I’m not black, but I am a lot of other things. All of them influence my reaction to the death of Eric Garner:
- I am a Christian: That means I’m someone proclaiming the message of peace on earth and good will toward men. These events must trouble me, because they are moving us away from that end. And as I write, I want to write things that will move us toward peace on earth and good will toward men.
- I am a Baptist: For much of our history and in much of the world today (and dare I say perhaps again in our near future?), Baptists have suffered under an adverse relationship with the civil order. I cannot help but feel some level of sympathy toward those who feel the same way today. Think about what the police were doing fifty years ago in Selma, Alabama. Black people have good historical reasons to distrust the police. I also realize that Baptists in America were able to overcome and move past an antagonistic relationship with the civil order by deferring to the magistrate and working through judicial and political processes. I believe that Baptist history gives us a good pattern for how to handle and how to move past any impasse like that. Look at all that has happened since Selma in the 1960s. Black people have every reason to hope that, just as Baptists in America were able to move past our poor relationship with police, the opportunity exists for American Blacks to do the same.
- I am a homeschooler: As a member of the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, I’ve read a lot of accounts of what seems like very unreasonable behavior by a coalition of schools, CPS officials, and local law enforcement toward homeschoolers. In fact, my son was once detained briefly and brought to our home by a local police officer (new to our area at the time) for riding his bike during school hours (which is absolutely not illegal). Police officers are not always in the right. Sometimes they need to be corrected. We were not antagonistic with that officer, but we were able to work through our relationships in the town to clarify that our son has a right to ride his bike. That incident, I hate to say, affected the way that my children view the police. I’m thankful that other factors, positive ones, are also shaping their view of the police, but it definitely had an impact.
- I am a man who has killed someone: Here’s something I wrote back then. I cannot help but sympathize with a police officer who clearly did not intend to kill anyone that day but was instead merely trying to make an arrest. How I wish that he had followed NYPD procedure that day. I’ve no way to know, but I’ll bet he wishes the same thing. Have you ever gone to bed at night with blood on your hands? No matter how much or how little you were at fault, the experience will change you.
- I am a man under authority: That’s a good thing. I have authority as a pastor, but I am also under authority. We practice this kind of polity because, among other things, we know and affirm the depravity of sinful people. “Broken windows” policing presume that enforcement efforts against minor crimes help to prevent major crimes. I agree with “broken windows” policing. I also think, however, that we must worry about broken windpipes as well as worry about broken windows. That is, police officers have to be under authority just as citizens do. NYPD policy prohibited the use of chokeholds. The NYPD needs to enforce that rule or get rid of it, but it dare not ignore it. Daniel Pantaleo is guilty in this incident of disregarding department policy and using an impermissible chokehold.
- I am a friend of police officers: I don’t just mean in the generic sense—I have good friends, including lay leaders in my congregation, who are police officers. I don’t know enough about police procedures to know what to recommend that they do when someone resists arrest. What are the police supposed to do with someone who resists arrest? Use the taser? That may be more lethal than you think. Hit them with a nightstick? Nice…very nice. I’m sure nobody will get hurt that way. Spray them with pepper spray? Uh…same outcome. What are they supposed to do? Just say, “Oh, OK, you don’t want to be arrested today? No problem. We’ll catch you next time.”? I know that I’m not in favor of that, and if the suspect leaves that encounter and victimizes my child after police should’ve taken him into custody, I’m going to be hopping mad at the police for failing to do their job. So I think we all agree that the police have to be able to arrest people, even if they don’t want to be arrested. What I don’t see is much of anyone suggesting what, exactly, you expect them to do. Of course, what Daniel Pantaleo should’ve done was follow NYPD policy, but what about in the innumerable police departments across the country that do not ban chokeholds? What would you advise those officers to do? In the NYPD, if an officer faces a choice between subduing a suspect with a chokehold or shooting him with his pistol, he has to shoot him with the pistol. Is that a better outcome? I’m not so sure. And I have zero expertise to have an opinion about this. Perhaps some of you will enlighten me in the comments.
- I’m a small-government conservative: A man just died over selling cigarettes? Seriously? Now, my dad might still be alive today were it not for cigarettes. I hate them more than you do. But nanny-state governance that locks people up willy-nilly for selling Big Gulps and Marlboros is going to produce more and more conflict between police and the citizenry. Our federal government was founded to ensure the blessings of liberty to us. Now it tells us how much water our toilets can flush. I can’t believe that a man has lost his life in an incident that all started over selling illegal smokes.
We are all a lot of things. People are complex. I’m reluctant to reduce this situation down to a single factor: race. Race is involved, but I think the central question we face regards what kind of relationship we want the governed in this nation to have with our government. Encounters where a man dies while being arrested for something that probably shouldn’t even be illegal? That’s not the vision I have for America. It’s not the vision I have for humanity. It’s certainly out of step with the message that I’m proclaiming. It makes me yearn for home.