Yesterday my son Dashiell was playing with his Matchbox cars quietly on the floor while I watched the news. He held up two cars and said, “Momma, guess what this car just said to the police car?”
“He called him ‘stupid.'” He said, very solemnly, then shook his head slowly. “That’s not nice.”
“That’s not nice,” I agreed. “No one should call someone else stupid.”
It then, of course, became a game, with him holding up another car every few seconds and asking me the same question. “Stupid,” the other car always called the police car. Eventually, the “bad” cars weren’t allowed to play anymore and had to go to “jail” or back in their cases until they could behave better.
An innocent game. Yet that morning I’d been watching the dash cam video that had been released of Sandra Bland’s arrest. The video that showed her giving, at best, a mild attitude (but really, in my mind, just questioning the police officer’s requests and orders). She didn’t call him “stupid,” but she didn’t agree with him. She questioned his authority. She was told she was being “bad” and ended up in jail–and later, ended up dead.
My son’s innocent little game suddenly took on these dark tones. Now, granted, it’s good, I suppose, that he’s learning that he shouldn’t call other kids names, that people need to be nice to each other. But the fact that he was using a police car in this game made me pause–are we all taught that disrespecting police officers (or authority in general) is bad, is cause for some very severe punishment? And then I saw this article by Tiffanie Drayton discussing this very thing–that you shouldn’t have to be “respectful” in order for police officers to do their job and be professional. Drayton writes, “Others, however, are rushing to the defense of police, saying that Bland should have simply followed the trooper’s orders and not given him ‘an attitude.’ This kind of justification all but directly says that police brutality is a matter of unruly, indecent people getting their just deserts.”
Our culture is one that celebrates shows like Cops, which glorifies the police taking down criminals, with the message that these folks are “stupid,” or “lazy” or “losers.” It sends the message that officers are just making sure no one gets out of line–and if you do, if you even dare to question whether or not you have the right to keep smoking in your own car, you can be yanked away to jail.
I know that law enforcement has a tough job. I can’t even begin to imagine the things they have to deal with every day, the decisions they have to make in seconds that could mean life or death, the heartache and sadness and bleakness they deal with as part of a regular morning. I recognize they have to be on guard all the time and project their confidence and authority in order to stay safe. But it’s a scary world where these decisions are deemed unquestionable, where authority and law enforcement goes above and outside of the law. Yes, we should respect police officers. But respect goes two ways.
In my three-year-old’s world, the police are allowed to send people to jail for name-calling. But should the rest of the world really be allowed to function on a three-year-old’s emotional capacity and logic? Because, honestly, sometimes police officers ARE stupid (and, other times, even worse)–and we should be allowed to say so.