A Bit 'o Random Musings on Politics, Religion, and Anything Else That Passes Through My Crazy Head

Saturday, June 20, 2020

What Colonel Jessup Taught Me About Empathy and Race Relations

Experience #1: Growing up Mormon, many of my friends were (and still are) political conservatives. One friend in particular, let's call him Jay, is very conservative. In high school, I liked to push Jay's buttons by imagining hypothetical scenarios that would test Jay's theories of politics. I don't remember what we were discussing (it could have been any number of issues), but one day I went too far. I *do* remember that the hypothetical scenario I concocted was completely beyond Jay's experience, and he replied "there are no *actual* people like that" (to be fair, I was given to dramatics so he may have been right, given that I don't remember the particulars). However, at the time, I remember thinking that this was a failure of empathy on his part - he literally could not imagine someone in the circumstances I described.

Experience #2: Recently, I was discussing President Trump's decision to hold a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Juneteenth in the wake of mass protests on racial justice topics with a friend. We'll call this friend Steve. I was explaining that this was a very insensitive date and place to hold a rally given current events and the history of Tulsa (see here and here or listen to this podcast if you don't know what I'm talking about). Steve, an intelligent and well-read conservative who was aware of the history, responded with something like "I understand why African Americans are upset, I would be too!" I was momentarily blindsided - he could see their feelings as rational, without feeling the least need to identify with them in their quest to get the rally cancelled (I should note that the President has since moved the rally to the day after Juneteenth).

What ties these experiences together?
A couple of my friends have posted things about supporting police in the wake of large scale protests against police violence following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. I have seen this op-ed "America, We Are Leaving," by a police officer, floating around social media and I wanted to address it head on, because I feel it represents the same failure of empathy as my stories about my friends Jay and Steve. It also represents those who often respond to "Black Lives Matter" with a discussion that "Blue Lives Matter." Reading through the op-ed, I would describe it as having strong "Colonel Jessup" energy (stay with me here!).

Colonel Jessup, of course, is a fictional character in the Aaron Sorkin drama "A Few Good Men." In the movie version, (which features peak Tom Cruise) Jack Nicholson plays Jessup, a commander at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Jessup is arrogant and high handed. An enlisted man under Jessup's command, Private William Santiago, has died in mysterious circumstances, and two marines are charged with his murder. Tom Cruise is the marines' defense attorney, Kaffee, and sets out to convince the jury that Colonel Jessup ordered a "Code Red" to torture Santiago for being a snitch, thus absolving the marines of murder because they were just following orders.

In a classic legal courtroom confrontation scene, Kaffee confronts Jessup and draws him out. Jessup eventually admits that he ordered the Code Red, but not before he provides a totally morally abhorrent rationale for strongmen with guns keeping us safe. At one point Jessup says "You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall....I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it!" Jessup is incensed that Kaffee (or anyone) would dare to question the manner in which Jessup operates - he claims that we need strongmen without morals to protect us from worse threats.

The police officer op-ed linked above has that same attitude as Colonel Jessup - "how dare someone question the police, we are providing your freedom and you should thank us and go on your way." While this op-ed may be extreme, this op-ed brings forth some dangerous ideas, for several reasons:
1) The police are employed by the people. They should be answerable and accountable for their actions. The fact that this officer is mad that citizens are calling bad police officers to account means that he is prioritizing his comfort and view of himself and fellow officers as "good people" over the very real suffering of the citizens he is sworn to protect.
2) His attitude towards those he arrests seems to be "they deserve this, they brought this on themselves because they are criminals." He remarks that those he arrests have a bad attitude about being arrested (yeah, I would too!). In America, you are innocent until proven guilty, even after you are arrested. One of the things that makes America truly exceptional is that everyone deserves respect and due process of law (it's one of the things our country was literally founded on!). He may not like this, but this officer is required to treat everyone fairly - our constitution and bill of rights gives everyone the benefit of the doubt and rights to fair trial and fair treatment by law enforcement authorities rather than presuming they are guilty because they were arrested.
3) He complains that police "used to be believed" and now have to produce video evidence to support their assertions. Well, there are several cases that might have led to reduced police credibility, including, but not limited to: (a) the case of Walter Scott, who was shot by a police officer who claimed he felt "threatened" by Scott even though video evidence surfaced that showed Scott was fleeing the scene and the officer shot Scott in the back; (b) the case of George Floyd, where one police officer sat on a citizen's neck for nine minutes, and three other police officers watched and did nothing to stop it (and the Minneapolis police department initially claimed Floyd was resisting arrest); (c) numerous videos during the current protests which show police officers initiating violence against peaceful protesters. All of these incidents (and more) have reduced credibility of police and made it harder for us to trust them when they tell us their version of events. Trust has to be earned.
4) The author claims that he has never seen anyone treated differently by cops because of their race. Well, unfortunately, study after study after study after study has confirmed that just isn't true. Black people are more likely to be arrested, more likely to receive longer sentences for the same crime as a white person, and yes, more likely to be shot by cops (even when unarmed). There is systemic racism present in our justice system, and if this officer is unwilling to acknowledge that, then he isn't listening to the Black friends he claims to have.
5) One line of the op-ed claims we live in the "...most violent society we've ever seen." However, violent crime has actually declined since the 1990s crime wave. In fact, from 1993 to 2018, violent crime decreased by either 51% or 71% (depending on which database we're using). This perception that we are living a violent society all too often leads us to endorse heavy-handed police tactics against a society that is actually becoming less violent overall. This is endorsed when we emphasize killings of police and point out how dangerous their job is, as if that somehow justifies cops murdering unarmed people. In fact, statistics show that it's safer to be a cop now than at any point over the last 50 years. Cops don't even make the Top 10 list of most dangerous occupations in the U.S.

I could go on (this article gets me pretty worked up and I've been thinking about it way too much this week), but I'm going to stop here. We (and I'm speaking about "we" the white people here) need to be able to empathize with Black people - until we identify with Black people as much as we identify with cops, and see Black people as full human beings, we are not going to be able to make the difficult changes that need to be made in our society. We need to be just as mad about racism as Black people, even if it doesn't personally affect us. We need to be able to imagine and understand what it is like to be a Black person in America. I'll close with this TedTalk about "How to Be Black" in America. We white people need to feel this experience, and understand it.

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