America’s Undeclared Martial Law

Twenty-something years ago I was a police and fire reporter. Fresh out of college, I worked for two Oklahoma newspapers: first in a mostly rural county of about 30,000 residents and then in Edmond, my upper-class suburban hometown. I spent mornings reading police and fire reports, talking to the police department spokesperson, occasionally calling the families of those who had died or who clung to life. I got to know the officers I met each morning, and we built a cordial, professional relationship. We never went out for drinks after work, but I never feared being pulled over by one of them during a traffic stop.

During my time in Edmond, I had the misfortune of covering two fatal shootings by police in the course of about a month. I forget which came first, but one involved two police officers in the woods firing 13 shots at a naked, intoxicated suspect. I think he was Hispanic. The other shooting resulted when a suspect, high on inhalants carrying a baseball bat, charged the officer. I think he was white. 1

After the second shooting, I had the so-called audacity to ask publicly if the police department had a shoot-first-ask-questions-later problem. In a time before tasers became standard-issue, I asked whether pepper spray should have been used instead. This challenge of authority didn’t sit well with the spokesperson I talked to each morning. He and the police chief thoroughly lectured me that the cardinal rule of use-of-force is to keep the upper hand on suspects. To an extent, I understand why police are trained to use necessary force before somebody uses it on them. When dealing with people consciously breaking the law or who are mentally ill or chemically altered, they are not making good decisions. Police officers, more than anyone else, know lives are on the line, especially theirs. We thank them for their courage, for doing what we cannot.

But goodness gracious, these are hard times to be a cop in America. Not only because American policing is so militarized. Not only because training is outdated. Not only because mental health services for police are insufficient for the demands of the job and using mental health services is scorned by an uber-tough culture. Not only because there are more guns on the streets. Not only because violence is gaining tacit, silent approval from the powers that be. Not only because racism is getting bolder and more aggressive in its violent manifestations. Not only because the income disparity makes the poor poorer and more willing to take desperate measures. Not only because politicians want to look tough on crime so they overprosecute the financially vulnerable to feed the prison-industrial complex. Not only because politicians knowingly drive wedges between races and classes as a way to mobilize their base.

I can’t help but think that in 2016, the hardest factor for any socially conscious police officer has to be how race figures into law enforcement – and the worst-case scenario of having to fire shots. Over the past two years, since the deaths of Eric Garner in Staten Island and Michael Brown in Ferguson, the relationship between police and people of color is under tremendous scrutiny – as it should be.

Let’s be perfectly clear here: People of color in this country are living – and dying – under undeclared martial law.

People of color – not whites like me – are living and dying under undeclared martial law. I know it’s highly unlikely that I, a middle-aged suburban white guy, will have to deal with a police officer drawing a gun on me, due only to the fact that I’m a middle-aged suburban white guy. White privilege is on full display right here.

Cops know that people of color are justifiably angry. Keith Lamont Scott, Terence Crutcher, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, a million other injustices – who can blame people of color for being scared of law enforcement? The lack of trust makes both the officer and the citizen even edgier when engaged in a law-enforcement situation. The odds of an altercation rise immediately.

Our Wild West mentality toward guns only makes it worse for both the cop and for people of color when their paths cross. Loosening gun laws means police are now far more likely to assume people are carrying guns (and they probably are) and instinctively react based on that assumption. Lawmakers do police officers no favors by loosening gun laws despite opposition from the law enforcement community. If politicians support law and order, why are they betraying the people entrusted by our society to carry it out?

How do we break this horrific cycle? How do we reduce violence, build trust, and find common ground?

Fact of the matter is, fewer and fewer people know how to do it – and the so-called leaders in American society don’t appear to give a damn. That means politicians, and that means the voices of faith as well. Across the political and theological spectrum, the increasing polarization of American society portrays compromise as a vice, and listening to the opinions of others a weakness. That trickles down into the way we treat each other each day. We don’t listen to each other, our relationships crumble, we hurt each other and ourselves. We allow the love for our fellow humans and the world around us to decay. We quit thinking, we shut down emotionally, and we live hollow lives. Yes, we are physically safer for it, but are we morally or ethically better for our isolation and emptiness?

Clearly there is not an easy answer. But it is our duty as followers of Christ, of a man who called for us to reconcile a broken world, to turn the other cheek, to seek justice, to represent the oppressed – it is our God-given duty to try. We are called to be reconcilers, to hear others, to facilitate the exchange of ideas, and then to put the best ideas to the test. And if we have to try one hundred thousand different ways, and all but one of them fails, it will have been worth the effort.

Where shall we start?

Gratefully,

Brad-signature


Suggested resources:

Introducing a 25-part series on how to reduce police brutality following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philander Castile by Shaun King, New York Daily News

Pre-Post-Racial America: Spiritual Stories from the Front Lines by Sandhya Rani Jha

Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community by Leah Gunning Francis

Forward Together: A Moral Message for the Nation by William J. Barber II and Barbara Zelter

Towards the “Other America”: Anti-Racist Resources for White People Taking Action for Black Lives Matter by Chris Crass

Reconciliation Ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)


1 The articles I wrote for the Edmond Sun are no longer online, so forgive me if I misremember a specific detail.


Brad Lyons’ opinions are not necessarily those of the Christian Board of Publication, its imprints, authors, or other affiliates.

Brad Lyons is president and publisher of Chalice Press.

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Brad Lyons

Brad Lyons is president and publisher of Chalice Press.

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