The enemy is us

The cartoon Pogo is probably most remembered for the main character proclaiming “I have met the enemy and his is US.”  Sometime we are our own worst enemy. I know at times I have been. And I saw it at work in the neighborhood this week.

A community leader was recently arrested as she stood on her lawn and videotaped a police traffic stop in front of her house. The officer said he did not feel “safe” with her standing there in her pajamas with a video camera in her hand. She was arrested and will appear in court on Monday. The video has gone onto You-Tube and the story is being carried nationwide.  At a time when police cars in other jurisdiction have a video camera that tape routine stops as a precaution and to safeguard the officers, a natural question is why a woman, on her own property,  making a tape of this stop  was deemed offensive and “unsafe”? It was an iPod camera. The officers had the guns.

But this question was compounded Thursday night.  There was an announced community meeting to talk about this arrest and probably plan some sort of response.  Soon after the announced meeting time police officers showed up outside ticketing cars of those attending the meeting. The officers were photographed by new crews as they used rulers to measure the distance between the curb and the car tire in order to give tickets to any who were a fraction of an inch too far from the curb. This is obviously using the letter of the law for some sort of retribution. It was an obvious exercise of power to threaten, pay back or intimidate. It was petty and vindictive.

I am torn. On the one hand I have a great respect and admiration for those who protect and serve.  But I am also aware of and have seen numerous examples the ways in which holding and enforcing the power of the law can warp one’s perception of self and others.

Police officers are suspect by many in the city and I, as a white person, have less to fear and far fewer complaints against the police than my neighbors of color, but I too am wary.  These sorts of responses by officers to public scrutiny of their actions and attitudes do not quell my wariness nor the distrust of others in the community. Trust cannot be demanded it can only be earned. And it is earned is small steps and day by day interactions. It is not earned by press conference rhetoric or by using the law as a club.

If we want to have better relationships between the police and the community each has to give up some sense of being persecuted by the other and common sense needs to prevail.  It is a dangerous world and a dangerous profession.  Yet preventing a citizen from exercising her rights is not making anyone safer.  Especially the police.  This case erroneous portrays all officers as capricious and petty. It reinforces the urban stereotype of officers having something to hide. The fact that citizens feel they need to tape encounter with the police to insure that excessive force is not used and rights are recognized tells us how far we have to go.

It is an established principle of power that those with the most power in such situations have the greatest responsibility to act in an open and transparent manner in order to build mutual trust. It may not seem fair to the officers that the burden is placed on them (when they already feel they are not respected by the public).  But it is a fair and reasonable  expectation given the imbalance of power and authority between the officers and the general public. We already see the negative results of a response that is perceived by the public as petty or vindictive.

We can all learn from this that in relationships where we hold or seem to have more power than the other  it is up to us to take the high road. It is up to us to go the extra mile, to turn the other check, to bear another’s burden. For in so doing we become peacemakers and change the dynamic of the relationship. If we do not do that we are not part of the solution we have become a large part of the problem.



About don

The Rev Don Hill is an Episcopal priest, rail fan and writer. He and his wife the Rev. Dr. Nancy Woodworth-Hill are currently Co-Pastors of St Paul's Episcopal Church, Jeffersonville IN, in the Diocese of Indianapolis. They also work as parish consultants in Appreciative Inquiry, strategic planning and spirituality development for parishes and vestries.
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