Fixing our great gulf

Three protesters block the road at Public Square Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014, in downtown Cleveland. The U.S. Justice Department and Cleveland reached an agreement Thursday to overhaul the city's police department after federal investigators concluded that officers use excessive and unnecessary force far too often and have endangered the public and their fellow officers with their recklessness.
Caption
Three protesters block the road at Public Square Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014, in downtown Cleveland. The U.S. Justice Department and Cleveland reached an agreement Thursday to overhaul the city's police department after federal investigators concluded that officers use excessive and unnecessary force far too often and have endangered the public and their fellow officers with their recklessness.

Credit: AP Photo/Tony Dejak

Credit: AP Photo/Tony Dejak

As protests continue in the wake of controversial grand jury decisions on police use of force, we believe Atlanta can point the way toward a better, more-inclusive society. We’ve done it before.

“And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.”

The New Testament tale from the Book of Luke plots out the impassable, eternity-wide distance between heaven and hell. We believe it’s a depressingly apt metaphor for the precarious perch where America now stands as case after case of questionable police use of deadly force leads to unrest in the streets and – increasingly — in quiet hearts.

Unlike the immovable biblical gulf, we each have the power to narrow the vexing gap of racial discord in our society.

It’s up to us whether we choose more uproar and bickering. Or whether we push toward greater unanimity.

Bluntly, blacks and whites differ vastly in their attitudes toward law enforcement and the criminal justice system. This holds true even when both races are otherwise similar in income, education or other demographic factors.

This counterproductive reality deeply undermines an American justice system that requires citizen trust in order to work. All Americans should believe that justice is fairly administered. That’s far from the case now, with trust seeming to erode more with events of each passing week.

Even if you think society is now color-blind and things are just fine, you should be concerned about the increasing numbers of people – of all ethnic backgrounds – who believe the opposite. That’s not healthy for our democracy.

And it makes for a standoff that is unsustainable. We have to find ways to listen respectfully to each other. To offer up ideas and argue vigorously about them. That is distinctly different behavior than one side shouting at the closed ears of the other.

We believe Atlanta can lead the way on this arduous trek. We’ve done it before in finding solutions to difficult questions of race.

A starting point is at the granite-hard core of our current national discord. It is a situation born of minds stubbornly resistant to ideas and beliefs that clash against the cocoons of our life experiences. All of us usually see only what we wish to see. We surround ourselves with like minds, drawing blinds even more tightly against uncomfortably different ideas and opinions. We reject the notion that others may have encountered a different reality.

Often influencing our thinking, sadly, is what shade of skin hue we see in a mirror.

That is a great gulf to span. But do so we must. And that requires climbing a steep, demanding road toward that elusive, more-perfect union envisioned by America’s founders.

Doing so begins with each of us. And it won’t happen if we continue to be distracted by blathering opportunists of all colors who stoke biases that keep us firmly imprisoned in our narrow comfort zones.

No one can or should legislate or demand that we each better understand today’s clashing factions and worldviews. We have to demand that of ourselves and believe in our hearts that there has to be a more productive way forward for us all.

If you get that, it’s worth giving additional thought and even prayer to the topic of civil rights and police force that now bedevils our society.

It’s worthwhile to consider with an open mind Eric Garner, who apparently violated a Nanny State edict against selling loose cigarettes. He ended up dead on a New York City street from a police chokehold after his pleas of “I can’t breathe” fell on deaf, uniformed ears. A Grand Jury last week declined to indict the officer involved.

Even New York City’s mayor, who has biracial children, seemed shaken while speaking about the case’s latest turn. From rattled hearts such as his, change can come – wrought slowly but inexorably and person by person.

We’d be remiss here too in not mentioning Ferguson. A Grand Jury there likewise ruled that former cop Darren Wilson did not criminally err in killing Michael Brown, 18.

Support or disdain for the decision, with some diverse exceptions, landed often along racial lines, with each side claiming a simplistic, convenient and comfortable narrative. The fullness of what is right and just seems to have eluded both sides.

It’s perfectly proper, yes, to condemn an assault on a cop. Yet it should not be unreasonable either to wonder why then-Officer Wilson’s first choice of defense was a .40-caliber pistol?

Wilson stood the same height as Brown and weighed north of 200 lbs. Combine that with police training and it should be understandable why many believe that Wilson’s actions reflected poorly on those law enforcement officers who daily subdue large, violent, unarmed people in a non-lethal manner. Wilson consciously bypassed alternative weapons – including a baton, flashlight and even the 5,000-lb. SUV he was driving. Had he chosen differently, Brown might be in jail today awaiting trial and Wilson might still be a Ferguson cop.

Both the Brown and Garner cases raise unsettling questions that demand cool, reflective thought. Asking them does not disrespect the vast majority of honorable first responders who risk it all each day on our behalf.

Yet, open minds and deep thinking don’t automatically result in action, or change. It’s no coincidence that the Attorney General of the United States chose Atlanta last week to begin a conversation on police-community relations.

We wrote the book on moving from discomfort to doing. During an epic era, Atlanta’s leaders who counted did not walk away from tense discussion tables. We persevered.

Eventually, barriers fell and differing minds reached places of common agreement. That is a lesson that the rainbow of protesters now fanning out across this great nation could benefit from knowing. It is our job to tell them.