I keep updating this same commentary, yet I am neither obsessed nor uncertain regarding this subject; I am simply more and more concerned as tragic police-community interactions continue to polarize our nation. I am certain that I am not the only person in America who was shocked by the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The images of citizens looting, stun grenades exploding, and up-armored vehicles transporting equally up-armored police to confront the citizens they swore to protect only emphasized the stark divisions that drove each side to ever more damaging actions.
The subsequent chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York City and the shooting of Tamir Rice in Cleveland led to more nationwide protests and soul-searching that sought to answer the same basic question: How can we keep this from happening again?
Unfortunately, next we had to deal with yet another manifestation of the anger and confusion caused by both recent events and a history of tense encounters between police and the communities they serve: the executions of two New York City police officers. Police departments across the nation went on high alert, concerned that other self-styled crusaders would believe that cold-blooded murder is somehow heroic. The stammering failure of many who should have known better to both condemn those who target police officers and insist on a reasoned dialogue devoid of invective drove both sides to retreat behind ramparts of insults and threats.
Next came two additional incidents that added to the witch’s brew of anger: the chilling shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina by Officer Michael Slager, who is now facing a murder charge, and the suspicious death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, which led to criminal charges against the officers involved in his arrest and transport. The looting and burning in Baltimore, broadcast by the minute, was yet another defeat for those counseling dialogue and healing.
The right to peaceful assembly and protest must be respected and protected, and to believe otherwise is to not believe in our basic American freedoms. However, civil unrest and violence is a symptom of profound societal failure—not the start of a solution. The communities in question—and our nation as a whole—become simultaneously more reactive and less reflective, and calming voices of moderation are replaced by the shouts of those at the extremes.
One positive step would be to stop looking for easy explanations. Poverty alone does not cause people to riot; if it did, PhD candidates in the Humanities would be the most lawless segment of our society. Injustice alone does not drive people into the streets; we will not find utopia on this earth. A lack of basic human dignity will not cause a rock to be thrown; we deny it to ourselves as often as others strip it from us. Poverty, injustice, and disrespect are but the raw materials for the spark that ignites the flame—desperation driven by an utter lack of hope for a better future.
Hope is as essential as oxygen to sustain us, and hope is in exceedingly short supply right now. Poll after poll shows Americans are afflicted with a stupendous—and perfectly understandable—lack of optimism about the future. It would be nice if we thought our nation’s leaders could help, but a recent Gallup poll indicated that Americans now believe politicians are the biggest problem now facing our nation—which is itself a very big problem.
Many of us are at the frayed edges of our patience, and our belief that anything will happen to remedy the underlying sources of our economic and social frustrations is also frayed—perhaps beyond easy repair. Somewhere, sometime—and likely where and when we least expect it—a dire lack of hope fueled by poverty, injustice, and a failure to treat everyone with humane understanding will flame into rage yet again—and rob us of yet more desperately needed hope.
When it does, I pray we will not point fingers, not shout insults, and not fall into the trap of seeing those who are aggrieved as “others” who are different from ourselves simply because they are tired and angry. We need leaders who will walk the streets rather than give press conferences or step out of a limousine for a 15 second sound bite. To govern, you must stand with the governed—and we should save our support for those who give hope to us all by seeking to heal rather than divide.