I come from Chicago where, if you’ve been watching the news, you’ll know that a story recently broke of a police shooting of a black man. Officer Jason Van Dyke was caught on a police dash-cam shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, a car robbery suspect. Van Dyke shot McDonald and he fell to the ground; Van Dyke then proceeded to empty his clip into the wounded McDonald, shooting him 16 times in all. McDonald was walking away from the police when he was shot.
This shooting took place in October of 2014, but Van Dyke was not charged until nearly a year later. This terrible tragedy is only one in a series of highly-publicized police shootings of black citizens over the past two years—Ferguson, Baltimore, New York, to name a few—and only one among hundreds more that go unnoticed on the national stage.
What’s gone wrong?
Police argue that they’re operating in a war zone—neighborhoods with nightly gang murders and excessive violent crime. They often feel they’re protecting one another against the citizenry, and sometimes with good reason. Community members maintain they’re being terrorized by a violent police gang that sees the color of their skin and decides to shoot first, think later. When these extreme tensions come to a head, we end up with tragedy, like the killing of Laquan McDonald. What would Jesus say to these two opposing sides? What are we, as Christians, supposed to do about it?
I don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions. All I can do is offer some reflections. Firstly, Jesus is always on the side of the oppressed, and as his followers, we are called to stand with them as well. In this situation, communities of color are undoubtedly the oppressed; they have been denied justice time and again when police officers shoot and kill seemingly at will, without accountability, and often without consequences. As Christians, we must fight against this gross perversion of justice, and fight for radical change to the structures which allow this to continue to go on, for example, independent investigation of police shootings.
Secondly, this is not intended to be a broadside against the police; the vast majority of whom do their best in difficult circumstances. Jesus loves them as much as anybody else. My critique of Chicago police officers is one borne of love, not of hate. Communities that suffer from police violence are justified in their protests, justified in their cries that the police dehumanize them, but they in turn must be careful not to dehumanize the police. Dehumanization on either side will only ever lead to further polarization, anger, and violence between the police and the communities where they work. A solution that has any chance of working must be based on communication, on building relationships between the police and the people, and most importantly, on building structures that foster these relationships and protect the community when police step out of line.
One final note: Jesus also brought a message of hope. It can be hard to hope when it seems that every time we turn around another person has been shot and killed; another perpetrator has avoided charges. But situations can get better, and they have gotten better: San Diego has reformed its police department with success, and the NYPD, though not without its problems, has done a major, largely successful clean-up over the past several years. And in Chicago, albeit a year late, Officer Van Dyke has been charged in the Laquan McDonald and will stand trial. Our task as Christians is to bring hope and love to a difficult situation: to challenge ourselves and those around us to fight for justice while fighting for the victory of love as well.