Above photo: From Call Your Girlfriend.
Don’t resist the change that’s coming.
It has the possibility to bring safety and redemption to us all.
To the police of good conscience:
What if all this demonstrating was also for you? What if the pain you are feeling right now — the pain of feeling misunderstood and mischaracterized — is connected to the same pain expressed by protesters in the streets of Minneapolis, Atlanta, Louisville and hundreds of other cities steeped in grief? You understand that suspicion of theft or fraud doesn’t justify murder and whatever legal battles will unfold won’t change the morality of that fact.
I know the protest chants and the opinion articles don’t cover it all. It’s a hard job and the criticism doesn’t always speak to the nuances, or the aches and pains deep in the crevices of your lives. Some of you are in pain because you too exist at the intersections of America’s most intractable problems: racism, sexism, poverty. This is compounded by the disorientation you experience because your sense of self is so wrapped up in the job you tirelessly perform. I know you joined the police force in pursuit of a vocation. You understand, in your bones, that you were put on this earth to be a protector, to be a guardian of lives and dreams and you serve to hold space that allows communities to flourish.
It hurts to know that lives, dreams, and what seems like whole communities are being destroyed, and the institution that you are a part of stands accused of this destruction. You are being asked to carry this hurt, disorientation, anger and work at the same time. You are being called upon to meet anger — however justified — with calm, and you don’t always feel prepared for that. It is so painful that there must be a temptation to shut down and close off the pathways to your humanity. Don’t.
Your life is not blue — that’s an absurd proposition. But your life does matter. You matter, and your vocation is sacred. The institution that you have come to identify with, the one you think is facilitating the pursuit of your calling, is not. You have to decouple your sense of self from the institution you serve. Your calling is to serve people — it defined you before you put on that uniform, and it will still define you when it’s off. Such is the nature of vocations, they are often inescapable. I can understand how disorienting it might be to consider distancing yourself from the institution you’ve called home. Your unions will lie to you. There will be politicians who tell you to ignore public criticism. See the hollowness in their words and recognize their lack of self-reflection. They are not interested in the good you are committed to being in the world.
If the institution you serve does not have the trust of the community, it cannot aid you in the pursuit of your vocation. Police departments were not built with whole communities in mind. They were built to protect the interests of smaller groups of people than our democracy expanded (and is expanding) to represent. You know racism exists, and you know that it’s more complicated than whether or not someone yells a slur while beating someone to death. There is work we must all do on the personal level to combat the insidious nature of racism, sexism and biases we’ve all inherited.
American society as a whole must change, empathy must expand, hearts must soften, or we will destroy each other — there’s no doubt about that. Some of our institutions have proven themselves too flawed to be reformed and too culpable to be trusted. You do not protect your integrity by defending such an institution. You do yourself harm. You make yourself more vulnerable to moral injury. Please, don’t. Consider that those of us marching in the streets right now are also marching for you. We want you to be able to pursue your vocation the way you were meant to: with deep empathy, grace, courage and the support of the community you serve. You don’t have to identify with the violence. You don’t have to be the other side of conversation that lacks nuance or compassion.
My first negative encounter with a police officer was when I was 16. He was plain clothed, wielding a bat and called me “boy.” He followed me in his unmarked vehicle for 30 minutes before a uniformed officer arrived to give me a ticket — both of them standing over me. I have had positive experiences here and there, but they don’t outnumber or outweigh the negative. The impact of this is that I cross the street when I see you, I avoid calling you — even in times of need — and I am on edge with every encounter.
While I have no doubt that the police have protected me in some way, I cannot imagine the police as my protectors. I long to feel safe in America, as did my grandfather and as does my father. I want to be able to be friendly with you or to thank you when I witness your kindness — without fear that any interaction could turn sour and cost me my freedom or my life. I want to walk the streets of my home town or any American city without being anxious that some white woman’s unprovoked fear will result in my mother’s grief.
I want to feel safe. All black people want to feel safe. I know you can be a part of that. In fact, we need you to be a part of that. We need you to be able to serve the way you are truly called to serve, and that’s why these protests are also for you. Please, don’t resist the change that’s coming. It has the possibility to bring safety and redemption to us all.
Lucas Johnson is the Executive Director of Civil Conversations and Social Healing at The On Being Project. He is a community organizer, writer, and a minister in the American Baptist Churches. He previously served as the International Coordinator of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation.