The inexcusable death of George Floyd at the hand of Minneapolis Police has seemingly opened festering wounds in America. These wounds are never far below the surface in our society, even after so many decades of effort by so many to soothe them. But the protests we are now seeing are much larger than a single incident. They reflect a frustration born of negligence on the part of those in authority to address problems that continue to linger. Can we address them this time? Do we have the will and the leadership to address them? We are about to find out. There are several things that we can do as a starting point for healing. That healing can only occur when true, equal justice is sought by well-meaning people of all races and stations.
First, so that we are not off-tracked by commonly argued distractions, let’s lay out a few disclaimers be taken as understood in the context of the conversation:
1) The vast majority of police officers are many well-meaning public servants who are going about their job day-to-day, working to serve the public interest fairly and protect all members of their community.
2) Violent and willful destruction of property is not acceptable behavior, and those who would destroy property or endanger life should face the legal consequences of their actions.
3) It is becoming increasingly apparent that forces from the far left, and the far-right, have been involved in instigating violent and destructive behavior. Every American who values both justice and peace should resist the calls of the most radical elements of political society.
This outpouring of rage and sadness we are witnessing is not about an individual situation, even as George Floyd’s death is a catalyst at this time. Everyone feels for George Floyd, and his family and friends. His death was an avoidable tragedy, and those responsible should be held to account…ALL of those responsible. Neither is this entire situation about one (or even four) officers. The level of anger we are seeing is an accumulation of feelings wrought by continuing incidents of violence against black Americans, especially black men, and a system that seems to place differing values on human life. Simply prosecuting one officer (or four) will not fix it. If the systemic issues, and accompanying racial attitudes, are not addressed this will continue to happen. There are some things that we should be able to agree upon to address these issues, and while there are no fast, easy, solutions…every journey begins with a single step.
First, we should all be able to say without hesitation or qualification that “black lives matter.” That seems like a strictly symbolic step, but it is incredibly important that all of American society not only accept this mantra but embrace it. It matters because it has not always been accepted in American society, and one should question whether it is accepted now, especially as it pertains to the justice system. A recent study showed police killing as the sixth leading cause of death among young, black men. Young men of color are two and a half times more likely to die in police custody than young white men. When such a stark difference in death rate exists among ANY population, there can be no argument that there is a major problem.
Accepting that black lives matter does not discount the worth of any other life. If your neighbor has a house fire, the fire department does not spray down all houses in the neighborhood. Yes, all houses matter, but YOUR HOUSE IS NOT ON FIRE! Let’s put to bed any arguments about this phrase, and embrace it for the lives of our brothers and the betterment of our society as a whole.
Secondly, police training and vetting must become geared towards the original purpose…TO PROTECT AND SERVE. All police departments, preferably led by experts in the field, should seek to train every officer to the highest level in the arts of de-escalation and conflict resolution. There are too many disproportionate responses of force, especially as it pertains to black America. There must also be swift justice applied to those in uniform who violate the rights of others. Violent crime cannot be excused because you have a difficult job. There can be no justice unless those who are responsible for administering it are held to the same standards. I love and appreciate our law enforcement. My mother was an Alabama State Trooper for 27 years. I was partially raised by many of those men and women over my childhood and teenage years. The good ones will always want to get it right.
Third, there must be comprehensive criminal justice reform. The United States is less than 5% of the world’s population, but houses 25% of the world’s prisoners. We are either the worst, most criminal people on earth, or we have created a criminal justice system that thrives on the prison population and the money generated by it.
Think for a moment of the idea of “for-profit” prisons…how wrong-headed is that? The goal of a just society is to punish and reform those who break the law, then work towards returning them to civil society as productive members. If prison is run for profit, then fewer prisoners mean less profit. The goals of a profit-driven prison system are in diametric opposition to the goals of a just society. The question must also be answered why black defendants are sentenced to longer terms for the same crime? And one more question that no one has provided a reasonable answer for…why are we imprisoning non-violent, low-level drug offenders?
Finally, there must be an understanding among us that these systemic issues exist. Several years ago, the conversation that truly brought it home to me was with a fellow father who was black as we discussed teaching our sons to drive. I listened as he explained the detailed instructions he gave his son for a traffic stop to avoid being killed by a nervous police officer. Being white, I had never felt the need to have that discussion with our boys. I simply told them to show your license and insurance. The fact that I can live my life without having to have that conversation is white privilege. Admitting that it exists doesn’t make you, or all white people, bad. It makes you informed.
Say it with me: The system is not equal. That’s why it is called “systemic” racism. A systemic issue does not mean that all people involved in the system, or all components of the system, are racist. It should, however, demand reformative action on our parts…now. Admitting we have a problem is a good first step. The system is not equal. Again…say it with me…the system is not equal.
The fact that we are still fighting these battles 56 years after the Civil Rights Act is discouraging for all of us. Imagine how it feels to those battling generations of discrimination and prejudice in their own lives directly? Those of us who enjoy the privilege of not being directly affected by racist systems have a responsibility to recognize the realities and commit to fixing them. Because I believe in the ideals of this nation, even if unrealized, I believe we can get it right. But first, we must admit that we haven’t yet.
Jeremy Jeffcoat is an Alexander City resident and former candidate for Alabama House District 81.