“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
I don’t have all the answers. I don’t believe anyone does, but as Dr. King (quoted above) said, being silent is the wrong thing to do. Anchor Founder/Publisher Tia Williams and I discussed this. We talked about how delicate a subject it is. We know anything we say about it is likely to upset or offend someone. We think we have to say something anyway.
We believe in love. We believe in equality. We believe in community. The Anchor exists in part because of those beliefs. We know racism exists. We know injustice exists. Burying heads in the sand solves nothing. Ignoring things because they are not happening in our backyard solves nothing. We also know that in many cases in which two extremes are presented, the truth lies somewhere in between.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
I am not a law enforcement officer. I am not a lawyer. I am not a black person. I’m just a journalist, and I thought I would have this written hours ago. Instead, I’m sitting and watching tragedy unfold again, this time in Dallas. Four are dead as I write. I hope there won’t be more. (Update on Friday morning, 10 a.m.: a fifth has died. Again, I hope there won’t be more.)
I know for certain that the Dallas police officers should not have been killed. Not one of them did anything but go to work, putting their lives on the line to protect and serve their community. As I write this, the shooters have not been identified. Regardless of who they were or why they shot, they must be put behind bars.
I don’t believe Alton Sterling should have been shot to death. I don’t believe Philando Castile should have been shot to death. I base that on what I’ve seen and what I’ve read from sources I trust. I don’t know why the officers who killed Sterling and Castile did what they did. Regardless of their motivation, all the facts available so far say they should at the very least no longer be police officers. They may also belong in jail.
Here’s the problem. As I watched social media Thursday night, with not a single detail about the Dallas shooters’ identities confirmed, people went to extremes. Some blamed the Black Lives Matter movement. A former congressman blamed President Obama. Some have even, horrifyingly, praised the shooters. Wildly untrue things are being said, and conclusions jumped to without grounds. The same has happened in the deaths of Sterling and Castile. We’ve all seen and heard the comments, as people assign the mistakes made to all police officers, and mindlessly accuse all of racism.
We don’t have to choose between supporting police officers and opposing brutality and murder. If the facts bear out, as they appear to now, that the officers in the deaths of Castile and Sterling should not have shot, they should be fired. They should be arrested and charged. They should be tried. Whatever happens, however, their actions do not condemn all police officers. The actions of the Orlando shooter do not condemn all Muslims. The actions of the Dallas shooters, whoever they are, condemn them, not any group not directly helping them.
I think most who know me know I think of police officers as heroes. I have good reason. As a journalist, I’ve seen them work at close range. I’ve seen a state trooper put his body between me and harm when bottles were flying. I’ve seen them put on body armor and walk into danger. I’ve seen them go beyond the call of duty to help a kid find a place to fish and to buy a man a bicycle because his was wrecked. I’ve seen a black officer offer help to a member of the Ku Klux Klan. I’ve seen them and their families cry when their brothers and sisters died just doing their job. I’m proud to call many police officers friends, black and white, and I would bet my life that they are not racists. There are bad apples in every profession. I’m a journalist, I should know if only from my own field.
I’ve also stood beside black men and women who are nothing short of giants. I’ve been lucky enough to hear firsthand the stories of the fight for civil rights from men and women who put their lives on the line for the cause. I know they would never turn to violence. They did not, even when violence was used against them. The Dallas suspect who said he wanted to kill white people does not speak for them, any more than the police officers who shot Sterling and Castile acted on behalf of all cops.
It is nothing short of insanity for people to suggest we must support either police officers or black people. We can, and of course we do, support both. We believe black lives matter. Of course we do. We understand that racism has forced the birth of that movement, and while we wish we lived in a country where no such movement was needed, we know we are not there yet. We know police lives matter too, that all lives matter, and while we know the current state of affairs puts some lives in more danger than others, we utterly reject the notion that we must choose. We can stand for good and equality for all. We must.
In the Midlands, we are not perfect, but we’ve done well. Mistakes have been made by police officers here, and handled. I’ve been there to cover an unjustified shooting by a state trooper on Broad River Road. Fortunately, the victim recovered. An investigation followed, and the trooper will never wear a badge again. I reported when a Richland County sheriff’s deputy laid hands on a high school student and threw her. There too, the investigation was swift, and the deputy was fired. We were fortunate that no one died in those cases, and fortunate to have leaders who acted justly and decisively.
I also watched the deputy chief of the Columbia Police Department walk unarmed into a group of local protesters blocking Gervais Street after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. As a woman shouted “Are you going to shoot me?” he simply spoke to her and the other protesters until the situation was under control. No weapons were drawn. No punches were thrown. No one went to jail.
“This is Columbia,” Deputy Chief Melron Kelly told me that night. “We’re better than that. I grew up here. We have relationships with the community.” We are better than that. In the Midlands and beyond, we have to be better than that. We have to start here at home.
We have to stop going to extremes. We have to stop taking sides when we should all be on the same side. We have to punish the guilty, but only the guilty. We have to support all the people of our community. We have to support the good police officers. If we don’t, why would they go on risking their lives every day for us? Why would more good people join their ranks?
We have to work together to find solutions. We have to reach out to people. The more we know each other, the more common ground we will find. We have to find a way to replace hate with love.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
All italicized quotations from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.