If I were a major celebrity like Oprah Winfrey, I could expect immediate and fierce feedback whenever I chose to comment on a controversial issue. I am not, but she is, and on Saturday, January 3, she got such feedback after expressing doubts about the leadership of the demonstrations that have followed the deaths of various unarmed black men at the hands of police in various cities, most notably Ferguson, Missouri, and New York. It is an unavoidable feature of the new Twitter universe in which we now live that almost anything any celebrity says will be dissected and regurgitated thousands or millions of times within 24 hours, not just by the news media but by every interested individual with a social media account of some type. The Founding Fathers could never have imagined such full-throated free speech when they drafted the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Unfortunately, such instant access to a virtual public does not at all guarantee thoughtful free speech, not even by the very public individuals initiating many of the discussions. One need only review some of the more thoughtless eruptions of Donald Trump, who some time ago, for instance, joined those who question President Obama’s birth on U.S. soil, or some of the incidents that have embroiled certain comedians in instant controversy, to see how true this is. Thoughtlessness seems to beget more thoughtlessness.
In Oprah’s case, however, she at least had a point worth considering, one she had pondered after viewing the movie Selma, which depicts the voting rights struggle in Alabama led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965. There is room to disagree with her, of course, but what interests me is that such discussions often devolve into a round of accusations and defensive finger pointing. In this case, protesters stated that Oprah was one more example of a detached celebrity who had not opened her eyes to the grass roots to see the leadership that already existed. Defenders of Oprah, however, could note that this leadership, whomever it may include, was less successful than Dr. King in preventing riots and violence and in establishing a clear, moral high ground for the debate or a clear strategy for resolving the stated concerns. It may be the times. Movement debates seem to generate more invective than at times in the past, though I must also say, as a child of the Sixties, that I wear no rose-colored glasses about the ways in which some extremists back then could manipulate the direction and outcome of protests. Controlling the fringe is not a new problem. It has been with us for centuries. One need merely recall the delusional excesses of John Brown before the Civil War or the pendulum of the French Revolution. Overreaction has long been a part of human nature, perhaps far more prevalent than mature, tempered judgment.
So let me get to my real point. If the leadership of the protests wants to disprove what Oprah has to say, one way to do that would be to invite her to meet with activists directly to discuss her comments, both to determine whether there was anything they might learn from them and to challenge her to engage with those she has criticized. Oprah’s stock in trade is engaging people; that’s what made her show a success. This is a woman who moved her show temporarily to Amarillo, Texas, to confront the gags on free speech represented by charges against her there for allegedly libeling livestock farmers over the issue of mad cow disease. A local jury in the heart of ranch country acquitted her, after which she declared that “free speech doesn’t just live, it rocks.” She is exactly the kind of person who might accept a visit to Ferguson, Missouri, or New York, to discuss how strategy should evolve in the struggle for better police relations with minority communities.
I use this only as one example of what ails political communication in the USA in the 21st Century. The same principle of engagement may be the only one that is going to take us beyond the plethora of confrontations between citizens angry over police killings of unarmed black men and the police themselves, who are charged with protecting public safety in the face of widespread firearms availability and prolific gang activity, much of it centered in poor minority neighborhoods. In the rancor that follows many of the incidents that have triggered protests, we tend also to forget that, unlike the clearly unbalanced situation in Ferguson, many of today’s police departments contain substantial numbers of black, Latino, and Asian-American officers. Indeed, the two officers gunned down in New York by a man who claimed to be angry over police shootings were Latino and Chinese. Our police departments may not always be as diverse as they should be, but they are far from being the enclaves of white privilege they once were.
What must be at stake is the self-righteous sense of felt mistreatment on both sides of this debate, the need to have all the moral arguments on one side of the table, so that only the other side needs to change. What may be true in an individual case is definitely not true across the board. There are plenty of cases involving substantial ambiguity that bears serious discussion. I would strongly suggest that the truth is far more complicated. That is a good thing because it creates far more opportunity for humility and compromise and change.
Let me elaborate so that I am not misunderstood. Let me acknowledge up front that I am white and have not experienced the abuse sometimes heaped on blacks in America, but I do have biracial grandchildren and a wide range of friends and acquaintances. I can at least understand the perspective of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who took heat from police after noting that he has had discussions with his biracial teenage son about how to handle any difficult encounters with police. As I said, this story is not simple. America is no longer black and white, like television in the 1950s. America is Technicolor in high definition, and more of us are experiencing realities that cross all sorts of racial, ethnic, gender, and other boundaries. Those realities include many of the police themselves.
