This morning I was walking on the beach and noticed some litter in the dunes. It was just some detritus left by a parent, likely overwhelmed by their excitable kids. Nothing to really be upset about. I picked it up and disposed of it in a litter bin not far away.
I would have forgotten the incident entirely but for something that happened later in the day. I’d finished the days work and took Hannibal, my dachshund for his walk, and as I made my way through one of our beautiful parks I noticed a young woman with a handwritten sign on her back picking up litter. She had a stick and a garbage bag and was working her way through a number of the people enjoying the summer evening. As I got closer to the young woman I noticed the sign on her back read “Volunteer” in hastily scrawled hand.
I was curious and so walked up to the lady and asked, “what’s the story?”
She replied very politely that lives nearby and she walks in the park every day, and doesn’t like seeing litter left around. She’d noticed that if she comes out now and then and picks up the litter now and then the people in the park notice her and start to clean up after themselves.
I was left with an sense of admiration for the woman. She was doing what she could to help the community and make the work a better place. It seemed such a small thing, however in a wider context this was far from the truth. Before you start to think my life consists entirely of walking on sunny beaches and stalking people in public parks, I will explain.
Earlier in the day someone had made a comment in a discussion refer to COVID-19 as ‘the Chinese virus’. They had no idea that my son’s lovely and accomplished wife is of Chinese extraction. I expect they had not intended to be offensive, though that was how I interpreted the comment. It not only promoted a fictitious conspiracy theory only believed be those with neither the experience nor intelligence to understand how viruses spread, it was an example of the casual racism that is so easy to perpetuate.
We’re living in a time of change, and for the last two weeks voices have become more vocal appealing for change in the way society is policed, and changes in the underlying racism that exists in society. There’s simply too many reasons for this to go into, but if anyone were in need of any reminder of the failure of US policing, one need look no further than the statistics for shoot to kill incidents in the US. Around a thousand people were shot dead by police in 2018, which equates to 31 people killed per 10 million population. This compares to 3 in the United Kingdom. If you wish you can find more on this here: https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/08/us/us-police-floyd-protests-country-comparisons-intl/index.html
The only voices resisting the idea of change appear to come from authoritarian institutions that stand to loose influence. Theirs is hardly an unbiased perspective. BY the time one factors in the evident racism of many police practices it becomes hard to accept that this is anything other than a profoundly broken system. No amount of chanting ‘USA’, or claiming that the US is the best country in the world, overcomes the fact that there are deep fissures in the foundation of both law enforcement and institutional systems that are rooted in racism. To think otherwise seems incomprehensible.
While yet another white faced male stands in front of a microphone and pontificates, while having no fear that their child will be stopped and abused on the way home from school or work, we are left wondering how change can possibly take place. And yet, change does take place. Slowly.
There have been massive changes in LGBTQ rights (if you are white). There have been efforts made to address some inequalities in the policing mechanisms. It can be done, but if we’ve learned anything we’ve learned that current approaches take time, and in most cases fail.
That police forces present themselves in bullet proof vests to manage traffic offenses, or to enforce local bylaws, is an example of the outright failure of the current system of policing. It’s a posture that demonstrates both defensiveness and fear before the conversation has even started. Of course, society needs storm troopers, in the right circumstances and in appropriate circumstances. A traffic stop is neither one of these things.
It’s tragic that the section of society most impacted by these authoritarian failures is often the section of society that is least equipped to deal with them. The racial minorities, the gender minorities and often those with mental health issues. And one cannot claim that our efforts to address these inequities has been remotely successful.
When one person beats another with a club, regardless of which is wearing a uniform, a crime has been committed. It’s that simple. Failing to see this is a blind spot that will prove fatal for the remaining confidence (what little there is) that the public has in the police force. In the early eighties Maggie Thatcher learned this after using the militarised police to brutally quell the miners strikes. The result was a loss of public confidence in the police that has never returned, even after countless millions of public relations campaign dollars were spent to reverse the problem.
Basic human values tell us that for one person to brutalise another is wrong. Defending the perpetrator (regardless of their uniform) is to promote injustice. And for one placed in a position of public trust, and taking public money in the process, to argue otherwise is insulting to our intelligence.
The Police Federations have vocally resisted the facts of the matter and find themselves now on the wrong side of a human rights argument they cannot win. What they can do is continue to fund politicians to promote their views, but even that can only take them so far. I fail to understand why such an organisation has any business funding any politicians. Their role is to serve the public, not to invest on a political cause. The result of this is that an inevitable storm is coming that will likely sweep them before it as it does so to many police practices, and even police forces.
Many activities assigned to the police can be better handled by agencies that are trained for the purpose. Mental health should never be the purview of an armed six foot two, 230 lbs, former school bully. By-law enforcement can be managed very effectively by city staff. Traffic control doesn’t require a storm trooper. Society has outgrown the need for a gunslinger in town to enforce the law. Of course, we still need some form of law enforcement, but at an appropriate level and done in an intelligent way.
I’m very fortunate. Although gender fluid I’ve not really experienced much in the way of prejudice. I’m white, somewhat privileged, and I live in a liberal city. If I lived in the Midwest and was of First Nations extraction I would not be so fortunate. In the trans world to be black, indigenous, or latinx, it would be very hard to celebrate the great strides forward enjoyed by people like myself. When people march in Pride parades, it’s easy to think this is to celebrate the progress that has been made. While remarkable, that progress is still needed to support the sections of our community that have quite literally been left behind. If you need examples and evidence of this, you can find some of it here – https://abcnews.go.com/US/trans-women-color-facing-epidemic-violence-day-fight/story?id=66015811
One person I’ve talked to said when I suggested that they call the police after they’ve been exposed to violence simply replied, “Call the police? These are the police!”
Just like the woman in the park, it falls to each and every one of us to make a difference in our own way. We can no longer fall back on the excuses we have comfortably shielded ourselves with, such as “it’s just our age”, or ‘we were given these values by our parents’, or other cultural influences be it the workplace, or the family or just ‘the club’. We have to take responsibility and be the change we wish to see.
I want my children, and those I care for, to grow up in a world in which the don’t have to fear the police or any other institution riddled with endemic racism or prejudice. I want them to inherit a world better than the one that took George Floyd’s life. Somehow, I don’t think I am the only person that feels this way. We cannot expect some buffoon in the White House to make these changes for us. These changes must come from each and every one of us.
A wise man once said, ‘It takes courage to stand up and speak out. It also takes a lot of courage to sit and listen.’ Well, now we get to see how much courage the Police Federations really have.
A final thought. The woman in the park cleaning the place up – she was Chinese.