I come from a family of police officers. Throughout my childhood, that was what I knew: respecting police, always supporting the men and women in blue, and having nothing but positive thoughts about law enforcement. Everyone has heard the old adage that “love makes us blind,” and that was true for me for a long time. Then, in the fall semester of my sophomore year at Bloomsburg University, I took the most important class of my life so far: “Race and Ethnic Minorities.” It dealt with the sociopolitical history and struggles of minorities in this country.
I started that class on a typically hot day in August 2014, a mere two weeks after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson. The country was divided over this soon-to-be historical event — so many points of view, so many news outlets reporting different things. I wondered: Is it possible for me to form an unbiased opinion since I wasn’t there? What side do I choose?
The Ferguson shooting became a perennial topic of discussion in that class, and the conversations my peers and I had were some of the most eye-opening of the semester. Our professor, Dr. Podeschi, encouraged open discussion, and he asked us how everyone in the class felt about reports of police shootings. Nearly all the students were angry, but especially my peers of color. This was a turning point in the semester: White students remained students, while our peers of color became the teachers.
My friends of color told me that they had not viewed law enforcement the same way I had growing up. They were wary of calling the police for help if problems arose, and they were terrified of getting stopped or pulled over. I heard countless stories of my peers being profiled and frisked, over and over again. I read many articles about how blacks and whites can commit the exact same crime, but a black male will get more jail time for it than will his white counterpart. I started to wonder about my unflinching devotion to the police, and whether I had been naïve about the world around me. I was slowly learning what plenty of other Americans have known for a long time: The black community, as well as other minorities, have been systematically targeted and held back ever since this country was established.
Back home, however, not everyone saw things the same way I did. In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, Blue Lives Matters groups started to appear. I noticed that children of police officers I’d grown up with had started to sport #BlueLivesMatter t-shirts, wristbands, and bumper stickers. Around the holidays, I heard one of my older relatives talking about how they supported Officer Darren Wilson and claiming that the media was falsely portraying the story.
After what I had heard from my peers in class and learned from Dr. Podeschi, I couldn't justify that belief about Wilson. Whereas I once would have sided with him unquestionably just because my family is law enforcement, that was no longer a good enough answer. When the story had first broken, I’d tried to distance myself from it because I didn’t want to believe that an unarmed black man could be shot and killed by a police officer due to a lapse in judgment, racial profiling, and conditioned stereotypes. At first, it was a pill too hard for me to swallow. But then I tried to apply my new knowledge. I asked myself, Why did this really happen? How often do things like this occur?
Eric Garner. Sandra Bland. Alton Sterling. It was no longer plausible for me to think that all these incidents of unarmed Black Americans having their lives ended at the hand of law enforcement were coincidences. I am too educated to believe that law enforcement officials are perfect beings, totally free of personal prejudices. I finally understand the frustration the black community felt after these officers were not punished and, often, instead received paid leave. Seeing the deep despair on my friends’ faces when they found out the officer involved in Eric Garner’s death would receive no punishment — that was the moment I truly understood the Black Lives Matter movement.
In response to these deaths, my fellow students organized their own Black Lives Matter protest during the Fall 2014 semester. Students and professors walked together in solidarity for the sake of justice, chanting and holding signs as they made their way to the library. When they got there, students laid down on their backs in the center of the floor to symbolize the death of Eric Garner, whose last words were “I can’t breathe.”
I attended the protest, but I did not lay down with the others; I stood with my hands folded in front of me as a sign of respect for the cause. I felt that, as a white person, it wouldn’t be genuine for me to lay down with them as if I knew their struggle, as if I could personally understand the frustration and hurt they were feeling.
Outside of the college environment, at first I found it difficult to speak out. I am friends with a lot of officers on social media, including ones I’ve known since I was very young. If I discussed my new views and understanding publically, would they think I hated them? Was I just being a liberal rebel? But as time passed I became angrier. Could I call myself an ally to the black community if I didn’t say anything? Hell, no. As Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
So I started to speak out. When my white friends from home talked about the police shootings, I talked to them about institutional racism, racial profiling, and putting themselves into others’ shoes. When one friend said that black Americans are treated equally in this country and that she didn’t think racism was “much of a big deal anymore,” I tried to change her mind. I explained to so many people from my community that Black Lives Matter is a social reform group, not a hate group. Black Lives Matter activists don’t think their lives are more important than anybody else’s — they just want to be equal. They want to feel as though they matter because they (rightfully) do not believe that our justice system cares about their well-being.
But just because I support Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean that I don’t like police officers. As President Obama said, “When people say Black Lives Matter, that doesn’t mean blue lives don’t matter.” I am so proud of my family for what they do. They are honorable men and women who put on their uniforms every day to help others. I am in no way ashamed of having officers as my close family friends and relatives. But I refuse to side with any officer who shoots an unarmed citizen. Nobody is above the law. Nobody.
Jon Stewart also said something on this topic that has very much resonated with me. “You can truly grieve for every officer who’s been lost in the line of duty in this country and still be troubled by cases of police overreach,” he explained. “Those two ideas are not mutually exclusive. You can have great regard for law enforcement and still want them to be held to high standards.”
It’s been two years since I took that class. I learned a lot that semester, and I know I still have a lot to learn. As a white, heterosexual, middle-class woman, I recognize that I do not face the same hardships as men and women of color — or as people of different religions, sexual orientations, and genders. But here’s what I can do: I can use my privilege to help spread the truth. I can be a proud member of the generation that ends institutional racism. I can help create a world in which everyone experiences a fair justice system, where everyone’s opinion matters, and where we all listen to each other.
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