Saturday, January 3, 2015

Are Police Nice: Being Respectful and Challenging Authority

A note to anyone reading this: My thoughts are garbled. I tried to be as coherent as possible. I've had this post rattling around in my brain for months and I've kept trying to edit and condense and polish, but it still seems like my mind has spilled all over the page. It is a subject that is close to me and one I feel passionate about. Current events have only strengthened these feelings. I ask that you bear with me as best you can

There was a time in my life where I seriously considered getting an anarchy symbol tattooed on my wrist. I was 17 and there was no way my mom would have consented (though she did say that it would be better than a lip ring, which seemed odd to me). I never did it. At 26, I still think about it and wonder if it would have been a good or a bad idea. I think I identify as more a socialist now, which technically falls on the opposite end of the spectrum. Even so, I'm not certain that I would regret it.
Sure, anarchy isn't for me. I'm a fan of a good social safety net. Universal health care gets me every time. But some of those ideals still feel right to me. At the core, anarchy celebrates aspects that I inherently value. I like the idea that no person is above any other person. I love the sense that people, deep down, know what is best for themselves.
As great as those things are, though, they aren't the reason that tattoo still feels relevant. No. Deep down, the reason anarchy still calls to me is it's constant desire to challenge authority as the rest of the world views it. I've always shared that same desire. Even when I felt too small or unimportant to say it out loud, I wanted to know why things had to be the way they were. Some questions started small, like wondering why the high school administration was so heavy-handed in their editing of the school paper. They technically had the right to edit content (Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeir), but the things they chose to edit seemed silly in some cases, and down right authoritarian in others. I could understand a desire to edit certain things (even if I didn't agree), things that may have caused problems or distracted from learning. But it often went beyond that. Every year the students on the newspaper staff would put out a satirical edition of the paper (like The Onion). There was an article in that edition that poked fun at the principal and it was removed before it went to print. An article like that would have caused no real problems for the school and was not inappropriate. The administration just didn't like it.
Some questions were bigger, like when I began researching Section 9528 of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA), which requires any secondary school receiving federal funding to provide military recruiters with student information, including names, addresses, and telephone numbers. Schools are only required to provide parents with a single notice of this release of information, at which time they may choose to opt out, the catch being that if they opt out of releasing that information to military recruiters, they also opt out of releasing that information to college recruiters as well. If schools to not comply the risk losing their federal funding. Naturally they comply. Despite all of the other detestable things in  the NCLBA, I was really hung up on this one section for a long time. I signed as many petitions as I could to get it repealed. It still makes me angry, nearly 8 years out of high school.
As I get older and gain more understanding of the world around me, my questions about authority, real or perceived, only become greater. Becoming a parent has further clouded my vision, because now, in the eyes of another human being (two in my case), I am the authority figure. In some instances it makes me realize the intense pressure our teachers and administrators were under. Constantly trying to figure out what is best for children from a seemingly infinite list of choices is truly a humbling, if not soul crushing, task. I have a new-found respect in some ways. But in other ways, it also opens my eyes to the fact that these are real human lives and it is an enormous responsibility that cannot be shirked, even for a moment.
There is something more that has been bothering me though, a question that is constantly in the back of my mind, and really what this whole post is meant to be about: How do I teach my children to be respectful of authority figures in their lives, while still teaching them that it is okay to question those same people? 
Here is an example of that conundrum: I often take my kids to play at the park. I prefer a particular park because the play area is quite small, meaning I can see all of it at one time my children never leave my field of vision. This park also happens to be right behind the municipal building, which houses the local police department. When we play there we often see squad cars entering and leaving. Nathan likes police cars, mostly because they are cars. He always waves to the police officers in the cars. They wave back. But one day he turned to me and said "Are police nice?"
How do I answer that question? My instinct as a mother says I should say yes. I should encourage him to trust police officers and explain that he should seek one out if he is ever lost or hurt. Those are the things a mother tells her child. And those things are not untrue in his little 3-year-old, white, suburban world.
But they certainly aren't true for everyone. Recent events in Ferguson, Cleveland, New York, and even right here in Milwaukee have shown the darker side of authority in this country. So in my version of the world, I can't answer the way a mother should. Because from up here, with my face a few feet farther from the ground, it doesn't seem like we can trust the authorities in our lives. It certainly doesn't feel like the police are worried about the best interests of people in every case.
I obviously can't explain hundreds of years of racial tension and authoritarianism to my preschooler. I strongly believe in age-appropriate truths. I don't want to lie to my children, but there are some things that he just can't understand yet. In cases like this, I'm thankful that I have time to ponder his question. Because there isn't a simple answer.
Sometimes, police are nice. My youngest sister was recently hit by a car. She was taken by ambulance to the hospital, unconscious, with a fractured skull. After she had been home a few days my dad received a call from the Milwaukee police department. It was the officer who had been first on the scene. He called to see how Anna was doing and ask if they could send her a card. He told my dad that they had been pretty shaken by what they saw when the arrived on the scene. A few says later she got a card in the mail, with an iTunes gift card. They had taken up a collection to buy her that gift. In this case, the police were really nice.
Sometimes, police are not nice. Dontre Hamilton, an unarmed, mentally ill man, was shot 14 times by a police officer. The officer responsible was fired, but not until 6 months after the incident. The firing outraged the police union and caused them to take no-confidence vote in the Milwaukee police chief. In this case, the police were not nice.
These are issues that I'm going to continue to struggle with. I'm still not sure how to answer Nathan's question. My ultimate hope is that I can teach my children that it's important to listen to authority figures (teachers, parents, police) because they are often looking out for you as best they can. But it is also okay to ask questions, because sometimes they aren't, and you can't always wait for someone else to ask why.