For most of my life, the police have been on my side.
They've helped protect the businesses and buildings I've owned. They've patrolled the neighborhoods I've lived in. They've brought law enforcement and a helpful presence to the places I've traveled. They've held me accountable - for the most part, with politeness and respect - when I've operated my vehicle in a way that broke the law. I've always felt like I could approach a police officer with a question or concern. When I've called 911 to report danger, they've come quickly and ready to help.
What an amazing and potentially live-saving privilege it has been to have the police on my side. I am thankful.
But what if the police weren't on my side?
As we honor the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr., commemorate the accomplishments and sacrifices of a civil rights movement that is still ongoing, and seek peace with justice in the many parts of the world where such things are elusive, it's a question we must ask.
My friend Bob asked it today as he told the story of the night in 1959 that the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee was raided by the police in an attempt to discourage it from continuing to support integration and civil rights. The 50 or so organizers and students at the school sat in the dark as sheriffs with guns and billy clubs came in uninvited and ransacked the place. They could not call the police to help, the police were not on their side.
What if the police weren't on your side?
What if your encounters with police officers were often shaded by their doubts about your motivations and honesty, based on the color of your skin, how you dress or the part of town you live in?
What if you knew calling the police for help might mean that things could escalate and get much worse instead of better?
What if the police could be bribed to look the other way as your rights were violated?
What if the people managing the priorities and accountability of your police force were driven by political agendas, economic incentives or intolerant personal beliefs?
What if police training and equipment was optimized to help governments steal land, lock up dissidents, and intimidate protesters?
These are scenarios that play out every day in the U.S. and around the world. People want to think of the police as on their side, but sometimes they aren't.
To those who struggled so hard and lost so much in the U.S. civil rights movement, we owe remembrance that there was a time when the police in some parts of this country were, in large numbers, not on the side of justice.
Today, those of us who have mostly experienced the police as protecting us and the things we care about owe it to those who have had a different experience to acknowledge that disparity, reflect on it, and where possible, act on it.
What does action look like?
When the police are already on our side, we must still stand up against laws that are unjust and work to get them repealed.
We should join in the calls to hold accountable police officers who act outside the bounds of their authority or who violate the spirit of their duty to the public. We can support organizations that seek to provide reasonable oversight for law enforcement agencies. We should avoid hero worship.
We must get involved with local government and elections so that our police forces do not become instruments of the rich and powerful, trained to preserve wealth and power above all else.
We should not demonize whistleblowers or documenters who bring police brutality and other injustices to light.
And we need to ask regularly, "who else needs help fighting for their rights, even without the police on their side?" I suspect Martin Luther King, Jr. would have wanted more people asking that question 50 years ago.
Photo by Nikita Gavriols