Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of five columns written by Ron Byler, Mennonite Central Committee U.S. executive director, to mark 100 […]
I am frustrated and infuriated. I live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a community that on Sunday experienced an occupation level I haven’t seen since I was in the West Bank during a study abroad term in college. Before Sunday, I never in my own neighborhood had to hold my camera in the air and state what it was to avoid the risk of a police officer pulling out the weapon his hand was resting on. “I’m a photographer, it’s a camera,” I said. Photographer may be a stretch, but on this night, knowing the media wouldn’t send anyone to my neighborhood in the middle of the night, it was true.
I don’t think I am frustrated and infuriated because I had flashbacks to an Israel Defense Forces soldier putting me against a wall at the end of his gun and asking me why I was following the Americans, whom he didn’t know were my classmates, or the hour I got detained at the point of entry and grilled if I spoke Arabic because my skin was darker than my classmates, or the time I entered a restricted area my white colleagues couldn’t because without speaking they assumed they knew who I was. I’m not even most upset that dozens of police descended on my neighborhood pre-emptively based on assumptions about economics and location in ways I have never seen or heard of them showing up anywhere else in this county, for anything, short of the West Nickel Mines School shooting.
Let me be clear, because the online comments have attempted to obfuscate and gaslight the issue. There was a domestic violence situation, the basis of the initial police response. That response was reasonable due to the circumstances. While anyone can second guess the actions of a particular police officer, I have no intention to do so because that officer was in a scenario where he was trained to shoot to kill with the belief it was the only way to save a life. If we do not like that process, then we need to have conversations about what is and is not providing officers as far as negotiation skills or other non-violent options.
What I am most upset about is that dozens upon dozens of police officers descended onto a neighborhood without providing the reasonable communication seen in other parts of the community for equally tragic circumstances. I am upset that ambulances were twice turned away and family wasn’t being given information as to why. I am upset because the police indicated to local leaders that they called the coroner when they did not and would not for three more hours. I am upset that people in the neighborhood are so jaded by decades of aggressive enforcement practices that comments from longtime residents have ranged from “at least it isn’t like it was in the ‘90s” to “I am frightened for my life,” and those are not about the domestic abuser who legally owned a gun and held it to his partner’s head.
I am frustrated and infuriated that longtime friends are uninterested in asking how people felt but are instead eager to dismiss them because the initial call was about domestic violence – as if this allows any subsequent action beyond reproach. I am concerned with the unwillingness to engage in concerns about calling all surrounding departments to suppress a whole neighborhood through intimidation of overwhelming force. Tapping on assault rifles. Chests puffed out arms on vests. These were not the perpetrators of any crime beyond living in the top three highest concentrations of poverty by census tract in the county at 36 percent as of 2016. The street level census tract unemployment rate (discounting non-participation rate) is 15 percent, compared to a county rate of 5.5 percent and a citywide rate of 12 percent, the 2016 census data shows. These are people trying to get a job. The median income is $22,000 for a family of two. The median income is $13,000 for a family of three.
None of this would be a valid excuse had the crowd acted out violently in reaction to the provocation of the most significant show of police force in my memory anywhere in the county. The peaceably assembled neighbors did not act out. And there was no evidence that they attempted to or were close to it. Yes, there was a lot of swearing, but nobody was paying the community to speak politely when denied access to their homes.
Still, a battalion remained with enough firepower to take a small village in a foreign war-torn nation. I’m not faulting officers for showing up; that’s their job. I’m faulting us as a society for thinking this is the best way to respond to a community in turmoil.
Kevin Ressler is executive director at Meals on Wheels of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and co-founder of the Lancaster Action Now Coalition. He attends Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster.
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