FORCE AND VIOLENCE
Back in the early 70s’ I was at a L’Abri Conference held at Covenant College. Oz Guinness was giving a lecture about “Force and Violence.” I was intrigued and impressed with his ability to help explain the functions and distinctions about both. Some of his thoughts still help me as I seek to understand my own country, these United States of America.
As someone who grew up in Newark, NJ, has seen mob violence from riots in the streets in the late sixties, had various encounters with the police, and lived under the historical and present aura of American war, along with an almost omnipresent depiction of it through media and entertainment, violence was something I did and do think about. Living in Newark as a teen-ager meant, for me, that I was always hyper-vigilant about getting into a fight or being attacked.
I have attempted to live my life as a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, and been committed to personal non-violence. I choose this path as a teen-ager in Newark, and suffered through confrontations where I chose not to fight back. I served in the U.S. Army as a Chaplain, otherwise known as a “non-combatant, ” and sought to trust God for my safety even in the midst of war.
At the same time I believe in the legal and judicial use of force, the “power of the sword” as the right of properly constituted government. I believe in the use of force to protect the innocent. I have also received enough training from various sources to believe that sometimes force means deadly force, if required to resist or stop evil action and persons.
As someone who has been to war a few times, seen bodies burned and dismembered on the battlefield, I think it is something that should be earnestly and strenuously avoided. I also realize sometimes it cannot be avoided. I have seen people ganged, beaten, beaten down and I am disgusted by bullies and the unfairness of how some people mistreat other people. I hate violence. I hate to see an unarmed black man unjustly beaten, strangled, tasered, or shot. I hate to see police officers murdered from ambush. I hate to see someone blindsided or sucker punched.
So, when it comes to the violence of criminals, murderers, thugs and bullies who beat up innocent people to rob them or simply to dehumanize them I despise it and call for their apprehension and prosecution. As a pastor who has served in the inner city and loves inner city folk I despise gang violence, drive-by shootings, the murder of witnesses, and the constant rhythm of revenge. This violence is not justifiable force it is hate, blood-lust, and the arrogance of power from fist, knife, or gun. Power allows for the feeling of arrogance, it is sensual, appealing, and even habit forming. Proverbs warns against the appeal of violence in its first chapter.
We have lived in a country of racial violence, prompted by racial hatred. As we have sought to come to grips with our history of racism we are at times still confronted by the use of power against minorities either by private citizens or by officers of the Law. We have tended to give to officers of the Law the presumption of good intent, that their use of force was justified and proportional. When officers have been indicted they have often been exonerated by juries who have simply taken an officer’s word that he or she felt threatened. An officer’s word was taken as honest statement of fact, even if witnesses said he had lied.
Then came the camera. As we begin to discuss this issue let me reassure the reader that I am aware that most confrontations between police officers and citizens, even inter-racial confrontations, are conducted in a professional way. Everyday many people are stopped by police, sometimes given citations or tickets, sometimes warned, sometimes simply engaged in conversations. Overwhelmingly, by occurrence, these do not end in violence.
Statistics show that people of color, especially young men, are stopped much more frequently by police. Many African American men have been stopped multiple times, and not because of anything they have done. This is obviously profiling, done by the subjective intuition of the police officer and not due to some objective “probable cause.” That probable cause is often drummed up to excuse the stop. Even most of these don’t end up in violence, though certainly aggravating to the honest citizen, and sometimes traumatizing due to the implied threat and feeling of powerlessness to stop it.
In these last years cameras and videos have revealed one instance after another of the abuse of power, of the mistaken use and application of power, and sometimes of the deceit of officers to protect themselves and their colleagues. Videos, in line with eye witnesses, have given the public a different perspective in what was the testimony of the police officer involved. Police Unions, in spite of overwhelming evidence in some cases of abuse, have sought to reinterpret events to protect their members. Police unions by the way are not police agencies, they are unions, and their comments should be received as such.
ABUSE OF POWER
Our point here is that abuse of power is no longer force used according to law and is therefore simply violence and thus illegal. We should all be against that, and to be against that is not an attack on the police, nor on authority. It is in fact an advocacy for keeping the law. All such acts of abuse, when proven so, should mean that officers are held to account for their illegal actions as any other citizen would be.
