Like many of you, I have been wondering about all that is going on in our country. For good reason, I have greatly limited the time I spend watching television. I read the news online, though, and anytime I read the news or watch TV, I cringe. These days, there are frequent stories and videos about what police officers have done, or are doing, to the very people they have sworn an oath to protect. There was one video where the police officer released a dog on the suspect. This dog kept biting and biting the suspect, inflicting needless pain on him. Again, I asked myself, "Why? Is this law enforcement, or are we on some battlefield? Why should dogs even be used in such manner against citizens?" In many cases, I end up asking myself, "Why should any of these interactions even end in tragedy?" I cringe.
Think about being anywhere in our own community. In your travels, you may see a police officer. Whenever I now see any one of them, all that I see is an individual loaded and primed for battle. "Against whom?" I ask myself. Granted, they must deal with some level of violence in the performance of their duty, but why do some even dress up as if any of our neighborhoods is a battlefield? Are they police officers, or peace officers? It simply beats my imagination.
Prior to smartphones, we mostly heard about, or read, stories about police brutality. Those stories did not get as much reaction because they appeared more distant. Moreover, many were those who felt powerless to usher in any lasting change or bring to the world’s attention to some of the grotesque and insidious tactics that the police - in the name of law enforcement - use against their own citizens, these people they have taken an oath to defend. But as we can all tell, there is a different way in which videos can tell the same story, and these stories of police brutality have been pitiful, riveting, shocking, insulting, demeaning, or make me cringe.
Amid all the demonstrations across the world over the way George Floyd died, there was also a demonstration in Buffalo, New York, where a peaceful demonstrator was shoved down by police. This gentleman fell backwards, with his head hitting the pavement. Save for the officers who attended to him and tried to offer help, the rest acted indifferently to the plight of the man. This act was perpetrated against a White man in full view of the whole world. It is now my understanding that this man has a fractured skull and is not able to walk. If the police can behave in such a way in broad daylight, what might they do under the cover of darkness? This, too, makes me cringe.
To add insult to injury, we had another incident - this time in Atlanta - where Rayshard Brooks was fatally shot. He had fallen asleep in his car at a Wendy’s drive-through. He then had a conversation with the police for 41 minutes, during which he wasn’t accused of doing anything wrong. All of a sudden, he got into an altercation with the police officers with whom he had been having a conversation, managed to take one officer’s taser, and as he ran away, directed the taser at the officer. The Officer in response, shoots him dead. The video of the scene is painful and hurtful to watch. But what makes me cringe is that even after Mr. Brooks had been shot, one officer kicked him while another stood on top of him, and did not offer any kind of aid. Whatever it is that Mr. Brooks may have done, it did not warrant his death. And this makes me cringe.
I cringe over the pattern of indifference and abject desecration of human bodies, especially that of African Americans by police officers, but please do not get me wrong. I am not, in any way, suggesting that every police officer harbors within himself or herself a racist bias towards every African American. Far from that.
I have been pulled over by police officers before, and there is one particular story that I share of an officer who pulled me over. He walked over to my window, and asked for my driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance. I then gave him the documents he requested. And then, out of nowhere, he asked, “What do you do for a living?”
“I am a priest,” I responded.
“A Roman Catholic priest?” he asked.
“No. An Episcopal priest,” I answered.
He then took a long pause and said to me, “Father, wherever you are going, I will need you to slow down.” And then, surprisingly, he handed over my documents, and said I could leave.
This Sunday is Father’s Day. George Floyd will not be with his children on Father’s Day. He will never again hear his children wish him "Happy Father’s Day." Martin Gugino may have to spend Father’s Day dealing with a fractured skull. Rayshard Brooks will not celebrate his daughter’s birthday nor will he hear his children wish him "Happy Father’s Day" any more. This makes me cringe.
A few weeks ago, I received an email from a parishioner with the subject line, I am optimistic. Upon reflection of this the email, I said to myself, "How can one not be optimistic?" Without that sense of optimism, you will be consumed by fear, desolation, and hopelessness. More than that, you will always feel this sense of spite, hatred, and revenge - even against those who have done nothing to hurt or demean you.
I am always reminded by Dr. King’s words: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” For that reason, in as much as I cringe over some of the actions of our police officers, I am optimistic about a future where mutual trust between citizens and citizens - and citizens and police - would usher in a future devoid of the fear and attitude that causes me to cringe... a future enveloped in justice.