Read the original: What Happens to Bike Thieves at McDonald’s.
Witnessing a young kid resisting an inevitable arrest flipped something in me. It’s easy to think about people and situations in the abstract. When we do, other people take the form of ourselves, only broken (or enhanced, if a hero). A comparison occurs where the difference is measured between our own selves, what we would have felt or done, and this other self, which becomes the basis for criticism or praise. How else could we do it? What else could we be measuring? I consider it a straightforward but underexamined truth that people do not exist until you see them. This is what we mean by empathy.
So there I am one day, sitting in McDonald’s, drinking sweet tea, just like everyone else, writing a novel, having always thought one way, when two people stumble into my world. I catch only the briefest glimpse of them as they blink into and out of my existence—I still know almost nothing about them—but it’s enough to flip everything in my mind. The policeman changes to a parent, the criminal to a kid, neither what I imagine in my head but what I see out there. In this view, it’s easy to determine who had the power and therefore the responsibility, who was threatening and who was afraid, independent of any conceptions about how we might have reacted or how we feel we should react in either position. However I feel about crime and guilt, justice and resistance, I feel for this kid.
But what of this cop? Even before all of this political firestorm ignited, he had a tough job. That kid hated him for no other reason than the uniform he wore. You can tell he’d been in this situation enough to know that. And he didn’t exactly strip-search the kid, so he couldn’t know what weapons the kid might have. You don’t have to search long to find plenty of cases where kids have brought guns or knives to school. He just wants to do his job and go home at the end of the day. He doesn’t get paid much. How big would the check have to be to deal with daily insults and aspersions, annoyances and inconveniences, dangers and decisions, threats and ambiguities? There is no you in this situation. You wouldn’t be there. Neither would I. There is real fear and suffering in it. Can we demand more?
Only if we want anything to change. But it must come from the inside. The cop must want to bring change. That’s the strength of any reform movement. There must be a cause that people are willing to sacrifice for. Recall the Civil Rights movement. There some who wanted to fight and did fight. But change came through those who sacrificed. Remember Martin Luther King Jr’s call to match the ability to inflict suffering with the capacity to endure suffering, to wear down hate with suffering. This is an appeal to the heart, one which can make friends and allies of enemies. And he was right, but his work continues.
The circumstances are much more ambiguous now than they were then. Both sides feel afflicted, and either could choose to suffer for the cause. But one of them represent the people with our power and responsibility. We don’t ask our police to fight criminals. We ask them to help criminals. Sometimes that means punishment. Sometimes it means sacrifice. We don’t ask our cops to die. We don’t ask them not to defend themselves. We ask them to risk death, like soldiers, to suffer, for the sake of everyone, even those who hate them. It’s a tough ask. It’s a tough job. But what beautiful irony to take what we were taught and repay those to whom we owe a debt of love, and, by a willingness to give up a life, to save both, and thus secure a double victory.