There are gradations of abuse, some are intentional, some are impulsive due to racism, arrogance, or the psychology of an abusive person who should never be a law enforcement officer. Some are mistakes, miscalculations, the wrong decision in the heat of the moment, and some are the result of bad police policy and training. Some acts of abuse are habits learned due to poor management and leadership within departments. When cases of abuse are brought to authorities or the courts for judgement all these factors should be taken into consideration.
It is foolish and detrimental to our system of justice to constantly defend bad actors and wrong actions when taken by police officers. Their safety and effectiveness relies on the respect, cooperation, and support of the citizens, the community, and established government. The growing attitude and encouragement on social media that police should be automatically resisted, even when doing their work appropriately, is alarming and increasingly dangerous to people who would otherwise simply be detained and released. We need to get the balance right about how we support our officers and how we hold them accountable. To disrespect them, deride them, and treat them negatively as if they are all the same destroys the fabric of trust, their morale, and our ability to attract really good recruits for the future. We need the police, because our communities need to be policed, because the vulnerable need to be protected.
DEFUND THE POLICE (?)
The conversation to “defund the police” only has validity in the sense of helping the police to do only what they should be doing. Our municipal budgets must pay them better salaries to recruit better applicants. Our budgets must deliver them from being mental health workers or social workers. Our budgets must help give them great training, the best training, not simply in how to quickly shoot a suspect but how to “de-escalate” hostile situations. We absolutely need officers of integrity, but also of great courage, willing to lay down their lives for the safety of the people. This takes money, and money properly applied.
RIOTS AND LOOTING
There is also the violence that occurs in riots and looting. Too often peaceful protest has been co-opted by those seeking to hurt the police, or to hurt the local government, or to make headlines through acts of violence. To throw rocks at the police, to throw Molotov cocktails, to physically assault them is not lawful protest but battery and violence. To steal from a store or business during a riot while advocating racial or police justice is not a just act, it is not receiving reparations, it is simply stealing. Advocating such looting is inciting to riot and such inciters should be held accountable.
These are criminal acts and any act of looting, vandalism, arson, or violence done to persons or police must be stopped, and the perpetrators should be prosecuted. This criminal behavior must be prevented by the very police a mob might be attempting to provoke, or the target of their hostility. Riots aren’t stopped by seeking to be understanding of the altruistic intentions of those who riot, but by reaction to their all too physical actions, quickly, consistently, and with the support of the courts for punishment. It doesn’t matter how impatient people feel about injustice, violence is wrong. Peaceful protests must be respected, protected and supported, as is our constitutional right.
One may say that riots and looting are simply symptoms of an unjust system, or that these are signs of continuing systemic injustice, and the cries of a frustrated citizenry. Okay, wise leaders should pay attention to the complaints of the people but injustice in one part doesn’t excuse injustice in another. To destroy the economic efforts of the shop or store owner, to destroy the homes and livelihoods of those who offer services to the people, is violence on the innocent, and usually the economic deprivation of whole communities for years to come. As someone who has seen the empty burned out blocks of Newark, for decades after the riots, I bear witness.
Part of the insanity of such behavior is that it is not usually the families of those who have been abused who are doing the rioting, nor the person who suffered, but others who have emotionally joined the cause but not personally suffered. These people have no right under law, nor even under the old law of blood vengeance, to hurt innocent people or destroy their years of labor and investment. It is going to take us years to reform policing, especially since it is so locally exercised. Will individual acts of violence unjustly committed by police, distributed through social and mass media, continually be allowed to define us? These are aberrant acts, and we know them to be so. When can we proclaim victory over ever having such incidents of injustice again? The answer to that is maybe never, but certainly we can do better, as the record of other nations shows us. It is the movement and the direction to do better in policing, and in protesting, which we should all join.
Violence is an ugly thing. Even when violence is force justly applied, it is terrifying. It starts fires that are not easily put out. It creates trauma, deep feelings of hatred, revenge, bitterness. All violence is to be condemned, whether it is the unjust or unwise use of force by authority, or by the arrogant individual who takes law or power into their own hands, or by the mob, it should all be condemned – by all of us!
We are a democratic republic, we live under the rule of law, and if we give that up we move toward chaos, anarchy, and the unleashed power of the gun. We have avenues for social change through the political process and through the courts, and compared to the rest of the world it works remarkably well. Pursue social change through just and peaceful means. Our method must be consistent with our goals. We want a peaceful country, where our lives, our children, our elderly, our institutions, and our property are given due respect and protection. So, pray for peace, and do the things that make for it!