“Keep your hands to yourself, leave other people’s things alone, and be kind to one another.”
Those words have become pretty famous around these parts. They are the sign-off of Lieutenant Tim Cotton, manager of the internationally-famous Bangor Police Department Facebook page.
The plain advice highlights another simple truth. People are responsible for their own actions.
That is no great revelation. But it is something to keep in mind as protests lead to violence.
The majority of those protesting in the wake of George Floyd’s death oppose the violence which led to it, or new violence arising from it. They are not responsible for the troublemakers attempting to goad police into retaliation, or those who see large gatherings as an opportunity to loot and steal.
The provocateurs might be leftist “Antifa” activists. They could be far-right poseurs working to discredit the protests. Or maybe they are just ne’er-do-wells who want to steal things.
The protestors are not looters. And the looters are not protestors. Each individual has their own motives, their own story, and should be held to account for their own actions.
And the same is true with police.
Derek Chauvin is charged with killing George Floyd. While he did so, he was a sworn police officer. Three other officers stood by as it happened. Their actions and their choices contributed to Floyd’s death, and they should be held accountable for it.
But Chauvin is not a member of the Bangor Police Department, the Portland Police Department, the Maine State Police, or any other law enforcement agency in our state. His actions are not their actions.
That is where some of the messages of the protests fall short. Signs declaring “A.C.A.B.” — “All Cops Are B*****” (a synonym for out-of-wedlock children) — are equally as wrong as allegations that protestors and looters are one and the same.
Painting with a broad, unfounded brush reinforces unfair biases. And bias stands as an obstacle to real change.
A year and a half ago, everyone from Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders was supporting the so-called “First Step Act.” It made some widely-acknowledged, necessary changes to the federal criminal justice infrastructure. But it was only a first step.
The next steps need to occur at the state and local levels. Deemphasizing use-of-force and ensuring de-escalation is a primary tactic are straightforward changes that many officers already instinctively follow, but can be further developed through policy and training.
Other changes aren’t so easy. Distrust of police officers by some parts of our community needs to be overcome. That takes engagement, ensuring the force reflects the make-up of the community they serve and encouraging positive interactions.
One of the initiatives of one subset of protestors seeks to abolish “school resource officers” — local police who are in schools. Of course, done well, having police in schools helps mitigate against the idea that officers are some otherworldly “other” to be feared. Students learn that police are simply people, another mentor figure who cares about them. In some cases, the cops even moonlight as coaches for the school athletic teams.
Each police officer is an individual, and they should be held to account for their individual actions, both good and bad. When the structure of our system makes it difficult to hold them to the same standard as the community writ large, the structure needs to change. To the extent that is the message of the protests, it is right on.
That is not the message conveyed by looters and rioters, and they are not the same as protestors. All police officers are not Derek Chauvin. Bill Cosby is not a proxy for all black people, nor are Jeffery Epstein’s crimes attributable to all white people.
We are all individuals. Together, we need to work to find ways to be better and improve our justice system, our community, and our culture. That work will never be done. So how do we start?
“Keep your hands to yourself, leave other people’s things alone, and be kind to one another.” If we start in good faith, we can get a lot done.