My View: Want humane laws? Make policy changes
On Saturday, May 30, after the first night of rioting and looting, I walked around downtown during the daytime and saw a hole in the Justice Building the size of my head, lots of police and police tape, and a lot of expletive graffiti spray-painted on buildings, the elk statue and sidewalks.
The message was clear: The police are to blame.
I'm not going to excuse the action of one officer in Minneapolis, and the inaction of three others, who were party to the killing of George Floyd. I also don't excuse the actions of other police officers who contribute to this startling statistic: Five times more unarmed black men are killed in police custody in the United States than unarmed white men.
But blaming racist police (and overlooking our own racism) is not going to solve our problem. Effecting policy change will.
Since the late '60s, politicians on the left and right have become increasingly "tough on crime" in response to public concerns about safety. We keep rewarding them by election when they continue to say they'll crack down hard on crime.
Presidents Reagan, Clinton, Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. all drew accolades for their hard stances. In a society that is predisposed to seeing black men as culpable, this has, literally, led to open warfare on the black body.
Part and parcel to "tough on crime" has been the militarization of the police. Since the early 1990s, the Department of Defense has provided law enforcement agencies access to decommissioned military-grade equipment through the 1033 Program.
Does the scene of an angry protest — where demonstrators might get threatening and clash with police — sometimes look like a war zone? That's because it is!
There's lots of spray-paint out there that lays the responsibility for violence upon police. But we have elected politicians for decades who have created a law enforcement system that does what we want it to do.
In a real sense, the police are obeying our will. And they have become all too effective at it.
But we may be approaching the end of an era — if we have the courage and the will. The U.S. House of Representatives currently is looking at changing the way we regulate our police forces. Portland city Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty is pressing for reforms to Oregon's Officers Bill of Rights.
After decades of condoning the use of military-grade weapons by the police and telling them to use them as they see fit, we could be entering a new era where police keep order under greater public accountability and where transparency builds public trust.
That trust is essential to keeping us and the police safer. We need to elect officials who are willing to make those changes.
Ultimately, we must vote for public servants who enact humane laws so that we don't have to rely so heavily on the police to deal with our houseless population, the mentally ill, drug abusers and so forth.
But lasting change begins with policy change. If we want humane laws, we must vote for politicians who create them. If we want an antiracist society, Ibram Kendi tells us to replace racist policy with antiracist policy.
Perhaps we are approaching the end of an era, one in which we see ourselves as the agents of change.
It is well-nigh time!
Kris Voss-Rothmeier is a middle school teacher in Gresham and an ordained Presbyterian minister who has lived in Portland for 20 years and currently lives in Northeast Portland.
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