I’ve been seeing and hearing a lot the last few weeks about the troubles in Ferguson, Missouri. I’ve tried to stay away from it, to disconnect because to write about it would be to feel it, all of it- the pain, the anger the frustration, the confusion. But today, I can’t hide from it anymore. I have something to say.
Racism makes me sick. Hatred for another person because of the color of their skin is intolerable, disgusting, detrimental to the well-being of our society. But if you really think about it, isn’t it hatred in all of its forms also intolerable, disgusting and detrimental to the well-being of our society? Isn’t hatred itself the real enemy? Why then when these firestorm issues come up do we resort to more hatred? It doesn’t solve any problems. It makes them worse and exponentially increases the collateral damage.
I’ve seen the news coverage just like you have. Except I’ve remained somewhat perplexed at the outrage surrounding this case. I’m a pretty good listener. I’m a pretty thorough investigator. From what I can see, no one and I mean no one, has been given enough information to make an informed judgment about what happened that day in Ferguson and why. Instead, what’s happened is that we’ve taken a few of the facts of the case and written our own stories. We’ve based that narrative on our own experiences, our own biases, our own frustrations, and it has ignited the fury of thousands.
The story that is fueling this fire is the story of the young black man on the streets in urban America. He is forgotten. He’s been forgotten all his life- by the educational system that didn’t care if he succeeded, by his father who left before he could guide him into manhood, by his peers who’ve disappeared into the abyss of violence and crime. He is another nameless, faceless victim of poverty, crime and racism. Except often we forget that he is a victim because his only weapon against giving up entirely on this life is anger. Anger that rages against the rules of this society that was built for everyone but him.
It is a sad story, one that those like myself who are white, who have benefitted from a good education, and who live within the proverbial picket fences like to pretend doesn’t exist. But, it does exist. It is real and it is wrong. But, there’s also another story here- one that you’ll never see examined on a Dateline Special or a 20/20 Investigative Report. It’s the story of the policemen and women who are charged with protecting us.
My dad was a policeman for 25 years. He first entered the police academy at the age of 22. When I think about it, 22 years old seems like a mere boy. Except we gave him a gun and told him to go out and save the world. And he tried.
When he was 24 years old, he was patrolling the streets of downtown Jacksonville. He received a call from dispatch that there was a man walking down the street with a gun. So he turned on his blue lights and sped toward the danger because that was his job. You see, every single one of us have the benefit of running away and protecting ourselves when danger is near. He didn’t have that choice. Do you think he wasn’t afraid? No policeman will admit to you that he is afraid, but he is. They can’t admit it to you because if they admitted it to themselves they’d never be able to make it to work again, but they are afraid.
He approached the address where the armed man was last seen. He didn’t know that this armed man was mentally ill. He also didn’t know that this man had climbed a tree in wait for him, stalking him like animal prey. A bullet from a rifle pierced the windshield of his patrol car and entered his skull before he even knew what was happening. As warm blood covered his face, he was instantly blinded. He opened his car door trying desperately to see his attacker and provide information to his fellow patrolmen. His car was still in drive and began to move away from him. His frantic, bloody handprints on the outside of his patrol car were the desperate marks of a dying man.
Miraculously, he didn’t die that day. Although the bullet entered through the inside of his right eye socket, it grazed the outside of his skull and exited through the top of his head, never entering his brain. He worked for 23 more years as a policeman until he succumbed to a different hazard of his job: alcoholism.
After recovering from his injury, my dad was back out on the streets. At 24 years old, he was right back in the place where he’d nearly lost his life. He never talked about it, but in my mind’s eye I can see him jumping at every sound, each one reminding him of the boom of a gun. Every shadow was another possibility that he might lose his life, someone else who might be trying to hurt him. A few years later, he became a father, to me and then to two other little girls. And then the weight that he carried was even heavier.
He went to work every night knowing there was a possibility that he would never return home. He had three little girls and a wife at home who he couldn’t share these fears with because he needed to protect them. In fact, these were the days before anyone talked about post-traumatic stress or anxiety disorders. When he awoke from sleep with the nightmares that he was being hunted, there was no one to tell. It was a silent hell that he shared with no one.
And yet, he went to work in the dead of night for the next 20 years because it was his job. It was his calling. He couldn’t picture himself doing anything else with his life.
When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time with my dad at work. We spent hundreds of hours riding through the streets of downtown Jacksonville. I’ve had very colorful conversations with drag queens in the back of patrol cars, seen people beaten to a bloody pulp outside bars, watched strung-out drug dealers sell their soul on a street corner, talked to prostitutes who hated themselves for what they did but didn’t see any other way to get by. I’ve walked in jail cells, strip clubs, crack houses, brothels and every sort of hell you can imagine. I learned a lot about people in those days, but I also learned a lot about my dad.
