The cat is out of the bag, so to speak, when it comes to criminal justice in America. While police still rank among the most trusted institutions in American society, public confidence in the police has nevertheless hit a 20-year low. Outcries surrounding the deaths of people like Michael Brown and Eric Garner only scratch the surface of a much larger barrage of viral videos, personal accounts, and troubling statistics that have gripped the public imagination in recent years. The effects of such sweeping indictments against the criminal justice system are impossible to fully predict. But it’s safe to say they aren’t going away.
In the midst of this public controversy, I find myself torn between two opposing factions — factions that don’t really exist but can seem quite real in the midst of heated rhetoric. On one side are the marginalized and oppressed. On the other side are police. In reality, neither of these factions exist. If you were to ask the average American whether they belong to one of these sides, they would say something like, “I don’t, but those people do.” They are factions that allow us to demonize the other side while pretending to be neutral ourselves. And they are tearing us apart.
For myself, you can appreciate how torn I am when you consider that I am the daughter of a police officer, the sister of a recently hired police officer, and the grown-up version of a little girl who once wanted to be a police officer. I recently spent a night crying over news that a cop in NYC had been shot and killed while just sitting in his patrol car doing nothing. I worry about my dad and brother often.
Nevertheless, I am also a teacher in a low-income community where the oppression is real and something that I see every day. My student’s own father was shot and killed by a cop because he fumbled with his wallet, and my teaching assistant’s boyfriend was shot in the back and killed while running away for weed possession. I’ve had multiple friends tell me horrific stories of their experiences with police.
Some might call me a racist for being worried about my dad and my brother. Others might call me a race baiter for mourning police brutality and speaking out against it. But I care about both. And I cry about both. And I don’t think they need to oppose each other.
So speaking from this torn and bloodied middle ground — the ground where most of us walk — I would like to insert a word of challenge. Not because I think these issues can be resolved easily. But rather, because I firmly believe that the “sides” in this battle are dangerously artificial and prevent us from recognizing the actual enemy.
Who is the real enemy?
It has become increasingly impossible to ignore the cries of injustice rattling the chambers of the American criminal justice system. We lock up our citizens at a rate so high that even the most oppressive regimes in the world can’t compare. The Drug War has decimated poor and minority communities, racialized policies have lead to discrimination at virtually every level of the criminal justice system, and those with money and power continue to use their resources to avoid punishment while poor defendants suffer the harshest penalties of the law.
In response to the injustice and fiery protests, we have stereotyped each other into oblivion. On the one side is “Team Oppressed.” They are the ones who stand for the poor. They post on Twitter with hashtags like #Ferguson and wield signs that say “All Cops Are Bastards.” On the other side is “Team Authority.” They are the ones who #backtheblue and defend law-and-order. They shake their heads at race-baiters and post moving stories on Facebook about police heroism and acts of service.
The problem is that we have drawn the battle lines completely wrong. Imagine yourself at the checkout of a grocery store. The card reader is malfunctioning for the customer in front of you. The customer argues with the cashier for several minutes, and the cashier becomes increasingly annoyed. He politely implies that the customer doesn’t know what she’s talking about, so she returns the compliment and implies that the cashier doesn’t know how to do his job. After a few minutes of bickering, the customer curses him out, marches away, and files a formal complaint with management.
Obviously, neither side is happy with the outcome. Arguing with each other was pointless because the problem was not the cashier nor was it the customer. The problem was the card reader. Something was wrong with the system.
The situation described above is much the same in criminal justice. The problem is not the police nor is it the communities they serve. The problem is the system itself. We can punish law enforcement officers all we want, and we can talk about black-on-black crime all we want. But this tit-for-tat only distracts from the actual issues at stake. What’s more, it is frighteningly possible that we can “reform” the police to such an extent that we actually believe we have fixed the problem, when we have done nothing of the sort. The pressure placed upon law enforcement will continue to rise while the criminal justice system remains largely unchanged. In fact, that’s pretty much been the trajectory we’ve followed for the past two decades. Increasingly higher and higher levels of pressure upon individual cops to shoulder the burden of an entire criminal justice system that continues to fail.
This is what “winning” looks like for Team Oppressed. They lose.
What is the “buffer zone”?
