In the two weeks since a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, I have heard no one – literally not a single person – defend officer Derek Chauvin’s behavior in any way, shape or form.
Maybe that’s just the echo chamber of social media.
Maybe it’s a sign of social progress.
Maybe it’s because there is no room here for nuance.
What Chauvin did – kneeling on a man’s neck for nearly nine minutes while he cried out for help – was brazen, callous and sadistic.
It’s seldom that the circumstances of a police-custody death are so clear and outrage over such injustice so universal.
That speaks to the act itself, but also to the moment we’re in.
People want change; they want America to be better. But they also are yearning for unity.
Perhaps we should consider it a tender mercy that in such partisan, tribal times, there are things that matter on which we can all agree.
Bad cops should be charged, tried and serve time when they abuse their power.
Chauvin and the officers who participated in the arrest have been arrested and charged.
But our terms of agreement should not end there.
Because most cops aren’t bad. The good ones are numerous, and their daily service is seldom the source of viral videos.
They see what drugs do to communities. They root out sexual predators from our schools and churches. They run into buildings when others are running out of them.
They are the men and women who have been taking a knee alongside protesters in Fort Worth, Texas, and Flint, Mich., and other cities across the country; the ones who without thinking threw themselves on top of women and children to protect them from a spray of bullets during a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas in 2016; and the ones who met death living up to their highest ideals, like Fort Worth’s own Garrett Hull and sadly last week, David Dorn, the retired St. Louis cop killed by looters.
It should in no way dishonor the memories of George Floyd or Atatiana Jefferson, both of whom deserve justice, to recognize that a police officer’s job can be ridiculously hard and dangerous. Or that most cops act with caution and restraint, and just want their communities peaceful and safe.
Those cops need our support, and we need more of them, not fewer.
But when it comes to our expectations for these custodians of state authority, we do not have to accept the bad with the good.
Bad cops – the ones who rough up journalists, and push old men to the ground and arrest peaceful protesters without just cause – should be held accountable.
They make us all less safe.
Police departments must be free to fire bad cops without union interference, and cities should be held responsible for failing to do so.
While we acknowledge the necessary role of our police, we also need to agree that the experience of Black people, and particularly Black men, is different from the experience of white people in America.
Even while deaths of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of police officers are in decline, according to data from the Washington Post, Black people feel targeted by police. They feel unsafe on their streets, in their cars and in their homes.
There is even some data which suggests Blacks are “less likely to have lethal force used against them in police altercations” than their white counterparts.
That’s good to know, but the anecdotal evidence, the compelling personal stories – even those of Sen. Tim Scott, the Black Republican from South Carolina – that blacks are stopped and harassed by cops with far greater regularity, explain why the sense of cultural persecution is so raw and why fear of cops is so real.
Black lives do matter. Anyone who believes in the promise of this country must agree in this fundamental truth. And if any policy or system or sentiment seething just below the surface threatens that promise, we must be agents for change.
But to transform a system for the better, you have to believe in it. You have to find it redeemable. You have to regard it as more good than bad.
So, as we seek to reform institutions, we must do so with the goal of living up to our highest ideals, not tearing them down.
We must focus on restoring rights, not identifying grievances.
Because however imperfect our union, the universal response to George Floyd’s death proves that it is worth saving.
We should all agree on that.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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