Rabbis in New York protesting non-indictment of NYPD officer implicated in Eric Garner death
Johnny Carson, the late comedian and long-time host of the Tonight Show, began his career on a TV game show called “Who Do You Trust.”
I think about the name of that show today only because of a pervasive erosion of trust in our country. And it’s not funny. Not in the least.
Within the span of a week, grand juries in Ferguson, MO, and Staten Island, NY, declined to indict white police officers who were alleged to have committed police brutality in killing African American men. I don’t wish to make the case that either Michael Brown in Ferguson or Eric Garner in New York were saints. I also don’t wish to implicate all white police officers as racist hooligans, when the vast majority joined the force to serve and protect society, and they generally do. Yet I can’t help but wonder what would have happened in identical circumstances if either Michael Brown or Eric Garner was white. Probably nothing.
On a day to day basis, I’m sure there are countless examples of law enforcement officers doing their job in protecting our community in ways that don’t make the news. At the same time, to a casual observer, such as me, something seems to be broken in our law enforcement system. Our nation thrives as a nation of justice, and one of the pillars of a just society is trust. One of the greatest threats to trust is fear, particularly fear of people who are different. Fear of the other has deep roots in civilization, even in Parashat Vayishlach.
Our Torah reading this week contains an ugly, painful story that we don’t learn in Hebrew School. It is often referred to as the “Rape of Dinah.” However, it really should be known as the Massacre of Shechem. It is not at all clear that Dinah was raped; in fact, as depicted in Anita Diament’s novel, “The Red Tent,” her relationship with Shechem may have been completely consensual and loving. Shechem goes to Dinah’s family and says he will pay any bride price for the right to take Dinah as his wife. The brothers, presumably all of them at first, issue the demand that Shechem and every other male in their town get circumcised. Lo and behold, Shechem and his father Hamor agree to this condition. All the males are circumcised. Then Shimon and Levi unleash unthinkable terror. While all the males of the town are recovering from their circumcisions, they massacre them all. The Bible does not whitewash our ancestors; this story, however, puts on full display the capacity among our ancestors for outright evil. When our fear of the ‘other’ is so great, we are at risk of committing terrible violence or tolerating the same from others in the name of justice.
I am not suggesting that Shimon and Levi’s premeditated massacre of innocents is the same as the alleged police brutality in Ferguson and New York. Police officers argue that they face great pressure in the line of duty and the heat of the moment in their efforts to protect society. However, the common threads are fear and mistrust.
With a great sense of despair across the country, I heard a glimmer of hope in an interview on NPR with Constance Rice, a prominent civil rights attorney. She became known in the 1990s for, as she puts it, going to war with the Los Angeles Police Department.
Rice filed lawsuits against the department, mainly over their treatment of minorities in underprivileged communities. But in her interview, she bemoaned her initial tactics. Belligerence was breeding only more hostility and fear.
After initially battling the LAPD, and specifically captain Charlie Beck, who is now LA’s police chief, Rice changed tactics and found ways to work with the department. They worked together to reform the department and established trust.
Some of that change included LAPD officers going into housing projects to set up youth sports programs and health screenings, things that made people’s lives better and brought police and predominantly black communities closer together.
Rice described interviewing over 900 police officers and was surprised by the extent to which they opened up to her, as if in a therapy session:
“They would say things like, “Ms. Rice I’m scared of black men. Black men terrify me. I’m really scared of them. Ms. Rice, you know black men who come out of prison, they’ve got great hulk strength and I’m afraid they’re going to kill me. Ms. Rice, can you teach me how not to be afraid of black men.” I mean this [comes from] cops who are 6’4″. You know, the cop in Ferguson was 6’4″ talking about he was terrified. But when cops are scared, they kill and they do things that don’t make sense to you and me.”
On whether or not racism plays a factor in police force:
“[The police officer] doesn’t feel like it’s racism, [but] [T]he black community experiences it as racism, that’s very clear. So what I’m saying is that for people who have to be in the business of solving this dilemma you have to be able to step into the frightened tennis shoes of black kids; black male kids in particular. You have to be able to step into the combat boots and scared cops, and racist cops, and cruel cops, and good cops. You have to be able to distinguish between all of those human experiences and bring them together. On a single platform of we’re going to solve this by empathizing. We’re going to solve it with compassion and we’re going to solve it with common sense.”
On whether improving life in poor neighborhoods causes police to be less fearful:
“Not only does it cause cops to be less fearful, it causes the community to embrace them. I have taken a group of 50 cops and the chief (Charlie) Beck let me train them. I trained them in what I community partnership policing. The first thing I tell these cops is that you are not in the arrest business; you are in the trust business. We are going to train you in Public Trust Policing. It goes beyond community policing. What it does is it puts police in a position of helping a community solve its problems. These cops come into the black housing projects and they said to these populations who hate them “We know you hate us, but we’re here to serve. We’re going to win your trust.””
Our nation has a lot of work to do to rebuild trust and overcome fear of the other. Throughout the centuries since the time of the Torah we find that fear of the other brings out the worst in people. It was true for Shimon and Levi, and it is true on the streets of our cities today.
The Prophet Zechariah says (8:16): Dabru emet ish et re’eyhu emet u’mishpat shalomshiftu b’shaareychem—Speak everyone the truth to one another; execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates; and let none of you devise evil in your hearts against your neighbor.
May the prophet’s words inspire us to reimagine our society not rooted in fear of the other but in emet and shalom, truth and peace and inherent trust in one another.