Privilege: An Open Letter to White Police Officers.
Like you, I’ve been watching steady reports across the United States as people take to the streets and are met, more often than not, by violence.
For me, it is an easy mental task to try to imagine what those gathered are feeling right now — anger, disgust, grief, an unbearable sense of hopelessness tempered with an equally unbearable sense of responsibility (which is another word for courage) to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves, or who don’t have a voice, or who have had their voices stripped from them.
I can try to imagine the centuries of generational trauma inflicted on Black and Indigenous communities, how it shapes every aspect of one’s identity, trying to mold you into what you don’t want to become. I can try to imagine what it feels like to resist every attempt at the annihilation of my being.
And I would like to think I have a good imagination.
But to imagine something and to experience it, to know it as fact and as something that has happened to you and continues to happen to you, is the difference between thinking a word and saying it out loud. The difference matters. I’m a settler who grew up on unceded Sinixt Territory in the interior of British Columbia. I’ve never been the victim of racism or selective discrimination.
I’m a white cisgendered heterosexual male, and because of that I have an unearned privilege that Black and Indigenous brothers and sisters will never have: the privilege of being able to imagine what it’s like to worry about walking alone down a strange street in a white neighborhood, what it’s like for your heart to skip a beat when a police cruiser slows down as it passes you on the sidewalk, what it means when someone uses a racial slur and what it does to your sense of worth — what it does to your sense of belonging in the world at all.
I call this capacity to imagine a privilege because it means I will never have to experience it. Those experiences do not belong to me any more than they belong to you. Those stories do not belong to us, and how we bear witness to their unfolding and being told, whether they are offered as a gift or as a condemnation, how we show up as characters in them, as allies or as villains. This also matters.
I am trying to imagine what things are like for you, too, friend.
Perhaps you are one of what they affectionately call ‘the good ones’. Perhaps you think of yourself as an exception. Perhaps you are aligned with those who wear their riot gear with pride and enthusiasm, who look out from over their shields and see only looters, vandals, criminals. In a word, enemies.
Perhaps you believe that what you’re doing is justified, if not by the means (which are the orders that you are very good at following) then by the ends. Perhaps you are neither of those things.
Perhaps you’re scared yourself, facing off against a sea of angry faces you don’t want to hurt — maybe you feel sick thinking about what another officer did to George Floyd and you’ve promised yourself you’ll never become him. Perhaps you chose to take a knee or remove your helmet. Perhaps you’re just human.
You see, I have a good imagination.
Maybe you feel called out — by me, by protesters, by the media. Maybe you feel like the arguments are unfair — a couple of bad cops don’t speak for all of us; do we judge all protesters based on those vandalizing businesses and throwing bricks? Not all cops are violent and racist — I believe you.
But if the institution that you stand for orders officers to fire tear gas and rubber bullets at unarmed teenagers and journalists and grandmothers, if the uniform you wear has come to symbolize a species of systemic cruelty endemic to colonial practices, and if the behaviors that are carried out under the banner of the thin blue line have become as bloody and egregious as those perpetrated by police states in other countries, in a very honest way I’m asking what assumptions you would draw in our shoes?
If you would march with those who would spray a little girl in the face, or shove an elderly man with a cane to the ground, or plow through a crowd in a vehicle, then the message that you send is that you condone those actions regardless of how actively you participate in them.
As I write this, I think again about the word responsibility, and how closely its personal meaning resembles that of conscience. A conscience is a risky thing because it isn’t passive. It is burdensome, and in this it resembles the other side of privilege. Both demand something of us, an appropriate awareness and response to evil, up to and including our lives.
If you think this is a bold claim, then you have failed to acquaint yourself with history. You see, friend, you too have privilege. And, I hope, the imagination to acknowledge it.
And, like me, the way in which you choose to wield that privilege has repercussions for the conduct of your conscience. Imagine, what does a moral choice look like? I can help you here by telling you that if it’s something that is easy to resist, you’ve chosen poorly. As much as good and bad are moral abstractions, they are also practical instruments by which one is able to orient themselves toward a common good.
Doing the right thing should bleed and whine like an open gash. It should make you question if you chose correctly. It should fill you with dread as much as it does certitude. This is the difference between you and me, and I hope you take note.
You, with the guns and imbued with the immunity of law, have less at stake than those putting their well-being on the line.
The choice to stand arm in arm with strangers against a formation of heavily armed officers when justice (and here I mean human justice, not corporate justice) has failed to be upheld by those who are supposedly its arbiters, to make space at the expense of one’s own safety for the personal narratives of those who do not have the privilege of imagining what oppression and subjugation feel like because they live it everyday.
That kind of choice isn’t made easily, and doesn’t come without a cost.
Perhaps the point of this letter is that courage doesn’t either.
Because maybe I was wrong, and in fact you have even more at stake than we do. You see, we need you, but you have a choice to make, to speak or remain quiet. You have the choice to call out your own, to hold yourself and other officers liable to the meaning of your office as civil servants and not to the prejudicial whims of superiors or political demagogues or personal biases.
You have the choice to risk a great deal by doing what is tremendously difficult and always will be. You have a choice to put down your baton. To walk with us, if you like. To say George Floyd’s name out loud.
And if not, at last let me offer one last word of warning, friend, only because I have the privilege of imagining. Your silence hasn’t gone unnoticed. If you’re very lucky, it will work itself into a corner of your mind until you name it. Know that this is how a conscience comes into being, by increments, by the slow filling in of the negative space that is silence.
But know also that if you choose to hold yourself unaccountable to silence, to institutionalized racism, to police brutality, to the complicity of non-action: we will.
Jordan Mounteer‘s writing has appeared in numerous Canadian and American publications, and won or been shortlisted for several awards. He is currently completing a Masters of Counselling Psychology at the University of Victoria on the traditional territories of the Lekwungen peoples and the Songhees, Esquimalt and WSÁNEĆ peoples, whose historical relationships with the land continue to this day.