History repeats

For many of our readers, the political climate of today with regard to race relations is something they have never seen before. They have not seen protests and riots, nor have they heard allegations of blatant institutional racism and police brutality.

The older readers, myself included, have seen it all before. But I swear, I never thought I would see it again. I thought we had moved past the insanity of the 1960s and 1970s in America.

But apparently we just put a lid on a powder keg and hoped for the best.

I thought that we had moved into a time when intolerance simply was not tolerated. Of course it still existed, but it was acknowledged that there are some things you just do not say.

We should have seen it coming, with all the protests from people who thought they were being forced to be "politically correct." There were too many people out there feeling victimized by a tendency to say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas," as if acknowledging others' faiths was somehow a bad thing. There were too many politicians saying appalling things about women and the LGBTQ community, and still getting elected. There were too many people screaming about closing our borders and denying immigrant children health care or education.

We let down our guard. We let the monster out of the cave. Now we are faced with figuring out how to put it away, hopefully once and for all, before it tears apart our country again.

Because, if you think it is bad now, you have not learned your history; it can get so very much worse.

I grew up in a time when the images of police beating people in the streets were beamed into our living rooms on a nightly basis. When the fires of Watts spread across the country. When Olympic athletes were ejected from the Games because of their silent statements in support of human rights. When the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers declared war on the government of the United States. The winds of civil rights, women's rights, human rights and anti-war activism came together to form a perfect storm of domestic unrest.

It was a gut-wrenching time, filled with violence and distrust and hatred born of our deepest fears, which seemed to have no rational explanation.

Like today, we too easily saw the characteristics that made us different from others, instead of what made us the same. We drew lines in the sand that became trenches. And one of those lines was blue.

Few of us would argue the necessity for the police. We have chosen in our society to have certain situations handled by trained professionals, who are given badges and guns and made an extension of the government. And they are paid for the jobs they willingly take on. That being said, we cannot forget for one second that they are not nurses or firefighters or teachers or lawyers. They are an armed contingent of the government, and for this reason, if no other, they must be held to a standard and public scrutiny that is higher than what you will see for most other professions. Holding them to that standard is not "anti-police." We can be horrified by terrible acts by individual police officers without hating all police. We can support police without accepting bad behavior by a few.

The ONLY approach that will stop this war in its tracks is recognizing that there is a systemic problem in the relationship between police and the people they serve in many, many parts of our country. And no, these parts are not just the ones located hundreds of miles away. It has not been that long since the Pittsburgh police department operated under a U.S. Department of Justice consent order because of civil rights violations. It has not been that many years since the words “There’s a bunch of colored kids in that car, let’s pull it over,” came across the police radio in the North Boroughs. It has been even less time since I was personally threatened with the wrath of the “thin blue line” – exact words used in a letter to me by a local police officer – because I wrote something he didn’t like.

But I also remember the night I received a phone call from another local police officer warning me of the plan to plant drugs in my car during a traffic stop. And I recall the local police chief who told me to turn the threatening letter over to the FBI.

And that is the point I am trying to make. There are some (hopefully former) cops out there that I would not mind seeing hit by a bus – metaphorically speaking – but there are so many more that I respect, that I consider friends. There are good and bad in any group, and the best groups will police themselves.

The best groups will not deny that racism still exists in our society, so deeply woven into the fabric of our daily lives that we often do not recognize it. The best of the best will dedicate themselves to rooting it out and publicly rejecting it.

We will end this war before it goes any further by reaching out to those who are different from us, not by building a line of any color into a wall whose mortar is the message that only the lives behind that wall really matter.

That was the way the last war in this country moved into a stage of détente. This time, perhaps, we will not settle for détente. Maybe this time we will maintain our vigilance, and work towards a day when we truly no longer have to be on guard against the monsters that threaten us, because the monsters no longer exist.