We Can’t Breathe
“Justice in any process is when all of those affected may sincerely say that it was fair, and none may sincerely say that it was unfair." GDR
Mr. Floyd’s killing hit me so hard that I couldn’t work for a couple of days, and I just circled around the subject with the martyrs quote.
Writing this forced me to work through it. It was cathartic writing it, and helped me to deal with the flashbacks.
Vale, Mr. George Floyd. May the utterance of your name bring blessings.
I rarely comment on current social or political matters, preferring to listen and talk about the spiritual.
But the film of Mr. Floyd’s martyrdom and murder cries out that silence is complicity in violence.
And this is the first day I made it through, so far, without crying like a helpless kid, and the first time I can respond to readers’ requests for a comment without breaking down every time I think of Mr. Floyd calling out to his Mother.
Dear People, 3 times during my 10 years in prison I had guards pile on top of me, crushing my chest to the floor so that I couldn’t inflate my lungs.
Each time I thought I would die, and felt the panic rushing upwards in me as my breathing became weaker and weaker and the weight grew heavier and heavier.
Each time I squeezed the same words from my constricted throat again and again, hoping that some flash of humanity would make them relent: I can’t breathe …
I was lucky. They let me up. But others, in every prison I’ve graduated from, died. And even after Inquests and investigations were held, nothing changed and we all knew that it would happen again.
Do I hate prison guards?
No. I love prison guards.
Do I hate the Indian cop who hit me with a whip, leaving scars that lasted for 20 years, or the cops who kicked me while I was handcuffed to a radiator?
No. I love cops.
What was that?
One of the arresting officers, way back when I was a junkie and committing cowardly robberies, became a very close friend decades later, and that’s because he was one of the most decent, honorable men I’ve ever known. He just happened to be the cop who busted me, and later in my life I just happened to be worthy of his friendship.
The prison officers I witnessed who insisted on valuing the dignity of every prisoner, despite the angry hatred of prisoners themselves and the enmity of their fellow guards, who called them “Crime Lovers,” are among the true heroes I’ve known personally.
It may sound strange for someone who spent 10 years at the mercy of prison officers to say that some of them are my heroes, or for someone who was hunted for 10 years by police officers, and eventually captured by them, to list some cops as among the finest people I’ve had the privilege to know. It’s simply true.
Of course, it’s very hard to love a man who has a whip in his hand or his knee on your back. But within the darkness of a dark Injustice System, the shining of empathy and integrity in other officers is all the brighter, and a genuine cause for hope.
They are the ones who would've saved Mr. Floyd: the ones who say: No! Stop! This isn’t right!
Just as they did for me.
One prison officer who saved me during a savage beating by a small crew of sadistic guards, was later challenged to a fist fight in the staff car park, for having the temerity to stop their torture.
And he came to work the next day, suffered the eternal abuse of new prisoners and continued to save people, every day that he worked there, he was a hero.
When that kind and courageous man announced to us that he was thinking of leaving the prison service, we pleaded with him to stay. And he did. Because he knew that just by being there, he made a difference.
Why am I saying this?
I’m no expert on crime. I was generally rubbish as a criminal. Despite that, people often ask me what I would do to change things in the Injustice System.
For what it’s worth, here are my humble observations.
First, about cops, we have to be honest.
The police force is an army of the poor, enlisted to keep the poor under control.
They are low-paid, and their job takes them into the worst nightmares that human beings can devise in the material world.
They attend motor vehicle and industrial accidents that rip human bodies into mangled heaps. They attend hangings, child drownings, shootings, knifings, machete attacks, acid-throwing, horrific scenes of child abuse, sexual slavery and violence against women.
The kinds of things that cops experience are virtually identical to the worst experiences of war that leave veterans with PTSD.
Where soldiers may serve between 1 and 4 years in traumatic conditions, cops do it all their lives.
That, in itself, is more than we can ask of anyone we care about.
But in addition, they are routinely abused by the people they've attended to help, spat on and subjected to physical attacks, including murder.
So, what’s wrong?
The question of racism in America is an American agony for Americans to resolve.
The question of American civil disorder is an American fire for Americans to douse.
But the American policing experience intersects with those of many other countries in regard to police recruitment and training, especially in the use of lethal force, or killing, and to the Social Contract made with society by serving police officers.
Let’s look at the unwritten Social Contract.
Here’s the deal: cops will be low-paid workers, but you get the brotherhood and sisterhood of fellow officers and a gun.
You also get practical immunity from prosecution if you shoot someone, because we know you won’t do the job without that protection.
No one says this, but that’s the deal. You guys go out there and risk your lives for low pay, and we’ve got your back if something goes down.
Just about every city, everywhere, has the same deal.
And that's the heart of it, for both sides.
If I were a young man considering applying for a place at the Police Academy, and I thought I could end up behind bars with the very people I was arresting, I would think twice.
How do we fix the Social Contract?
More justice, more money.
The average salary of a police officer in the USA about $60,000.
The average salary of a CEO is 15 times that.
Establish a true financial remuneration tribunal for police officers and first responders, looking at every aspect of their work, valuing all that they do, and begin by doubling the pay of every serving officer.
I know, I know, in today’s America in Mace-to-Face confrontations with the police, that sounds weird, or just downright offensive: double police pay?
Please hear me out. Or, if this is distressing you in any way, please just stop now.
The same principle of More Justice, More Money, applies to prisons, in my experience.
How to improve prisons? Double the number of prison officers, and double their pay. That would improve prisons overnight.
