Sunday, April 24 2016
Victims, Villains, and Heroes, and The Band Plays On
Chicago’s Police Accountability Task Force has now delivered its report and it’s not a bad read.
[Find the executive summary here:
At the same time, I hope no one is surprised to discover their findings focus on (prepare to be dazzled) race. Unfortunately, this finding is so blatantly obvious that it’s rendered benign from the outset, as are its recommendations are for greater transparency, oversite, community connection, and awareness on the part of CPD officers at every level of the department.
I would suggest, however, that thinking of the department’s problem as just one more expression of the institutional racism in Chicago’s culture is to miss a larger point. The problem is race, but it’s a larger cultural expression that divides the city into one of three caricatures: victims, villains, and heroes.
The victims (traditionally law-abiding citizens) need protection from the villains (traditionally ne’er-do-well thugs of color), and the job of protection is the work of brave heroes (our noble police officers), who bring justice, relieve suffering, and restore the balance of America’s greatness. The problem arises when, at the request of the identified victims (that’s law abiding white folk), heroes so aggressively restrain the villains that the villains become victims. The villains, now turned victims, need their own heroes who in turn politically and physically attack the former heroes as the villains they have become. Meanwhile, the former victims remain substantially unnerved while the heroes and villains fight each other on this merry-go-round to the social bottom.
For the most part, this dance between heroes and villains has been choreographed off the stage of public scrutiny. From time to time it spilled out into the awareness of the rest of society, but it was quickly swept away to the tune of $150 million in settlements and judgments against the Chicago police in 2013 alone.
But now, cheap portable video in the form of ubiquitous cell phones, and even cheaper mass distribution made possible by social media have spilled this dance-party onto the center stage of social awareness. We can’t ignore it much longer, the heroes have profoundly over-stepped their bounds and the villains are winning lawsuits.
But what are the bounds of that hero class? In Chicago, the unwritten responsibility of the police has been but a single overriding task, keep the low-life away from the high-life by whatever unpleasantness necessary; and do so out of sight and out of mind of those who benefit from their tireless dedication to the task. But cheap video and rapid distribution have poked the ongoing reality above the city’s capacity to ignore the nasty truth we’ve all known or suspected for years. It’s a bitch to grow up poor, black, or Hispanic, in the wrong neighborhood. If you’re poor and white in Chicago it’s not too bad; chances are you live on the same block as a cop.
Good apples or bad apples, what we’ve asked our constabulary force to accomplish is at least unreasonable, and I would suggest more likely, impossible; and the problem isn’t going to go away by revamping the culture and oversight of the Chicago Police Department, it will require an overhaul of the culture of the city itself.
The victim, villain, hero triangle has got to stop. There is no such thing as a perpetual victim, consistent villain, or unflagging hero. Our city is comprised of people, each of whom is capable of any one of these three roles. Until we can embrace that fact about ourselves we will not dismantle the illusion in our communities.
As a pastoral counselor, I’ve heard firsthand the stories of gang-bangers and officers alike expressing both amazing kindness and outrageous cruelty; and I’ve witnessed the callous guardedness that prevented them from giving an inch to the possibility that their adversary contained even an ounce of humanity. Those of us who sit as the third party to this antagonism need to confess that we’ve pitted them against each other. Their dysfunction is our fault.
I would suggest that there is no part of this city or any community that is less valuable to our survival or vitality than any other part. We must reframe the role of the police not to maintain segregation between the good and the bad in the name of safety, but to facilitate peace and justice in the name of mutual dignity.
I have met members of the CPD who entered law enforcement hoping to accomplish just that, but the incentives and partnerships available to accomplish such harmonious ideals are severely lacking. Absent are permission and rewards for communities to build deeper connections between and beyond social divides. Citizens in impoverished neighborhoods are expected to pick themselves up and move themselves out if they wish to avoid continued harassment and degradation. Of course, no one bother’s to explain how that’s supposed to happen.
The dirty little secret is this – it’s going to cost. Not just an investment of money, but in a total remodeling of how we think about each another and what we believe about ourselves. That price is going to be high, but the stakes of continued failure are growing even higher.
I would suggest we set aside thoughts of a Police Accountability Task Force until we build Citizen Accountability Task Forces within our neighborhoods, our homes, and our hearts. We just can’t afford to keep things as they are.
Rev. Jonathan Krogh
April 24, 2016