Dear Police Chief 2
I didn’t have to wait long to hear back from the West Des Moines police chief. To his credit, he picked up the phone and called me. So, a few days after I sent my letter last week, Chief LaDue and I spoke on the phone for about a half hour.
Chief LaDue explained the following to me.
He doesn’t make political statements. That’s what a public statement about the ongoing problem of police officers shooting unarmed African Americans citizens, which is what I called for in my letter, is. He just doesn’t do that.
The main reason is that it puts he and his family at risk.
I’m paraphrasing here, he said something like, “If I make a statement, then I could just be out at the grocery story with my family. Someone mad about my statement might come up on me and go off.” Since I’m not 100% sure, I didn’t put it in there, but I am about 99.9% sure that he actually said, “someone white.”
That’s pretty stunning. He’s afraid of white people, white backlash.
He also explained that his job is to make sure things are good in West Des Moines. He told me WDMPD take charges of racial bias seriously, but treats them on a case-by-case basis. He told me he thinks West Des Moines does pretty well on these measures.
He used words like “de-escalation tactics.” He admitted that he thought some larger urban contexts were loose with their procedures and that “there are a whole lot of people out there who have no business being in uniform.” And he said he doesn’t support to movement to promote “Blue Lives Matter” and thinks that kind of movement is provocative and inappropriate.
He also offered to come to my campus and talk to students anytime.
I suggested to Chief LaDue that if I’m working at an educational institution with racial disparities (not a stretch, as it turns out), and students of color are being harmed, then it’s not enough for me to say “things are good in my classroom, so that’s all I need to do.” As a faculty member who represents that institution, it’s incumbent on me to publicly engage the institution about the larger set of issues.
Not publicly speaking makes a statement every bit as political as speaking up does. If serous harm is happening at the hands of institution I’m part of, there is no neutral or “non-political” position.
Silence is a political statement.
We each said a lot of other things too. And, of course, no major breakthroughs happened. But, I’m writing about this for two reasons.
First, when I sent the initial letter I said I would follow-up. So, that’s the follow-up.
Second, the conversation was another reminder to me that systemic racism can be supported and sustained by the most reasonable, engaging, even nice people. You don’t need a police chief who thinks racial bias is “okay” (Chief LeDue doesn’t) or a college professor who singles out her students of color inappropriately (I don’t) for violence to just continue unchecked.
Political, activist pressure is a non-negotiable ingredient to stopping this violence.
So . . .
We’re preparing to launch a chapter of SURJ in Des Moines. I don’t know yet quite where we will focus. Maybe we’ll put that kind of pressure on the Des Moines and other metro-area police departments. We need to make it harder for police departments not to take a stand than it is right now for them to take one. Or maybe SURJ in Des Moines in hone in on something different.
But, if you haven’t already, I urge you to commit to one concrete, tangible, public political action or organization, in addition to whatever other ways you may be working in your life to create a more racially just world.
Here’s one great option and I’m so in:
Shaun King, who has been relentless and faithful as a journalist in detailing the ongoing murder of Black children, women and men at the hands of police is organizing a massive boycott. You can just read about its strategy (which is incredible) and sign up. King’s doing the hard part.
As someone who has felt so much despair in the last many months, I am feeling more buoyed, practically giddy in fact, about this leadership and concrete strategy than I have about much else when it comes to ending the terror of police violence.
This boycott can work if all of us who care about this commit to supporting it, and do so for the long haul. And: we need to sign up so others know we’re doing it! You can do that here.
The boycott launches December 5, 2016.
Talking with the police chief was a good thing for me to do. But it was good more because of what it did for me than because it accomplished anything with the WDMPD. It was like exercising my moral muscles. It’s easy to protest on Facebook, but really hard to sit and explain out loud to someone who is perfectly nice on the phone, whose worked hard in his job for years, and to say aloud why you are so pissed off and heartbroken. And, then to say what you expect him to do. That’s good exercise and I need to keep doing that kind of thing.
But for long-term impact we must, must, must participate in organized events. With each other. For a long time. And we can do that, even if we aren’t or can’t become full-time activists and organizers ourselves.
Better yet, when we do that, we create more hope and more moral energy to then keep on demanding and instituting and transforming—all the while refusing the immobilizing tendencies of despair.
More to come….