Over the weekend, my wife and I watched the pilot episode of David Letterman’s new show. She felt obviously compelled to talk me into it, and I sincerely had no real objections; I grew up watching, or more accurately, hearing Letterman’s monologue echoing from my parents’ bedroom whenever MASH wasn’t on (quick tangent: the MASH theme song is “Suicide is Painless,” great bedtime jam). The first and only guest was President Obama who, political differences aside, is still an interesting guy to me, and an undeniably influential figure in American history.
Letterman’s interview took a number of unexpected paths, and ventured for a significant part of the show into Obama’s relationship with John Lewis, and Representative Lewis’ involvement with Dr King and the March on Selma. Letterman cut between clips of him with Obama in an capacity-crowd auditorium, with Lewis on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and historical video clips from the first attempted march on March 7, 1965: Bloody Sunday.
I watched, for the first time since high school, a peaceful throng of citizens walking on the public sidewalk before a cadre of cops, Alabama State Troopers, as I understand it, attacked them without lawful authority, provocation, or legal purpose. They attacked the gathered crowd because they were black, and because they dared to dream, hope, and strive for a better and equal life owed them as citizens. As an American, I felt appalled and saddened. As a cop, I felt anger and shame I’ve rarely known. I am proud of my profession, of all but a handful of my colleagues, and I feel a genuine love affair with those who’ve sworn themselves to a life of service at great personnel risk to themselves. Not in that moment on the Edmund Pettus bridge, though. Fuck those guys.
I cannot deny racist cops exist, because that’s an irrational argument. Cops are recruited from society, racism and prejudice exist in society, it MUST therefore exist in some part of us. While I will absolutely concede that point, I have never, NOT ONCE, seen racism, bias, or prejudice impact the way in which a cop interacted with the public. I felt disgusted to watch footage of a large group of assembled cops swarm unarmed and law-abiding citizens and treat them like poorly behaved chattel. I don’t recall ever feeling angst that rich and palpable toward a group of cops I never met.
In that moment, I clearly understood and felt why the actions of those Alabama cops, those felons with badges, continues to taint the reputation and initial interaction I have with blacks and Southerners to this day. I’ve never been to Alabama, but I’m willing to give the present-day cops there the benefit of the doubt that they’ve changed. As I understand it, the subsequent 52 marches from Selma to Montgomery have never again been stopped, although I expect they’re far more welcome today than on March 21, 1965.
Will human societies ever really overcome prejudices? I doubt it. I believe we’re hardwired and programmed to instinctively find “us” versus “them” identity groups for survival. The groups will change, but their presence will likely never cease.
I offer you though, my opinion and my perspective. Even if we assume the majority of cops sympathized with those Alabama Troopers in 1965, I can assure you that cops have experienced the greatest reduction in racial bias and prejudice among us. In less than fifty years, to go from those felons in Selma, to the police force that I know and love today???? I’ve worked with cops of all major world religions, atheists, agnostics, both sexes, all races and multiple mixtures thereof. I’ve had numerous gay partners, several transgender colleagues, and the only thing anyone cared about was their character, their competence, and their proficiency. I’ve never heard a cop call for help from only the WASPs on shift.
I can’t deny that somewhere, someplace, is an asshole cop who actually wants to primarily stop and arrest blacks. I can’t deny his existence, but I’ve never met him and never heard anyone talk about ever having worked with him. Maybe things are just different here in the West, I dunno. From my perspective and experience, I don’t see any evidence to substantiate painting us with that ugliest and broadest of brushes. I still resent the hell out of it, but I do at least understand it. Gonna be hard to move forward, though, if people choose to place me on that bridge in Selma, a place I’ve never been, committing crimes I loath.
Nothing I say will ever be convincing enough for some, no measure of my actions will ever be enough for others. I just hope folks realize how much I hate and despise the actions in Selma, and any cop willing to go along with it. We’re still today working to get their tarnish off our badges.
Be safe out there.