A RESPECTFUL REJOINDER TO A MISTAKEN CALL
©Wendell Griffen, 2016
Justice Is a Verb!
July 15, 2016
Robert Parham (executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics) wrote an editorial last week titled How the Church can Speak up for the Thin Blue Line for the July 12, 2016. Parham wrote his editorial after he viewed and read remarks by Dallas Police Chief David Brown made during an interview with Jake Tapper of CNN after 5 Dallas law enforcement officers were slain the night of July 8. During that interview, Chief Brown commended the courage of police officers, remarked that the national conversation about law enforcement “is not sustainable to keep these officers encouraged” given the risks they take and the low pay they earn, and called on “this country to stand up as a silent majority and show your support for these people to keep them encouraged to protect you.”
Parham’s column asks, “How does the silent majority speak up about the unrelenting criticism of law enforcement?” He then offers four responses: (a) affirm moral critique; (b) respect those in authority—“law enforcement”; (c) practice discernment; and (d) avoid rush to judgment. In calling church people to “speak up for the thin blue line” by affirming moral critique, Parham asserts that nonviolent protest is legitimate, but adds that “too many protests are violent or threatening.” He offered no example of a violent protest. He offered no example of a “threatening” protest.
Parham’s suggestions remind me of something Mark Twain famously said: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
Parham mentioned that during some nonviolent protests several people have been seen openly carrying firearms. However, the jurisdictions where that happened permit firearms to be carried openly. Doing something the law allows is not threatening, even if others (including police officers) prefer that one not do it. What Parham knows (“too many protests are violent or threatening”) “just ain’t so.”
Parham’s call for respect for law enforcement asks “why not advocate respect for police officers.” Police officers are respected. However, none of us should confuse respect for the office of protecting the public with tolerance of systemic abusive and homicidal conduct by police: public outcry about that treatment is justified and should be commended, not scolded. Law enforcement leaders and their sympathizers (including Parham) must not treat demands that abusive and homicidal police conduct be treated the same way society treats such treatment by civilians as signs of disrespect. They are demands for justice.
Parham’s exhortation that church people practice discernment borrows from Chief Brown’s comment that most police officers perform well, that one or two percent don’t, and that it is unfair to judge police officers as a whole based on the misconduct of a few. That observation would be more persuasive if the “one or two percent” were held accountable for abusing and killing people.
Police officers who engage in abusive and homicidal conduct are shielded by systemic practices and policies. The killers of Alton Sterling (killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana July 5), Philando Castile (killed in Falcon Heights, Minnesota), Delrawn Small (killed by an off-duty police officer in Brooklyn, New York, and Alva Braziel (killed by police in Houston, Texas) were not arrested. They are not homicide suspects. Parham’s call for discernment should have at least acknowledged that glaring reality.
Parham urges that church people “be slow to speak” in keeping with the admonition that we avoid rushing to judgment. In doing so he contends that “sensational video causes us to have a hair trigger tendency to rush to judgment…especially…in the age of social media.”
Would Parham and Chief Brown suggest that church people pretend we don’t see our neighbors being gunned to death? Would they suggest that our unarmed slain neighbors will somehow become armed and dangerous if we wait long enough? What would they have us wait to see? And why do the police and prosecutors treat video of bank robberies as sufficient evidence to arrest and charge thieves but insist that video of unarmed people being shot, choked, or beaten to death by police does not support arrest and prosecution of the killers who are police officers?
Like Parham, I read the transcript of Chief Brown’s interview with Jake Tapper. Like Parham and many other people, I sensed and share his anguish and sorrow concerning the five police officers murdered in Dallas on July 8. We should grieve. We should denounce the homicidal actions that ended the lives of those public servants, spouses, fathers, neighbors, and friends. We should grieve the homicidal actions that ended the lives or three more law enforcement officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana since then.
At the same time, we must also grieve the deaths of Delrawn Small, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Alva Braziel, and every other unarmed person killed by the police. Parham and Chief Brown said nothing about that reality. In speaking about the safety concerns of police officers and their loved ones Chief Brown and Parham did not mention that the families of Alton Sterling, Delrawn Small, Philando Castile, Alva Braziel, and their neighbors worry whether their next encounter with a police officer will be deadly. Their refusal to do that is not only telling. It is inexcusable.
Delrawn Small, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Alva Braziel, Shantel Davis, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Kimani Gray, Eugene Ellison, John Crawford, Rekia Boyd., Tanisha Anderson, Kendrick McDade, Lema Baker, Mike Brown, and the other unarmed people killed by the police mattered. Their loved ones and neighbors matter. Parham and Chief Brown have not said so.