I grew up in a very small town in North Carolina sandwiched between two slightly larger towns. Jamestown is really a "village" and has only slightly more than 3,500 people who officially call it home. It's essentially an annex of neighboring High Point, which has a population of nearly 108,000 and an "average" crime rate, according to City-Data.com.
Nothing like what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri, right now, has happened in High Point, at least not for a long, long time. I won't try to whitewash history: this was not a pleasant place for black people to live during the Civil Rights era. Nearby Greensboro was the site of several sit-ins that led to the Woolworth department store to end its segregation policy. (You can still visit the Woolworth's counter downtown; it's now a museum.)
I live in New York now, so it's more than fair to say I don't have my finger on the crime climate in Jamestown, High Point or Greensboro at the moment. Taking a look at statistics and the news, it would seem like any other similarly-populated, similarly-diverse region around the country. It's mostly quiet. There are a lot of traffic violations. Some robberies. The occasional murder or missing person.
It was strange to me, then, when a high school classmate who is now a High Point cop, and who I haven't seen since graduation in 2006 and haven't spoken to in almost as long, sent me a message on Facebook this week to let me know that he felt personally attacked by a post I had made. I posted a link to this article and video (view at your own risk) showing the shooting of a man who had stolen a couple of sodas and apparently some donuts from a convenience store. To accompany the link, I posted some comments about how I felt that cops in Ferguson should be disarmed and retrained, since use of deadly force appears to be the gut reaction for many of them. (Edit: I was initially mistaken. This particular shooting actually took place in St. Louis, not Ferguson. To my mind, my initial reaction still feels valid - cops in that *part of Missouri,* and, to be frank, much of the country, seem to shoot first, ask questions later).
Now, before I go on, I will admit: I know that is a heavy argument, coming from someone with no police background. It's a little self-righteous of me to think I can tell a police force how to do their jobs; that's a fair assessment. It was and is my opinion based on watching this video, which appears to show an overreaction leading to death similar to the one that many believe to have killed Mike Brown.
I can see how to a cop, my opinion might seem unfounded. It might seem like an overreaction. It might seem pompous, silly. I wrote it in anger and shock.
So when I got this message, chastising me for speaking about something of which I have little knowledge, though it seemed a bit out of the blue, I wasn't entirely surprised or offended. It made me think for a minute.
"OK," I thought. "He's right. I'm not a cop. I don't know what it's like to be a cop. I don't know what it's like to have my life feel like it's in danger."
But then came this part of the message:
YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO JUDGE US OR OUR ACTIONS.
It's fair to say that it's fruitless, if not actually harmful, for me to proclaim the steps I think the Ferguson PD should take with their police force. It's fair even to ask me to consider what it's like to be a cop. I have a complicated response to people who bring up this point of argument in situations like this, but I don't object to being engaged in that debate.
I do object, however, to the idea that by virtue of being a cop, one is immune to judgment.
This is problematic in part simply because it doesn't really work in the real world, for police or for people in any profession. People judge each other's work for lots of different reasons, all the time, not least when it impacts the lives (and deaths) of other people. And if we were to take this line of logic, it would seem that since this ex-classmate of mine is a cop in a very different town, very far away from Missouri, his "frame of reference" might not actually be that much bigger than mine - which he pointed out is quite small - for these particular events.
It reminds me a bit of the "not all men" argument that often gets made when women talk about misogyny. Certain men will assume that they are part of a massive, monolithic group known as All Men that is under attack, and come to All Men's defense. Is All Cops a thing, too? When one cop is questioned, do they all feel a pang?
But the more problematic thing to me is that we are apparently not supposed to question cops at all. Simply by virtue of donning a police uniform, being trusted by one's superiors with a weapon, going through police training and stating to the public that their aim is to "protect and serve," the rest of us are expected to reserve the judgment, skepticism and questioning that we all naturally do - and people of color often do to a deeper extent based on layers of negative experience - in our daily lives to survive.
That's the message from one police officer in High Point, North Carolina. He's not All Cops. But he purports to speak for many, with the use of "us," and the implications of that are frightening.
At the high school that this cop and I attended together, we were taught to ask questions. We were taught to be skeptical of everything. It was an advanced high school on a college campus where we took a lot of high-level courses, so high-level discussions occurred, and they inevitably pushed us to rethink our beliefs, try out new concepts, determine for ourselves whether to believe what we had been told to believe. No person or action or idea is above skepticism or judgment, regardless of their position, or so we learned.
If we don't have the right to "judge," or question, or be skeptical of the people our tax dollars arm to protect and serve us, who are they really protecting and serving?