I lost a neighbor this year. Michael Brown died in Ferguson, Missouri of a bullet wound sustained during an interaction with a police officer. I live in another city. I reside in a separate county. I am a different gender, age and race, but I mourn the loss of this young man, his potential and what happened that day in Ferguson; because deep inside, I continue to ask the question: At what point do we, as a society, make the shift in our worldview from thinking in terms of “us” and “them” to thinking of ourselves instead as “we”—the members of this community?
We, who live in community, share crowded spaces in our most populated urban areas. And, whenever there are circumstances of large gatherings of people, it generates the need to have a few common codes of conduct—”the rules”—in place, so that we can go about our daily tasks and get on with the business of living. The thing is, when we have rules in crowded places, or even in sparsely populated locations, most of us prefer to delegate the enforcement of these rules to but a few chosen members from among our “other” neighbors.
Now, our “other” neighbors, who have been chosen to work in law enforcement, in many ways have a heavy burden to bear. On any given day, “they” are called to work with people who, sometimes having been flagged for not following the rules, may be high, drunk, insane, defiant or just plain angry—for any number of reasons. The truth is that our “other” neighbors are often called to serve, to the best of their abilities, while walking blindly into sometimes complex and frequently highly emotional situations.
In my community, I live in a section of town where, when I walk my dogs, I hear frantically raised voices “communicating” through closed doors and fully shut windows. I have witnessed young, desperate children race out into the street looking for help because the adults, to whom they would normally turn, are actively engaged in physical conflict. People have asked me whether or not I feel safe in my neighborhood. Yet, amid all of this chaos, I am able to retreat to the center of my being because I know that I have not been called to work or serve, as some of my “other” neighbors have, as a protector of our community’s rules.
Darren Wilson is the name of the police officer, who was involved in the shooting. I do not know him. I do not know what he might feel, think or believe, who his family is or what he holds dear to his heart. Yet, I do know that in my heart he, like Michael Brown, is also my neighbor. And, so my sense of mourning extends to him as well. Remembering the young Arizona police officer, Jeff Moritz, who lost his life while on duty, shot by Eric Clark, a clinically insane man, I think that something inside of Darren Wilson’s heart must have died the day of the shooting—because when life pushes any of us into the small cramped spaces at the back of our minds, amid open contention and with only a few seconds to make a decision about flight, fight or freeze, any decision we make or action we take will probably be without social delicacy, diplomacy or any other skillful rendering. And, ultimately, when behavior involves a violent action against the very fabric of life, our hearts sustain injury.
So, here we are, as a community, amid a sea of pain and division. While some cling to the rafts of “us” and “them”, “others” of us are asking the questions: How do we come around to seeing ourselves as the neighbors that we truly are? And, how do we resolve the inherent imbalances in our neighbor-serving institutions that cause repeated injuries to populations within our community-at-large?
Resolving imbalances in our community-serving institutions to prevent further miscommunications, fracturing, pain and loss of life is difficult and demanding work, requiring Herculean efforts of consistent community interaction and involvement. Voting alone is not enough. Writing letters and engaging in dialogue will not address the concrete changes we need to make on a personnel level to prevent another situation of “us” and “them”. Perhaps it is time to visit, or in some cases revisit, the notion that “we” need to live where we work and work where we live.
This is one proposed approach to changing our neighbor-serving institutions. Such an approach would require us to refresh our methods of law-enforcement recruitment, hiring and retention. In the mean time, we need to consider more neighborhood/law-enforcement dialogue or, perhaps, revisit the concept of pairing officers of unique backgrounds into new working teams.
Ultimately, though, the most important work to be done does not involve external or cosmetic changes to our institutions, but it involves our internal attitudes and beliefs. What we all need to address is the matter of our internal divisions, so that we can mend our own broken and divisive thoughts, speech, actions and hearts. As neighbors, we each need to address the issue of closing the divide.