Guest columnist William Brown: ‘There are no silent Good Guys’

  • Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

  • The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks on Jan. 1, 1960 in Washington D.C. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. Keystone Pictures USA/Zuma Press/TNS

Published: 6/29/2020 10:24:59 AM

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

Being a police officer is not an easy job. It is fraught with dangers and uncertainty and, like many public service jobs, it is often underfunded and thankless.

It is also a job that is imbued with immense power and trust. Police officers are the concrete and visible arm of a society’s soul and spirit, and the system built to reflect and maintain that spirit. In the United States, police carry guns and are given permission to use lethal force under certain circumstances.

They are not, however, mechanical tools of that system. They are humans, with prejudices, fears (real and imagined), with a potential for deep empathy and compassion and, on the flip-side, for callous, malicious and even murderous abuses.

There are good and bad players in every profession, but with great powers, such as the power over life and death, over freedom and incarceration, comes even greater responsibility, not only individual, but institutional as well. This responsibility also extends to the larger society that employs and empowers these agents of their will.

In situations like the homicide of George Floyd of Minneapolis, the latest in a long line of state-sanctioned murders of Black men, is a case in point. In such a situation, the knee on Floyd’s neck belongs, to a degree, to all of us who are silent in its aftermath. Silence equals acceptance and complicity.

There are no “facts to get to the bottom of.” We have clear video of a subdued and restrained man, face down on the pavement, being suffocated slowly by another man - a man with powers we have given him. What happened before this video should not matter in any way, though many will cite it in an attempt to excuse the behavior of the officer.

There is a legal system (though, itself, deeply flawed) in place to attempt to sort out innocence and guilt. When the smoke is blown away, what remains is a slow and methodical murder captured on video. Surrounding this murder are three or more accomplices protecting the deadly act. The fact that these murderers were not arrested immediately demonstrates the larger failure and complicity by law enforcement and the society as a whole, which does not appear to have the will or moral fortitude to keep its hand on the wheel of justice.

Silence in this case is complicity, and complicity ripples out from this violent act, washing over all who stand by. In such situations, the voices of police are often painfully hushed. Most of those who speak out do so in defense or mitigation of the act and not in renouncement.

Those outside the “blue wall” of silence say they will do their best to make sure this never happens again, but we all know it will, and soon. In such cases, those who are given the awesome responsibility over life and death in our streets have a moral obligation to add their voices to the outrage. There are no silent “Good Guys.”




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