I was having lunch in my favorite restaurant with my husband when I read breaking news in a New York Times article about the Mayor’s Police Accountability Task Force’s findings on its investigation of the Chicago Police Department.
“In a city where whites, blacks and Hispanics each make up about one-third of the population, 74 percent of the 404 people shot by the Chicago police between 2008 and 2015 were black, black people were targeted in 72 percent of thousands of investigative street stops that did not lead to arrests during a recent summer. Three out of four—76 percent—of people on whom Chicago police officers used Taser guns between 2012 and 2015 were black and black people made up 46 percent of police traffic stops in 2013.”
I looked up from what I was reading on my phone to see several police officers sitting right inside the front door of the restaurant eating their lunch.
“Racism has contributed to a long, systemic pattern of institutional failures by this city’s police department in which police officers have mistreated people, operated without sufficient oversight, and lost the trust of residents.” ~ Rahm Emanuel
Suddenly the officers across the dining room looked different to me.
The picture of a man in a red cape and bright blue t-shirt with a big “S” on the chest fell from my eyes and I didn’t see a table full of supermen/cops. Instead, I saw a table full of men and women who could be racist and bullies, and I saw that—even if that wasn’t what they were individually—it was what they were as a body.
In the back of my mind, a slide show began.
- I saw a black teenager walking down the middle of the street with his arms up, only to be shot to death by a police officer;
- I saw a black man standing alone selling cigarettes only to be strangled to death by a police officer;
- I saw the back of a police van in which a black man who had been tied up was left to bounce around while being transported, only to die of a severed spine;
- I saw a 12-year-old boy holding a toy gun being shot to death by untrained officers.
How many similar incidents had preceded these events or occurred since? A hundred? A thousand? Certainly they had been happening in Chicago.
“The community’s lack of trust in the Chicago Police Department is justified. There is substantial evidence that people of color—particularly African-American—have had disproportionately negative experiences with the police over an extended period of time.”
Most of my life I have been attributing heroic fantasies to police in general.
Why have I been excusing them?
Because, I thought, they were risking their lives to keep me safe.
That was how blind I was to the reality that the reason I could afford to think and feel the way I did because I was privileged enough to be white.
That was how blind I was to the reality that by seeing police in the way that, I did I was contributing to their institutionalized racism.
Today, I know that it is not just police who keep me safe, it is my white skin that keeps me safe. Until I recognize the truth of that, I’m part of the problem.
“Chicago Police Department’s own data gives validity to the widely held belief [that] the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color [who are] stopped without justification, verbally and physically abused, and in some instances arrested, and then detained without counsel.
A machine cannot operate without each and every cog in the wheel performing its role. Just as I as an individual am part of the institutionalized racism inherent in society as a whole, so too is each and every individual police officer part of the institutionalized racism in the mini-society of her/his department.
“Let us not forget, after all, that there is always a moment when the moral choice is made. One story, or one book, or one person, [can] make a different choice, a choice for humanity, for life.” ~ Wiesel
I myself need to make a different choice. So too must the individual police officers at the table across from me in the restaurant.
On the way out of the restaurant I saw a car with a bumper sticker on it.
“Thank a Cop.”
Police officers risk their lives in the course of their duty, yes.
But so too do black men and women merely walking down the street—and as long as they do not feel as safe in their skins as I do in mine, racism exists.
“I don’t really think you need a task force to know that we have racism in America, we have racism in Illinois or that there’s racism that exists in the city of Chicago and…in our department.” The question is: ‘what are we going to do to confront it…’”
Author: Carmelene Siani
Editor: Emily Bartran
Photo: Matt Popovich/Unsplash