So where do we start? First, there will be police in our society. They are an indispensable necessity. They do a job most of us would not want to do and may not qualify to do. Many face split-second decisions that require intense training, screening for any psychological problems that may impair their judgment, and must live with the consequences of decisions most of us are never faced to make. Those are awesome responsibilities, and those who do such a job well unquestionably deserve our respect. Our nation’s persistent failure to confront issues like meaningful gun control does not make their job any easier. Given that reality, parents, can you at least teach your children that toy guns can often look all too real in the wrong situation? Let’s start by leaving the toy guns at home. It may be sad, but the days when they were utterly harmless are behind us.
So—rather than simply disparaging or condemning the police, the focus needs to be on what reforms are needed to make policing better. That very question requires a good deal more sophistication than carrying a sign and chanting slogans. I am not saying at all that it is wrong to protest; I am saying that, in this instance, it is not nearly enough. Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, in the headline to his column on December 24, may have summed up my point here most precisely: “Support police, fight bad policing.” Like any profession involving hundreds of thousands across the country, police work can be done both very well and very badly. The worst examples sometimes make it into the press; often they are simply buried and forgotten. They are not representative, but they do represent a shortcoming in a system that allows them to continue. I live in a city that has paid out nearly $85 million in claims for wrongful convictions because of the actions of one police commander, Jon Burge, who is now in federal prison, who was accused of using torture on numerous suspects (very often black) over a period of years to obtain confessions. Such activity can only continue when other police officers are afraid, or unwilling, to speak up. That is a serious problem. In every endeavor, accountability matters.
But that is an extreme case, and there are the little daily grievances that pile up. Certainly, for instance, we want the police to prevent gangs from controlling neighborhoods, and they sometimes do this by dispersing suspicious gatherings. But when is a gathering suspicious? It is a tough judgment call that requires significant powers of observation and familiarity with the beat. My wife recently interviewed an aldermanic candidate on the West Side for a teachers’ publication. The candidate noted that a young man in her ward, on his way home from work one day, stopped to talk to some friends. He had no involvement in any gangs, she said, but the police ordered the group to disperse. He objected that he was merely talking to friends and was not involved in anything illegal, but the officers arrested him because of his objections. The arrest led to nothing, she said, but it cost him a scholarship. That fact may also raise questions about the vulnerabilities of young, aspiring black students to the vagaries of such situations. If I were the one losing such a scholarship, I can imagine that my reaction to the police in this instance would be less than charitable. And I have no doubt that this sort of thing happens in the black community more often than we would like to know. Is this how we encourage young black men to get an education? Did the arresting officer even understand the consequences in this instance?
It is not acceptable for the New York police to turn their backs on the mayor, who is their commander in chief in much the same way that the President is for the U.S. military. This behavior at a funeral was both petulant and unprofessional, and Police Chief Daniel Bratton was right to call them on it. They certainly have their own right to air grievances, but it is not helpful for the president of the police union to act as if criticism of the police is out of bounds. There is a great deal about the confrontation of the police with Eric Garner to give normal people cause to wonder about the necessity of the outcome, especially when connected to such a minor offense as selling loose cigarettes.
At the same time, it must be said that the cold-blooded execution of two police officers by a man with a criminal record, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who justified it with posted gripes against the police, must understandably have set off waves of fear among the rest of the police department. How could it not? The two men shot had nothing to do with the incidents that brought out the protesters. All lives matter, especially those of officers sworn to protect the rest of us, a point their murderer seemed not to grasp.
There is a way out of all the recriminations and the mutual sense of victimization by police and protesters. All sides need to sit down, listen to each other, be willing to concede valid points when they are made, and discuss systemic solutions that will make everyone more comfortable. The police may have to give up on the idea that only they are fit to police their own ranks. Activists may have to admit that some cases are less clear-cut than they have suggested. There will be plenty of room for disagreement, no matter the outcome, but the outcome must constitute some sort of progress toward more reasonable engagement on all sides. I’d like to think that the next generation of Americans may finally begin to leave some of this rancor behind.