With the police force, make this double-pay increase contingent upon an exemplary record.
Make those with complaints on their records enter a 1-year clean-record probation period, at the completion of which their pay is also doubled.
Next, announce further yearly increases based on exemplary records of public service.
Invite the best colleges in the nation to reserve places for serving police officers, with assistance provided to all officers who wish to pursue further education, regardless of current education status.
Make it a goal to have every officer who wishes further education to have the opportunity to gain a college degree.
Give all serving officers access to a State-supported fund, offering zero-interest loans with managed repayment plans. Provide full medical and dental cover and life-sustaining pension plans. 90% of crimes solved by the police forces in many jurisdictions are the result of information received. Massively increase community outreach to maximize good relations and the flow of information. Provide the best legal defenders, equal to or above the level of the prosecution, free of cost, if charges occur.
Establish purpose-built prisons, exclusively for ex-police officers to serve their sentences in safety, if they are convicted of a crime.
In exchange for such a raft of benefits and disincentives to corruption, the police unions would agree to lift the unspoken but rarely broken immunity from prosecution that is central to the current social outrage.
Would it cost plenty? Yes, but how much is inaction on injustice costing now?
A sadistic killing in a public street is horrifying, but the thought that the perpetrators of such iniquity may go unpunished is the maddening, unendurable agony of it.
The immunity must go.
And perhaps if cops could see their job as a true profession with significant rewards and benefits and pathways of advancement into private industry and other branches of public service, and with security of tenure, security in their jobs and security for their lives in the event that they face imprisonment, their unions may be convinced to surrender their unspoken, unbroken immunity.
I can't think of any other way that they might even consider it, and until they do, there is no forward discussion.
Secondly, when it comes to the culture of police forces in many countries, they often reflect the same empathy-crushing structures.
I know a young cop who has been told again and again: You’re too soft for this job. You care too much.
We can have some understanding of this attitude when life and death are questions every day, as they are with cops. We can understand that a cop will want to be sure that her partner will have her back if the shooting starts.
But the same mentality applies across many professions.
One friend was told by her hospital Registrar that she would never make it as a doctor, because she cared for the patients too much.
Teachers are told the same thing: You have to stop caring so much, or you’ll burn out.
I have friends who are traders in stocks, and they tell me that they hide their empathy from colleagues, because they will be perceived as weak if they express their feelings.
A recent survey cited a majority of women in business positions who frequently mask their empathy, so as to appear as “strong" and "forceful" as the men in the echelons above them; or in other words, as lacking in empathy as the men above them.
Wall Street is built on the selective eradication of empathy.
What happens within such a workplace culture is that very often those with the least visible empathy are rewarded with promotion, and those with the most visible empathy are pushed out of the job.
As a prisoner, on the rare occasions when I encountered a highly empathetic Governor or Warden of a prison, there were very few violent incidents, the suicide and self-mutilation rates dropped, and there were no attacks on the guards.
Any job that gives us power over others will attract some few who are cruel and sadistic. Their primary intention in joining the force is to exert cruel power over others. I’ve been under the heel of men like that.
Identifying such people, taking them off the force and sending them for the long therapeutic help they need, is critical to the effective and humane operation of any police force.
This can only occur in a culture of empathy, where individuals of extraordinary integrity and empathy are rewarded with promotion, and use their positions of power to deter and eventually eliminate the cruel, thuggish element.
A senior retired cop friend told me once that he had to fight his way up the ladder in the force, and he wished it had been different. He wished he’d made true friends, rather than allies, and enemies.
I’ve been tortured a few times, if torture means being chained up and beat up, sometimes for information they wanted and sometimes for their fun.
There was always one twisted soul in the middle of it, drawing others into its hurricane of hatred. And it always stopped when that one soul was transferred to another prison: the others just stopped doing it after a while.
And it was always fear that drove those tormented tormentors.
I never met a confident, courageous cop or prison officer, or convict for that matter, who was cruel to others: only the fearful ones preyed on others.
Hatred is a combination of fear and self-loathing. Confident people who have good self-esteem don’t hate anyone. They may hate injustice, but they don’t hate people.
I forgive, where I could never ask others to forgive. But I’m forgiving human beings, not systems, and no amount of forgiveness can improve systems.
The toleration of bullies within their ranks and their insistence on immunity from prosecution are what make us see police officers as enemies, rather than the true, blue friends and protectors of all law-abiding citizens that they should be.
I’ve been in a car driven by an off-duty cop friend, who saw a police car in his rear view mirror and said: Oh, shit! It’s the cops!
And he was a cop.
The police have a serious image problem. They know. They face it every day. But they can’t bring themselves to give up the one thing that would or could begin to make it right: immunity.
I’ve lived on the other side of the line as a workaday criminal. I know what exists on that side. I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no thin, blue line preventing that side from getting cosy over on this side.
I live on this side of the law, in Switzerland, in a city with a well-paid, well-educated and highly respected police force, where complaints are investigated and prosecuted by an independent unit of the justice department.
When I see a police car in the rear view mirror, I hope it stays there, protecting me all the way home.
When I meet police officers from my city socially, I’m honored to thank them for their service.
It should be that way everywhere.
It can be.
A heinous crime.
A tragic and indelible death.
A world in tears at a mountain of injustice peaked in a black man’s agony, beneath a white lawman’s knee.
A fact more horrible than fiction.
Is this what it takes to end immunity?
If not, the police unions should declare what it will take, because immunity must end.
Until then, we can't breathe.
Blessings, love and faith,