrors. The more I learned, the more I understood this feeling about the system was in fact the reality of oppression.
Despite our work at the school, the oppression was always there, in the background. It felt sometimes like hopelessness, the feeling that the world is working against you. We fought against it every day at my school. We reminded our beautiful Black teens daily of their talent, their worth, and their brilliance. But we were fighting against something big, against insidious messages society was sending them. Messages saying they were people to be feared, not admired; they were people who would endure life, rather than take it by the reins and drive it.
The contrast to my own experience as a white middle-class youth was extreme. I graduated high school thinking I would change the world. Some of our students didn’t make it to that moment; the circumstances were too overwhelming. Those that did make it to graduation had already changed the world. They had overcome more in their short years than many will in a lifetime.
A few weeks after I attended the protest, I was listening to one another friend share about his day at work. He is a policeman too, like my friend back in California. He shared that morale is low. That many who can are getting out. “Why would anyone want to be in the police right now?” he asked. “Everyone hates us. We all hate going to work. It’s stressful and taking a toll on our families.”
I listened as he shared. I empathized with the stress he felt. I have known this man for many years. I know he has a sensitive heart and is a good father and husband. Like many, he joined the police to try and stop the “bad guys,” the pimps, the abusers, the murderers. His daily reality is much more stressful than mine—most of my clients don’t yell at me or try to hurt me. Watching him sitting before me, disheartened and frustrated, I did not blame him for the reality of racial oppression that I know exists. He is a small part of a large, unjust system. So am I. We all are.
Police have the important job of keeping everyone safe by enforcing policies and laws that we created as a society. When we see something is wrong in our system, we are obligated to fix it. Something is wrong with the laws we have in place and with how we police. Innocent lives have been taken. People of color are vastly overrepresented in prisons. Black children are living in fear. Yet, we can make large-scale changes to how we police while continuing to value the sacrifices police make when they risk their lives for public safety.
We can start by recognizing that a wide range of social problems have inadvertently fallen to police to manage. For example, we do not properly care for people who struggle with severe mental illness, drug addiction, or loss of shelter, leaving these people out in the streets. Economic injustices continue to plague our society, such as racial wage disparities and poor who are working but still can’t make enough money to live. When people lack support, they sometimes become desperate. Police are often dealing with people suffering from the effects of injustices society has failed to address.
From the federal government to our local court of law, changes need to happen. Focusing only on police as representations of systemic racism is both overly simplistic and unfair to the people who have chosen that profession. It ignores the bigger picture and the amount of work that needs to be done, allowing us to abdicate our responsibility to be that change.
Black Lives Matter is a movement led by Black people to call our attention to racial injustice and demand change. The call of Black Lives Matter is for us as a society, in particular white people who make up the racial majority, to care about the injustices Black people continue to endure and to demand change as well. It is a call for us all to do our part to sever the bonds of oppression, whether it is through developing equitable economic policy, providing reparations, ensuring our laws protect civil rights, voting, donating, supporting, speaking out, creating art, or praying. Each of us can contribute in some way to furthering racial justice.
Black people in our cities and our neighborhoods are uniting together and expressing pain and anger at continued oppression. They are asking for help to make our society better for everyone. You who have ears to hear, please listen. Listen to our brothers and sisters who honor you with their stories. Honor the humanity on both sides of the debate. Listen and sit in the tension, the tension between reality and possibility. And somewhere in this tension, we just might find the redemption we all long for.