I believe our failed attempts at bringing law and order into America’s inner cities serve as a direct parallel for why our strategy of force and domination will ultimately fail in Iraq.
I grew up in the East New York section of Brooklyn. I walked to school past burned out buildings with the sound of crack vials crunching beneath my shoes. At night, the popping of gunfire and the subsequent wail of police sirens lapped the neighborhood. The morning news often reported unidentified corpses found in abandoned lots.
This prompted a call for a larger and more aggressive police force in a mission to “take back the streets” and liberate the community from crime. At first, I welcomed the idea, until I learned to fear the police just as much as the criminals.
Checkpoints cropped up at some major intersections. They were designed to nab drunk drivers and other law breakers. Though I was a law-abiding citizen, every time an officer shined a flashlight in my eyes, I felt uneasy and vulnerable.
The number of publicized raids and mass arrests also increased. I witnessed rows of apprehended suspects, face down on the pavement, their hands bound behind their backs. Sometimes they were left there for an hour or more. I found myself a bit sympathetic to them because they seemed to be touted as examples, and it felt heavy handed and unfair.
Once, the police actually pounded on my front door in pursuit of a suspect seen in the area. They used my ladders, clambered onto the roof, and kicked aside some of my yard tools only to leave in a rush without a word of apology or a thank you.
The tension in the neighborhood only intensified, particularly when squad cars conducted their slow-rolling patrols, like sentinels asserting a quiet power. I developed a habit of walking more deliberately whenever a police car passed, ever watchful for a place to hide in the event of an explosive confrontation.
Soon, my family left the neighborhood, and at first I was relieved. But today I often think back to those left behind.
There is more to them than drugs and guns. There are people there like Jimmie, a man with a couple of short prison terms under his belt but with one of the kindest hearts I’ve ever known. After a heavy snow, if he saw me shoveling alone, he’d come over, take the shovel and finish up. Even during some dark episodes when he was either drunk or high, he still mustered the coordination to help me carry heavy bags from my car to my front steps.
Inner cities are filled with people lost for one reason or another but at their very core, still good. It’s more complicated than “us” and “them.” But that’s still how we go about the business of law enforcement. The distance we insist upon putting between “us” and “them” is often filled with suspicion, anger, and bitterness on both sides. But I believe it is in us all to find another way.
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