My thesis is this: there is nothing more important to the future of our nation than ending racism, particularly institutional racism. This has become a desperate matter of survival for far too many people when it comes to the issue of police killings. These tragedies happen disproportionately to minorities largely because of racism.
Yet the problem goes far beyond that. There is not a single issue in this nation which does not ultimately become polarized and frozen by race. Much of the resistance to government intervention and assistance comes down to a belief that “They” are getting the benefits – the mysterious “other” that is easily blamed for everything. It prevents us from having a useful discussion about “Us”, a free and united people ready to tackle the changes of our world bravely and directly.
But let’s stay with police killings for a moment. Let’s talk about how we get from where we are to a world where no cringes in fear when the disco lights and sirens blare, a world where Black Lives Matter. Let’s talk about how complex issues with hardened battle lines are taken on so that we can get past the problem. Let’s talk about tactics, or how a battle is won.
Police killings do not happen in a vacuum. We know that police in general are quick to shoot for many reasons, and that these reasons are often accentuated by race. I maintain that White Privilege is real, but usually comes down to little more than the benefit of the doubt. When the guns are drawn, in a split second the benefit of the doubt can become a matter of life and death.
We won’t end racism overnight, but we can continue to make progress. We won’t end the desire for many police to use deadly force overnight – the axiom “Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six” describes a “siege mentality” that is very real and will not dissolve instantly.
Certainly, anger boiled over from years of fear and frustration will be a part of the situation. We cannot expect those who have been on the receiving end of injustice to simply remain silent. They can, they should, they must speak up and demonstrate. The system must be confronted.
But I put it to you that this is not how the battle is won. Advanced tactics must be deployed to encircle and envelope this terrible problem. It is simply too big to be defeated with a simple frontal attack.
This requires explanation. The best illustrations are not social justice or policy, but military. There are many examples, but I will start with Hannibal’s defeat of the Romans at Canae. No one has a strong opinion of Carthage or Rome anymore, so the discussion is largely academic and cold. The lesson, however, is as real and hot as pitched hand to hand combat with nothing more than spears and swords.
The situation was this: Hannibal of Carthage, North Africa, invaded Italy to take on his perennial Roman foes. His army of 50,000 was confronted by 86,000 Roman defenders near Canae and essentially cornered. But outnumbered Hannibal had a plan.
His main body of troops engaged the Romans in what looked like a “spearhead” shape, intent on attacking them in front. They quickly retreated, however, goading the Romans into chasing them. At the same time, the Carthaginian cavalry flanked the main line and charged at the rear. Surprising the Roman cavalry, they quickly dispatched them and then came to the assistance of the troops on the line. At that moment, the foot troops engaged the Romans again and maneuvered to the flanks to surround them.
Once the Romans were encircled, they were destroyed. The smaller invading force owned the field with remarkably light casualties after defeating a force much greater than theirs.
Why is this relevant? Racism, particularly institutional racism, is not an issue that can be defeated head-on. Once the lines are set they are frozen. Everyone is hunkered down in a defensive position, ready for the attacks. It quickly dissolves into trench warfare, a nasty game of inches rather than yards. Each side becomes eager to break through at any cost, using terrible weapons like poisonous gas and artillery shells to obliterate the other side.
No one can win such a battle. It slogs on indefinitely, frustratingly, horribly.
Consider Hannibal’s cavalry for a moment. They were lightly armed and able to move quickly. They weren’t killing machines, they were tactical pieces which took the ground necessary to disable the command and control of the enemy. They got to the heart of the matter, disabled it, and made an encirclement possible.
How does this apply to the issue at hand?
There are two centers of control in the battle against institutional racism. They are racism and the institutions, most critically the police themselves. Each must be engaged by flanking cavalry that removes them from the field before the main issue itself can be engaged. Where the attack appears to come at the line, this is primarily a diversion. It is an engagement to draw them out and take the lines away from the dug-in defenses – but not to win in isolation.
How do we engage the centers of control?
Racism is the hardest, for sure, but it can and must be engaged. It will take understanding, love, patience, and humor to get at the heart of racism. It will also take time, as some people will never change. But the key is to engage it in a way that disarms the majority of people who have racist thoughts but are empathetic enough to realize it is wrong. They need tools to cope and an invitation to stand proud rather than hunker down defensively.
The police are another matter. When confronting authority it is critical to not harden them into an attitude where they feel a need to strike out and defend themselves. They have the means to do it violently, and the results will be catastrophic. Instead, they must be disarmed – literally and figuratively. Police are asked to do far too much – to act as therapists, community healers, pastors, and use force when necessary. They are over-worked and under-paid – and often clearly lack the training or the personalities to do all the things they are asked to do. Their stress and often PTSD are disregarded as “part of the job”.
The key with police is to understand how lousy their job is and how they can be better supported to be the very best that the community needs. They need support – both on the job and for their own health. They need empowered communities where institutions of all kinds work together to solve problems and not wait until it’s a tragedy that requires force. They must be largely demilitarized and called on to use their hearts more than their guns. And yes, they must be accountable for their actions.
The police, like any authority, are drawn out by engaging them and challenging them to be their very best.
These flanking maneuvers will take time, of course. The engagement of police must start right away and proper support for them has to start immediately. They don’t want to be the “bad guys” and we can and must call on them to be better. It will take money and it will take new institutions which support them properly with people who are trained to take on some of the community jobs which have come down to police.
The engagement at the front lines will offer the contrast. Do you want to have a battle in the streets, with everyone’s life on the line constantly, or do you want another way out?
But it is with these cavalry, lightly armed but nimble on the field, that this battle will be won. The twin command centers of this serious problem, racism and institutional siege mentality, have to be disarmed. Then, and only then, can the main body be encircled and the whole problem taken to its conclusion.
Action like this sometimes seems as cold as the study of ancient wars decided long ago. Young people in particular want the passion of engagement, of “sticking it to them”. That’s especially true for those who legitimately feel they are fighting for their lives. But that is not how this or any other complex issue is won.
We must learn from Hannibal. The size of the power and force we are up against is not particularly important. What matters is the use of the right tactics – engagement at the real, disarming, and encircling.
How do we end institutional racism? Everyone has a role to play. Some will be the cavalry which takes on racism, disarming it. Some will be the ones who reform policing and how communities are organized, empowered, and reformed. Some will be on the front lines doing what they can in the middle of the mix.
But without all of these tactics working together in a broad strategy this will simply be another one of those issues that is completely entrenched and intractable. More lives will be lost and the future of our nation as one people, free and united, will be squandered. We will all be diminished, regardless of race, as the tired old nonsense of racism continues to poison just about every aspect of our daily and civic lives.
There is a role for everyone, but there is a role for real leadership and real organization to make this happen. Until we have our Hannibal, however, we must all do our part. The way forward is clear – we simply have to step back and realize what it is we must do.