Ethan: I was raised to believe that police in the United States are present to protect the freedoms of all Americans, not violate them. Hard to hang onto that ideology these days.
Phil: Agreed. We were also raised to believe rioting and looting was considered breaking the law, whereas peaceful protesting is our constitutional right.
Ethan: When a white cop murders a black man on video, while three other cops watch, I am heartened that there isn’t more violence. God forbid the cop who killed George Floyd is found not guilty.
Phil: There are no words to soft pedal what that cop did, nor should there be. He should be fully prosecuted, as should the three who aided and abetted him.
Ethan: Of course, but that’s the easy part of the conversation. Ending institutionalized racism, aka confronting the white supremacy that still permeates our country, is the hard part.
Phil: White supremacy? C’mon Strim. Disappointingly, I get it that racism still exists in too many hearts, but language like that overshadows the systemic problem of police tactics at the heart of violating civil rights versus enforcing the law.
Ethan: Police tactics against communities of color are a huge problem and I am glad to see Congress attempting to change them nationwide. But the white supremacy our country was founded upon, the belief that one race was superior to all others, was legally ensconced in law in the United States for 200 years. From slavery, to segregated schools, to voter supression, to sitting in the back of the bus, to blacks and whites not being able to marry. These legal protections of racial superiority existed well into both of our lifetimes.
Phil: Well, while we are both old, you are on point again.
Ethan: Speak for yourself, Mr. Yarmouth Class of ‘73.
Phil: Ha, I’ll give you a pass on that comment. Thankfully, those laws are now off the books — through legislation, referenda, the courts, and simply private action. Discrimination based on race, in almost all forms, is simply illegal.
Ethan: Unfortunately, laws propping up racial superiority were on the books for nearly 200 years in the United States and we can’t pretend to break their shackles overnight. Based on the poverty, education, and incarceration rates that communities of color continue to experience, what may no longer be legal is still clearly practiced.
Phil: Indeed. For this discussion, let’s now put aside why racism is or isn’t happening and how much it occurs. The fact is it exists, even if we may disagree on how prevalent it is and why. How about some solutions?
Ethan: Defund police departments.
Phil: I saw that coming. Look, I am not a big government guy, as you know, but the one thing I think almost everyone agrees with is that our government must protect public safety. I’m open to new ideas, so share with us how abolishing police departments invites other solutions to assure a safe life for all people?
Ethan: I don’t think anyone believes that there should be no law enforcement, but remember what your mother always told you, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Phil: Ben Franklin said that. And he said it about preventing fires in downtown Philadelphia, not abolishing fire departments.
Ethan: Which is the point. We may always need some level of law enforcement to arrest criminals and gather evidence. But for many situations do we really need a police officer? Is a cop really the best person to handle verbal disagreements between individuals? To move the homeless from street corners? To deal with a drug addict? To discipline a teenger who made a bad decision? Or, more to the point, did we really need a cop arresting a guy for passing a fake $20 bill?
Phil: I certainly agree that cops are directed to be all things to all people these days, and they are overworked. But they do that because there is a need and they are assigned by mayors, city managers and councilors to fill it.
Ethan: Agreed 100 percent. So, instead of cops, bring in mental health professionals, domestic violence experts, substance use disorder specialists, child psychologists. And if a cop needs to be called to arrest someone, bring them in.
Phil: Whatever the answer, it is important for everyone to remember George Floyd and for all of us to say “Black Lives Matter.” Our country has failed to recognize that far too long.
Phil Harriman served as a town councilor and state senator from Yarmouth. Ethan Strimling served as mayor and state senator from Portland.