When I was a little girl, I noticed that my dad always had a bag of candy stashed in the door of his patrol car. In my childish mind, I assumed he must love to eat a lot of candy at work. Only when I was older did I see with my own eyes where that candy went. Domestic violence calls were always the hardest on him. It was a familiar scene: the dad had beaten the mom, and the kids watched as dad was hauled off to jail. They didn’t understand. Sometimes, it was mom and dad with a drug problem who both went to jail. The kids were carried away kicking and screaming to a foster home without understanding why their parents were being taken away from them.
In that moment, in that child’s hellish despair, the only thing my dad had that could offer them a little reprieve was a piece of candy. He kept that candy in his car at all times for every kid that he encountered who was living a very personal nightmare. He knew it wasn’t going to change their lives, but it was all he had. A little something to take away the pain, if only for a second. A little bit of kindness from a stranger because the world was so hard and so confusing and so wrong.
I also remember one time as a child when I was awakened in the middle of the night. My dad had come home early from work. As the front door opened, I heard keys fall to the ground. It was as if he had barely made it inside the door. He was crying. Crying in that way that a grown man cries that makes you have to look away because it is too upsetting to look at straight on. Crying that makes a little child feel that the world isn’t safe anymore. He fell to his knees and muttered almost incomprehensibly, “I couldn’t save her. I couldn’t save her.”
He was working at the beach at that time. He received a call about a family in distress. When he arrived, the mother and father were screaming in a different language and pointing frantically out to the water. He understood that their child was out there. He swam out and rescued their little girl, brought her back to shore and saved her life. But in the chaos and confusion of the moment, he missed something. Even though the little girl was safe on the shore, the parents were still screaming, still pointing at the angry waves crashing onto the beach. He couldn’t understand what they were saying. He didn’t know that this couple had two little girls. He had saved one, but couldn’t save the other one.
It was little consolation to him that he had saved a life that night because in his mind, he had still failed. A little girl who was nearly the same age as his own little girl had died. He couldn’t save her.
One of my friends who was a policeman told me after my dad’s death, “He wanted you to see what the world was really like, to see how lucky you are, and to know that there are so many people who aren’t as fortunate as you. That’s why he took you with him.” What I know from all that I saw on the streets is that you can’t face these demons day in and day out without it changing who you are.
You can’t face death and loss and despair every single day without questioning what the hell the point of all of this is. You can’t see the worst of people- the violence, the hatred, the sheer senselessness of it all without being changed by it. You can’t remove dead bodies from mangled car accidents without knowing that this, too, could be your family. The rest of us get to be insulated from the hard realities of this world. We have the luxury of pretending that if we don’t see it, it’s not our problem. The closest we come to these problems is watching the evening news, and we can choose to turn off the television. Well, you can’t turn it off when you’ve seen it with your very own eyes. Those visions become part of who you are.
My dad used to carry around a quote with him every day. It was a quote by Friedrich Nietzsche: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”
He carried around this quote because he knew something very profound. He knew that everything he saw and experienced on the streets as a police officer affected who he was and what he would become. He became a police officer to fight the monsters of injustice, of violence, of poverty. But, he knew all too well that fighting these monsters could very well turn him into a monster, too. The problem with being a police officer is that you stare into a deep, dark abyss every day, and the monsters follow you wherever you go. The fear follows you wherever you go. My dad became a policeman because he wanted to help people, to take care of people, but it ended up wounding him in a way that he couldn’t even take care of himself. His job as a policeman ultimately cost him his life. He didn’t die of a bullet wound, but the slow, tortured death of an addiction brought on by the pressures of a job no human should be asked to do.
I’m not going to pretend for a second that there aren’t policemen who abuse their power, who treat people unjustly, who categorize and unfairly target people because of their race. It happens. I’ve seen it happen, and we cannot accept that. What I’m saying, though, is that policemen are simply human beings. They are fighting demons just like you and me. They make mistakes. Most of them are honorable men and women who feel called to serve and to sacrifice, and they are doing the very best they can.
You see, I am sensitive to the story of the young black man in America. I understand why he is angry and why he feels forgotten, mistreated, like he has nothing to live for. But, I also know enough to understand that things aren’t as black and white as our news stories would make them out to be. There isn’t a villain and a hero like the storybooks. We are all people, with stories to be told, with problems and demons, people that we love and who love us.
I don’t know exactly what happened between the police officer and the young man in Ferguson, Missouri that day. But because I don’t know, I’m going to withhold judgment. I’m not going to create my own narrative based on my own experience and the skewed half-stories I see on television. I know that it is tragic that a young man lost his life, and for that I grieve. I also grieve for the policeman who took that boy’s life because I know men and women just like him who have sacrificed everything for a job they feel called to do. They have paid a very high price, too. I am grateful to them for their service and their sacrifice, even if it often goes unnoticed by nearly everyone else.