At times like these I find myself benefitting from deeper consideration of the words written by wise people who have experienced, on a certain level, some of what we experience. In this case Alan Paton in his novel "Cry, The Beloved Country" speaks to me after the violent tragedies in the United States last week and months. Paton's insight on his land, on fearfulness within it and on its system of justice endures because he speaks truth. His words offer an opportunity for reflection on our laws and values and sensibilities as a state and nation in which we, as citizens, pledge "liberty and justice for all."
Paton writes, "The Judge does not make the Law. It is the People that make the Law. Therefore if the Law is unjust, and if the Judge judges according to the Law, that is justice, even if it is not just. It is the duty of a Judge to do justice, but it is only the People that can be just. Therefore if justice be not just, that is not to be laid at the door of the Judge, but at the door of the People, which means at the door of the White People, for it is White People that make the law."
I became a Chaplain in the Los Angeles Police Department while serving as Senior Minister of the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles due in part to the doleful question that came out of Los Angeles in 1992 following the riots, "Can't we just get along?"
A brief refresher is in order as 25 years have passed since the Rodney King beating. Rodney King was an African American taxi driver who was pummeled and relentlessly battered by four Caucasian Los Angeles police officers after a high-speed chase in March 1991. The brutality was captured on video-tape by a man from a nearby balcony. The video was sent to a local television station where it was aired locally. It subsequently became national headline news. The four policemen were charged with assault with a deadly weapon and excessive force. Three were acquitted of all charges. One was charged with excessive force but the state acquitted him, too. This happened on April 29, 1992 and as soon as the verdict was announced the tension that had built around the case for many months blew –up. The Los Angeles uprising began and continued for four days. I was in LA both when Rodney King was beaten and a year later when the verdict was read. I remember calling for our school of 450 students, along with teachers and my staff members to evacuate. I was the last to leave the premises as I watched smoke rise across the skyline from buildings less than a mile away as part of Los Angeles was burning.
I see similarities between then and now particularly with the digital live-stream of events around the shooting death of Philando Castile. Philando Castile is only one of a number of murdered black men last week. If these men had been white males I believe he would be alive today. I am also of the opinion that if racial profiling did not happen with increasing regularity across the United States for the past two decades that the Dallas policemen would also be alive.
I became involved with the LAPD so that I could work with police, local business owners and faith-based communities to help build up Los Angeles after the civil unrest. First Congregational LA initiated Hands Across LA. It became the visible symbol of unity and spurred a movement that led to dialogue and relationship building across diverse populations in that city. Many community members and law enforcement personnel worked side by side to create and develop dialogue. Reforms to the system produced ways of policing that supported positive youth development during the next decade. I was pleased to be part of that effort from its inception.
What I learned and experienced first hand was that community policing initiatives benefitted everyone. Police on foot patrol in neighborhoods became familiar with people who lived there. Community wide forums, as the one our church hosted with residents and police lessened hostilities. These strategies worked for us in LA when police, local citizens, community agencies, not-for-profits and faith-based communities all got on board to solve problems, diminished crime and greatly lessened racial tension.
Efforts need to be made across the United States to humanize police and residents. Congress has cut professional development budgets at the time when more community policing (not to be confused with Neighborhood Watch) needs to be employed. Across our nation we need to have the role of law enforcement personnel move away from a reactive, incident-driven bureaucracy armed with new highly developed weaponry and gear to a more humane quality-oriented partnership within local communities. Partnerships between the police and local residents would also benefit Vermont by helping communities dealing with the opiate addiction crisis.
We are fortunate to live in Vermont. I have also been fortunate to have lived and worked in racially mixed neighborhoods with people of color in major U.S. cities. This has helped give me a perspective that I might not otherwise have. I find myself asking if Vermonters understand what is at stake for us if we do not prepare to handle racial differences with care and sensitivity. We seem far removed from trouble. Vermont is our haven and we are grateful that we do not have helicopters incessantly flying overhead and sirens blaring all the time as they do in LA and New York City. We are thankful that we seldom if ever have to think of our own personal safety. Still, it would be wise to become more aware that what we love about where we live and the safety we generally feel should be a right of all citizens.
Alan Paton was right. "The Judge does not make the Law. It is the People that make the Law. Therefore if the Law is unjust, and if the Judge judges according to the Law, that is justice, even if it is not just."
We need to be more aware of the need for just laws. We need to work to ensure that better laws safeguard security for average citizens particularly those of color. History teaches that major problems can be averted when we work together, plan together and seek to address potential human problems before they get out of hand.
Rep. Steve Berry is a state representative to the Vermont Legislature.