June 3rd, 2020

On Aspiring to Awareness and Having Much to Learn

Many people who haven’t known me for more than twenty years likely aren’t aware that I used to want to be a cop. So much so that for four and half years, from age sixteen to twenty-one, I was a Police Explorer in my hometown. The Police Explorer program is a branch of the Boy Scouts that allows youth to serve as limited-involvement “cadets” with police departments. I wore a uniform and helped with things like directing traffic at college football games and foot-patrolling neighborhoods on Halloween to help ensure the safety of trick-or-treaters. Explorers also attended bi-montly meetings that discussed and taught about different areas of police work and accompanied officers twice a month on ride-alongs during their shifts.

During this four and a half years, I developed a strong feeling of connection with the law enforcement profession. Ever since then, I have tended to feel a particular dread when I have heard about fatalities or injuries of officers on the job. It’s a profession that meant a lot to me for a number of years in my youth, and one I thought I would pursue in my adult working life. I had an extraordinary law enforcement mentor I still deeply admire and appreciate to this day, and I worked alongside many officers whose guidance and professionalism I appreciated being exposed to.

For a number of reasons, I was not personally well-suited for police work. I was unaware of this during my Explorer years and for a number of years after, though I did become aware of it early enough that I did not ultimately pursue becoming a police officer to the point of ever being one.

One thing I was totally oblivious of during my Explorer years was white privilege and racial tension in general. Partly this was because I lived in a relatively small city in the Midwest, where it was not common to encounter non-white people (at least for me, as a white person). Among the racial minority populations in my hometown, the number of African Americans was particularly low. Though I was an adamant feminist and considered gender frequently, I thought about race very little. In both cases, the perspective in me was extremely rigid, allowing for nothing but the recognition that all are equal and that there was no reason to focus on or talk about anything except that understanding. I completely failed to recognize or take into account systemic sociological phenomena, in which social systems are historically designed and upheld that intrinsically discriminate against, denigrate, or dismiss certain aspects of humanity, such as womanhood and non-whiteness. Blackness, of course, has a particular historical collective trauma in the United States, as does indigenousness to the land on which the US is drawn.

Incidentally, I do see all humans as of equal intrinsic value. But again, my desire to somehow force everyone to simply recognize and understand that meant that I was not interested in recognizing myself the complexity of systemic phenomena in such realms as sociology, anthropology, and economics that have incontrovertibly contributed to the way human society operates in the context of race, gender, and oppression.

The misguidedness of the way I perceived then is stunning, not to mention humbling, to me. I wonder if it now also results in additional horror when I see increasingly public indicators of the profession with which I used to feel such kinship’s being deeply entwined with this country’s history of racist violence and oppression. Disillusioning does not cover it, but it has been a part of it. Several months ago I encountered an online overview of the social tensions and context leading up to and surrounding the US Civil War. Historically, I have not been well-versed in history in general, and it was an informative document for me. I particularly noted the following:

“With industrialization came several elements of social discord in the eyes of Anglo-Protestant Americans, immigrants and labor unions being among them. Together these two bred strife between the working class and the elite whose business models demanded faster and faster production speeds and lower wages. In cities like Chicago, New York, Boston, and Cleveland, modern police departments were established and financed by elites in order to protect Anglo-Saxon Protestant power and quell unrest among laborers [emphasis mine]. . . . The Civil War afforded the Anglo-Protestant elite the ability and opportunity to use newly established professional police forces to break-up union meetings and strikes and to keep close observation on suspected radical outsiders in the name of patriotism and ‘national security.’”

I had admittedly had no idea modern policing in America had such origins. I had not known what its origins were and realized I had never wondered. That was profoundly remiss of me.

I do not see a dichotomy between police officers and Black people, as though they are on different sides inherently at odds with each other. I do, however, see the system of law enforcement in the United States, as it was historically developed, as reflective of seriously troubling and dissonant perspectives in this country’s history. It’s somewhat similar to how the very formation of this country emerged out of a powerful notion of liberty and self-determination…while also massacring Indigenous peoples on the land in question, enslaving Africans, and actively oppressing women.

Recognizing the problematic origin and history of American policing is not the same as seeing all police officers as perpetuators of such grave misdirection (not only are many not, there are surely many who are aiming to thwart it as much as the system in general may perpetrate it), and simultaneously, it is an important recognition—especially for someone such as myself who, in my youth, unquestionably accepted said system as a force for “good” and generally on the “right” side of the law and society.

Things are much, much more complex than that. I am thankful that I have come, to some degree, to see that. And I still have much to learn. I wish for myself and all of us the humility, caring, curiosity, and willful intention it will take to discern and effect what we must.



“Open up your heart, and you will see that you and me aren’t very far apart, ’cause I believe that love is the answer…”
-Blessid Union of Souls “I Believe”

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