In his book Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Fight for Social Justice (a leftist read, you’ve been duly warned), Paul Kivel describes what he calls “buffer-zone” jobs. Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, I think the concept is one that both conservatives and progressives can recognize. Buffer-zone jobs include such professions as teachers, cops, nurses, soldiers, social workers, and many others. They are located in the “buffer zone” because they quite literally “buffer” the opposing factions in many of the social wars we observe.
Soldiers are one example.
Most people are familiar with the controversy surrounding Vietnam and the shameful treatment that soldiers received when they returned home. It didn’t matter that Vietnam soldiers had absolutely no control over the declaration of war, the draft, and the orders they received. When they returned, they were largely scapegoated for decisions and policies that weren’t theirs. They “buffered” the actual decision-makers from the anger of the people.
Thankfully, this type of broadly accepted soldier-shaming no longer exists to the same extent (though it still happens). One might say that we learned from some of our mistakes, and now slogans like “support our troops” are common, even during unpopular wars and military measures.
Nevertheless, soldiers are not the only people who work in the buffer zone. If you work in the buffer zone, you probably have your own stories to tell about the blame-game. Nurses, for instance, joke that it doesn’t matter who makes the mistake, it’s always their fault. For me, as a teacher, it doesn’t matter that I have no control over state funding, the amount of resources available to me, the conditions and consequences of poverty, the harmful and conflicting policies of lawmakers with no experience in the classroom, and countless other variables — if my students underachieve, I am to blame.
And if our laws are discriminatory, our “colorblind” policies designed to target communities of color, our system tailored to favor the wealthy and well-connected, it doesn’t matter. Cops are to blame for the injustice.
In reality, the systemic problems within criminal justice harm both cops and the communities they serve. Cops are often sent into impossible situations created as a direct result of years upon years of community defunding. But since cops “buffer” the system, the actual causes that push people into desperate situations are easily overlooked. We are an audience distracted by the magician’s left hand while his right hand pockets our card. As long as we are distracted by “reforming” the police, we’ll never notice that the criminal justice system is continuing to pocket our liberties.
On the other hand, the more we try to defend law enforcement by blaming the communities they serve or by denying the existence of a problem, the more alienated cops will become from the very communities who need their help. Cops will continue to be vilified for the enforcement of laws they did not create and scapegoated for problems they cannot correct. But since these problems don’t really exist according to stereotypical “Team Authority” rhetoric, the unsafe and unacceptable situations that cops are forced to handle every day will continue to go unnoticed. Thus a “win” for Team Authority is also a loss.
A Challenge for Everyone
So this is my word of challenge. Stop shaming poor communities for the consequences of poverty, and stop scapegoating cops for policies they didn’t create. Stop pretending that problems don’t exist, and stop pretending that the problems would go away if we just got rid of a few bad apples. Stop bickering with each other when the card reader is broken. Stop fighting when we share a common enemy.
If we don’t, everyone is going to lose.
It’s time for all of us to recognize that the issues embedded within criminal justice are problems shared by all. They harm communities as much as they harm cops. Moreover, it extends to the ways in which we have turned almost all of our social issues into matters needing policing. For decades our country has disinvested in education, housing, public health, and a host of civic goods and left the police to handle the consequences. This, on top of criminalizing things like drugs and homelessness. It can’t go on.
Over-policed neighborhoods make the people who live there unsafe, because it’s only a matter of time before a situation escalates to violence, but they also make the cops who do the policing unsafe. For those who are frustrated by oppression, the police can be an ally in changing the criminal justice system, for your sake as well as theirs. For those who value law and order, acknowledging that injustice does exist in the criminal justice system can be a critical step towards restoring faith in law enforcement. If we don’t recognize that we share a common enemy—a system that is broken—we’ll never win this battle.
So let’s set aside our frustrations with each other and rally behind systemic change. Not police reform. Systemic-wide changes that completely alter the logic by which we handle criminal justice in our country. Let’s recognize that the answer to drugs isn’t prison, the answer to school violence isn’t juvie, the answer to homelessness isn’t arrest, and ultimately the answer to poverty isn’t police. But even as we recognize this, let’s also recognize that the answer isn’t scapegoating cops either.
The answer is rallying around systemic-wide changes that address the ways in which we’ve criminalized our social issues and left cops to deal with the fallout. Systemic change is good for communities, but it’s also good for cops. We can’t drive this car called justice when the engine is blown. It’s time to change the engine.