Thursday, April 30, 2015
Practicing the Theory of Equality
My daily commute is usually 45 minutes each way. I cross over three towns each time I go to or from work. Having spent more than half of my adult life in Los Angeles this is not an unusual or odd pattern for me. For many Bostonians whom I interact with it’s a very odd way to choose to live. Like clockwork at the end of each month I see a high visibility of police on the streets – strategically positioned to capture anybody who deviates from one of a myriad of rules of the road. My libertarian philosophy usually kicks into annoyance for the effort seems to be less about maintaining a strict adherence to the laws and more about a quota or generating fines. I haven’t been a victim of such calibrated enforcement here (yet) so my feelings are theoretical and not practical. (If it’s about safety then why wouldn't they be there 24/7, not just the last few days of the month?) It’s a nice position to be in – thinking about and commenting on a police matter when one doesn’t have any direct experience...then it's theoretical. People in Baltimore, Ferguson and many other places don’t have that same luxury.
I’m a white man, educated, older person who is able to make ends meet. Those adjectives make me privileged though I don’t think of myself that way. When I see the riots and violence in Baltimore, Ferguson … even New York … I can’t identify with why somebody would do that. What does torching a police car, or looting a business do to tackle racism? Why does damaging property somehow equate to acceptable discord? Intellectually I can absolutely understand that years of oppression, discrimination, abuse and unequal treatment boils over and it’s a way of acting out in response to events. My own community (LGBT) was largely born from its own demonstrations, so it's not that I can't comprehend, I just can't personally identify. The events that have caused such actions recently have been when a black person has died at the hands of a non-black police officer.
There are no official statistics available by state or nationally about how many people die at the hands of police officers. The U.K.’s Guardian published a 2-part story in March 2015 which found that “citizen activists keep the best national counts.” The story reported that an African American is killed by a police or security guard “at least every 28 hours.”
The Justice Department’s report on Ferguson determined that the police were issuing 28 tickets a month to citizens where 80% of the residents are African American. CNN’s report summarizes a number of cases where the ticketing was so much a part of the culture that the entire city budget was framed around increasing fines to its citizens.
My smaller-government philosophy would love to grab onto these facts as evidence that there are too many laws on the books, too many fines, too much government intrusion! An example from the CNN story: A woman received tickets because her car was not parked in her own driveway in accordance with the city’s rules. The fines added up. She fought them. Was arrested. Then lost because she couldn’t contest the ruling because she was in jail. In theory streamlining the laws and fine structure would mitigate this situation, but the larger issues aren’t actually about the law. It’s about how Americans interact with each other.
There is a pervasive unresolved issue in America around race. It divides our communities and infects our politics. I am a white person of privilege and absolutely the wrong person to be pontificating about race. I loathe drawing summary conclusions from bits of data and applying it. Those cautionary statements aside: I’m confident that if somebody like me was being killed virtually every single day by the police there would be a lot more fuss about it. If a community had 80% of people who were like me and were being harassed and fined like in Ferguson that it wouldn’t be tolerated.
I have no answers. I don't have daily interactions that require me to have answers, or even suggestions. I pray for understanding, I pray for healing and I pray that we practice the theory of equality a lot better than we do.