By the Rev. Michelle Matthews
I have heard some folks say that protests, rallies, vigils, and marches are really just passive, functionally neutral, non-active responses to perceived injustice.
The implied question being: “If folks are really that outraged, wouldn’t it be better to invest that energy in their own communities, reaching out to their own law enforcement officers to get a balanced perspective, gleaning information on the use of excessive force in their own area, and asking how they can support good police officers in a time when they’re being given so much grief?”
While I appreciate this perspective, I want to share a bit of my experience over the last week.
I have now attended three different vigils, rallies, and marches in my area, and I have to say that I have learned more about my local community, the desires of people of color, and the perspective and needs of local law enforcement from attending these gatherings than I have from any other public gathering or community meeting I have attended in the last five years.
At every gathering I’ve attended, local police officers have been invited to speak from their perspective on behalf of police in their city/county. I have found these settings, which need not be and aren’t expected to be, to actually be quite multi-voiced.
And each time officers have spoken, their message has been consistent: that the system is broken and in need of reform, and that they know, acknowledge, and can confirm that, in Fairfax County and Alexandria City, unjust excessive force has been disproportionately used to police communities of color.
On June 9, at a march hosted and led by black Christian activists, Fairfax County Chief of Police Edwin Roessler was invited to speak, and he was very honest about this reality in Fairfax County.
There seems to be this desire to rescue good cops from the condemnation of bad cops, but I’m not sure that’s what our law enforcement officers need or want. If good and decent cops are acknowledging the brokenness and bias in the system, why would we continue to act as if saying this aloud is anti-cop? What our officers need is not our unwavering support and bailout, but our help advocating for changes that will eradicate a cycle of bad policing that they are caught up in.
Today, Shirley Ginwright, the two-term President of the Fairfax County Chapter of The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Police Chief Roessler stood together advocating for one specific step of many this year, which is the implementation and mandatory use of a statewide database for registering and reporting cops who have been dismissed/fired for misconduct and excessive force, so that they can’t just move to another city, another department, under the radar, and start the toxic cycle all over again, a reality that they will tell us is more common than we know.
Attending these vigils and marches hasn’t been a time of passive, sanctimonious sign-holding. I have watched the black community lead courageous conversations with a variety of voices and partners at the table, and it’s made me want to invest in my community and see these changes through (and more) in a whole new way.
I don’t know quite yet what direct action here looks like, but I want to be a part of it. If you do too, reach out. Let’s do it together.
-The Rev. Michelle Matthews is pastor of Kingstowne Communion in Alexandria, Va.