With rights and Connecticut lives at stake, words matter

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Paul Sableman / Creative Commons

Quiet down, class.  It’s time to review some definitions.  This time, let’s focus on current events:

“Black Lives Matter.”  Here’s a phrase that has been incorrectly defined with increasing frequency.  To insist on the value of African American lives is not to say that “all lives” don’t matter.

Too often, the “all lives” retort is shouted from a car window at BLM protestors, which happened recently in West Hartford.  The impetus behind “all lives” is short step away from the “White lives matter” flyer anonymously distributed in Milford three months ago.

A cartoon I just saw put it perfectly.  Jesus is giving his Sermon on the Mount.  At the point where he says “Blessed are the poor…,’ he is interrupted.  Someone in the crowd yells out “Blessed are ALL lives, Jesus.”

Rally at Hartford's Keney Park, 2015

Steve Thornton

Rally at Hartford’s Keney Park, 2015

“Hate Crimes.”  Killing a police officer is not a hate crime. It is no more a hate crime than the killing of a soldier in battle.  Some feel the death of a cop or soldier is the highest form of sacrifice, and their families would certainly agree. But words matter, especially when the stakes are so high.

A hate crime is an offense based on race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.  That was Connecticut’s legal definition when the first bias crime law was passed in 1988. (I was an initiator of the original hate crime reporting law, and I helped write the statute.)

Cops and GIs are trained to kill, and are supposed to be prepared to be killed in return.  This hard fact is part of the job.

Civilians, however, are not trained by their government to kill, not trained to handle weapons, and are not expected to use deadly force.  A hate crime is based on animus towards a person because of their intrinsic qualities, not their job.

“Police Bill of Rights.”  Responding to criticism of police misconduct, some police unions are promoting a legislative bill of rights.  This is a political ploy.  Police officers already have a bill of rights. They are the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

What’s needed are strict national standards that govern cop behavior.  But Connecticut police officials have been opposing better training for their forces, and they don’t want it implemented by experts outside of law enforcement.

As State Sen. Eric Coleman of Bloomfield has pointed out, a recent study by Central Connecticut State University shows that local police use stun guns during traffic stops three times more frequently on people of color than white people.

“Community Policing.”  The anti-racist forces you have seen out in the streets are not primarily calling for better community-police relations (aka “bridging the divide”).  Many of us, however, are calling for community control of police.

Police forces, just as military forces, are supposed to be under public authority.  The solution to ending deadly police violence goes far beyond putting beat cops in neighborhoods.

Police are not superior to the people in the neighborhoods they patrol. The importance of their jobs does not give them license to dominate Black and Hispanic people.  The life and death danger they may face on the job does not justify violations against our security or our civil rights.

Police departments in the United States have become a power unto themselves.  Too often they see the population they are supposed to protect as the enemy.  They are trained to be “bulletproof warriors,”  as was the Minnesota cop who fatally shot Philando Castile.

The power balance between police departments and the public at large– especially in poor neighborhoods, and especially among communities of color– is dangerously unstable.  The people should control the police, not the other way around.

That’s all for today. There will be a test on this material.  Be careful out there.

Steve Thornton is a retired union organizer who writes for the Shoeleather History project.

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