It was one of those “meta-” moments: a photograph of a drawing that was itself a metaphor. The picture captured the chalk rendering of a fruit in which a worm had made its home, and was captioned: “No good apples”. It was not the only visual trauma in the news at the end of the week, either.
On Friday, video emerged of Buffalo riot police pushing an elderly man to the ground. 75-year-old Martin Gugino staggered and fell backward, his head striking the pavement and beginning to bleed.
First, a police statement said the man tripped and fell. That version of the story quickly became untenable, and two of the officers directly involved in the incident were suspended without pay.
When that happened, all fifty-seven members of the Buffalo police department’s special response outfit resigned from the special unit in protest at the disciplinary measures taken against their colleagues. The head of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association, John Evans, told The Buffalo News, “Our position is these officers were simply following orders from Deputy Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia to clear the square.”
Erie County prosecutors on Saturday charged the officers – 39-year-old Aaron Torgalski and 32-year-old Robert McCabe – with one count each of felony assault. The accused entered a plea of Not Guilty, and were released on their own recognizance. Mr. Gugino remained in hospital on Saturday afternoon, in serious condition. Scores of people were at the courthouse to support the officers, many of them reportedly police and firefighters.
Together, the video and the chalk drawing helped clarify a thought I’ve had churning around for some time, but only found a first, halting way to express this week, during my conversations with Faith Glavey Pawl and David Franks for Catholic Herald: Behind the Headlines: basically, that there are good police officers in America in much the same way there are good clerics in the Church.
Change – real change, and for the better – is possible: there’s proof. There really is no excuse for not giving it our best efforts, in the Church and in our civic communities.
Like most clerics, most police officers sincerely believe the creed that animates their profession and are genuinely dedicated to the mission. Most would rather die than do anything like the evil some of their fellows have done. At the same time, however, they are mostly happy not to know what goes on when they’re not there (and even when they are there, they are also more practiced in the art of not noticing than they realize).
They are willing, in the main, to play by the rules – those written, and those unwritten – which govern a cultural system that makes it easy not to know, and dangerous to take a stand either against the system or against the members and leadership of the order the system protects.
We know a good deal about the damage the cultural rot has wrought on ecclesiastical circumstances. The macabre scene in Buffalo and its revolting aftermath illustrate where such cultural rot leads and how far along the path we have traveled in our civility.
If the good apples among the ranks of America’s police forces are really interested in change – as doubtless many of them are – then they can and must not only commit to it themselves, but demand it of their leadership and their corporate representatives. Likewise, clerics both high and low can and must stop hiding behind procedure and begin demanding better of themselves and their superiors, who have paid lip service to Responsibility, Accountability, Transparency but so far have failed to deliver them or even make much of a show of trying.
We citizens must help them, and that means recognizing our own failures in these and other related regards.
The broken police culture in America is part of the complex weave of problems for which “systemic racism” is convenient shorthand. Systemic racism is like systemic clericalism, in that it more often works subtly and beneath the level of conscious attention or commitment, even though it does also work overtly and maliciously. Both are general ailments in the bodies politic they afflict. Each disproportionately affects certain members.
Catholics see systemic clericalism at work: we have experienced it and we know what it is. By beginning to see systemic racism for what it is, learning how to spot it, and beginning to fight it, Catholics can contribute at once to the healing of civil society and of the Church. Neither task will be easy. Neither enterprise will be painless. None of us will get it right all the time, and few of us will get it right very often at the beginning, but the time is long since passed for making a real start.
These problems – both ecclesiastical and civil – are basically political.
In characterizing them as such, I mean to say that they touch directly the common weal of the societies, in and for which the respective orders – clerical and police – are given. Addressing the problems will inevitably involve taking up, once again, the basic question of politics: How shall we order our lives together?
It will take both time and great effort to reach the bedrock of the business, and the work of citizenship is never really done, but there are stories of civil reform undertaken in the most difficult and unpromising conditions, which have nevertheless achieved significant measures of success.
Take Camden, New Jersey, for example.
Known as recently as 2012 as the most dangerous place to live in America, the city has become a model for community policing. Leaders needed to take hard decisions, though: they disbanded the police force and built a new one. They also crafted a policy on the use of force, which makes potentially lethal tactics a last resort. They have enforced the policy consistently and transparently. They have fostered a culture in which officers feel beholden to the community they serve, hence responsible for upholding department standards.
Change – real change, and for the better – is possible: there’s proof. There really is no excuse for not giving it our best efforts, in the Church and in our civic communities. Change won’t happen anywhere overnight – it can’t – but that’s all the more reason to begin today, and on multiple fronts. Fighting systemic racism and fighting for Church reform are complementary, not opposite ends. The successes both great and small in each area of endeavor will buttress and inform one another, while the habits of mind and the aptitudes of spirit developed in each will constantly serve the other.
In Buffalo, helping those those fifty-seven officers so bent out of shape over their colleagues’ suspensions to discern their way out of police work entirely might be a way for the mayor to get the ball rolling. When it comes to the Church, the question is: which bishop will finally hear his faithful, and decide to make his diocese an ecclesiastical Camden?
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