Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy each to his brother; do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor; and let none of you devise evil against his brother in your heart.’ (Zec 7:10)
The recent riots in Baltimore offer us another opportunity to consider questions of justice and authority, prudence and prejudice. And because events like those in Baltimore seem to fuel passions and prejudices like no others, we have to seek justice outside the court of public opinion and instead in the courtroom. That is to say, by the legitimate avenues of the law. This is not a complex point, but it does require restraint (from the officers of the law, for example) and patience (from the citizens of the city as well as the country).
When such awful incidents occur, it is incredibly difficult to discern the truth from our vantage point as outsiders. Newspapers, blogs, and talking heads tend to put forward distinct narratives. These narratives each have heroes and villains. Because these accounts tend to rely on preconceived notions and comparisons to similar tragedies, the story of some new incident could almost be written before the actual event occurs.
But justice operates differently. It primarily involves a focus on the individual situation between two parties. It is concerned with discerning what is right and doing so in a balanced manner. We have to trust the process. Because otherwise, emotions and prejudices rule. Otherwise, the caricatures are all too easy to write:
Police officers mostly don’t live in the districts they police. So they approach their jobs with the “us vs. them” mentality of an occupying army. We are a community with our own culture, and these police have nothing to do with us. They automatically suspect an African-American male between the ages of 14 and 40 of criminal activity. And they harass him. Or they arrest him, often without probable cause. And they resort to force quickly.
When a resident complains of such treatment to the officer’s supervisor, the complaint isn’t taken seriously. Either the supervisor thinks the resident is lying, or he doesn’t want to blot the officer’s record, or both. And so there are no legitimate means of redress. Most prisoners are African-American. Most casualties resulting from police contact are African-American. The police seem like they are out to get us. Just look at the statistics. They arrested and killed an innocent man. If we don’t protest, we won’t be noticed.
We police officers encounter citizens at their worst every day. No one calls 911 to tell the operator things are going splendidly. Law enforcement doesn’t spend most of its time in peaceful suburban cul-de-sacs. With a population of 600,000, Baltimore experienced 300 homicides in the late 1990s. Police diligence trimmed the number to roughly 210 by last year. If an officer sees a verbally hostile man quickly reach in his coat pocket, and he guesses wrong (say the officer assumes he’s reaching for his cell phone), that officer might die. And he might encounter such situations frequently if he patrols a tough neighborhood. Everyone else, the Monday morning quarterbacks, will likely never be responsible for life and death calls like that. Likely not a single one, let alone dozens over the course of a career. So should our badges and pensions be taken away if we guess wrong?
The breakdown of the family in the inner cities caused crime to skyrocket, from the late 1960s through today. Most African-American men in the city grow up without the loving discipline of a mother and a father. No federal, state, or local initiative has ever been able to make up for that fundamental lack. We police will fear to do our jobs if the accusations of criminals will cause us to lose our livelihoods.
So what do we do now?
We could resort to subscribing wholesale to one of the two narratives sketched here, and indeed, it is impossible for us (based on our individual life experiences) not to at least tend toward one or the other. But if anything resembling justice is to result from this unfortunate situation, it seems that we have to entrust it to the legitimate powers. They have a difficult task, and they will not always do it perfectly. But we the people have to trust them to do it. We don’t want an alternative to the rule of law to prevail. We saw that result at Mondawmin Mall. We are ruled by laws, and concerns ought to be voiced through peaceful demonstrations. Not by mob rule.
Let us avoid thinking that those who wield violence in the name of the public good are exempt from morality:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. (Rom 13:1)
Image: Giotto, Justice