I wrote two thirds of this piece on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. All across social media, people were sharing MLK quotes – people who are full of fear and hate the other 364 days a year, and who have no business uttering the words of MLK like they are their own.
I used to be one of those people. I still am on some levels. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached a message of love. I honestly don’t like people very much. I like animals…but people? I can take ’em or leave ’em. Ironically, I work in the social services field. But I think people appreciate my transparency. It’s easier to connect with someone who doesn’t put on airs. My clients nod enthusiastically when I concede that, yes, people can be pretty fucking unlikeable, and I understand why they want nothing to do with them.
I recently heard a woman say, “I don’t have to like people, but I have to love them”. She’s right, as much as that irritates the dickens out of me. However, when I was first trying to find my legs as a law enforcement spouse, I was so full of fear and hate that I could not recognize my white privilege, and I could not love my fellow humans.
It’s not a surprise that I married a police officer. Between 1987 and 1992, the show Square One ran a segment called Mathnet. I was totally into it. Just for context, I turned 6 in 1992. As the nineties progressed, Dana Scully became my first love. For awhile, I wanted to be an FBI agent. That dream faded as soon as I was old enough to acknowledge my athletic ineptitude. My next love was Stephanie March’s character on Law and Order: SVU, Alexandra Cabot. NBC would have made a lot of money off my lesbian sisters if they had the guts to pair Alex Cabot with Olivia Benson…but I digress.
I remember having coffee with a friend from high school. She practically snorted when I told her my new girlfriend was a cop.
But being a real police wife is nothing like Hollywood. My wife, J.L., rolls her eyes whenever Olivia Benson shouts, “Get me a bus!” Nobody says that – at least not around here.
The rush of watching my wife step out of a cruiser in uniform eventually wore off. Reality settled over our lives like a slow moving weather system. I became familiar with cancelled plans and holidays spent partially or fully alone. I listened to the scanner knowing J.L. was searching for an armed and dangerous subject. I watched her march in a funeral procession for a fallen officer. I followed gruesome news reports knowing she was carrying the crime scene on her psyche.
I am intimately familiar with the darkness that law enforcement officers face. Our dinner smalltalk – as a police officer and mental health professional respectively – is the stuff of nightmares. So, despite what you may think, I fully support our law enforcement. But I also cannot wait to get as far away from law enforcement culture as humanly possible.
I was starting to get a sense of what it meant to be a police spouse during the rise of Black Lives Matter. Black men and women were being murdered. Police officers were being murdered. I lived in so much fear – please, not my wife, please not my wife, please, not my wife – that I could not hear anything that people of color had to say. What’s worse was that I vocalized my ignorance. I am grateful I have friends who were brave enough to point out my blind spots, and to help me understand. I am also grateful I was willing to hear them.
The problem with law enforcement culture is that very few people have these skills; to call out a problem or to self-evaluate and change. What’s more, these skills are not encouraged. In fact, they are discouraged. The system is broken, and rather than admit, “Yep, I’ve been looking at things all wrong,” it’s easier for people on a systemic and individual level to get defensive.
I’m not just talking about race, either. Last year, a police officer in a neighboring town got drunk, got behind the wheel, and killed a young woman who was on her way home from work. When I had the audacity, as a police wife, to call police culture out for perpetuating alcohol misuse as a coping skill, as well as the way in which mental healthcare is stigmatized, I got unfriended. “If you cannot hold yourself to a higher standard,” I said, “you should not be in this field”.
Why is it offensive to expect someone in a leadership role to act like a leader? And what is a good leader? A good leader is someone who is capable of looking honestly at themselves and admitting when they’re wrong – or when they need help – thereby freeing their peers to engage in the same work. That’s how trust is built. That’s how change happens. That’s how bridges are built and compassion is born.
You know what really gets my goat? When people claim to agree that something is wrong, but subsequently continue to engage in harmful behavior.
“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will”.
Again, I am not writing this under the pretense of perfection. I opened by acknowledging that I’m kind of an asshole. More often than not, I find it hard to like people. And, I am ashamed to say, I once paraded around thinking I was the queen of diversity, when I was actually one hundred percent ignorant about white privilege and racism in America. I was on the civil rights team in middle school, and we learned the whitewashed version of diversity. Color blindness and blah, blah, blah. I was a shallow person of good will. That’s why when other people act the same way, I get worked up. The very things we find distasteful in others, we also harbor in ourselves.
I still don’t know much, but I’m trying. I’d like to think I’m listening now. I rely on my friends to tell me when I’m not. Those are real friends – the ones who call you out. The ones who tell you when you have broccoli in your teeth or when your worldview is hurting others.
The reason I am writing this is because it is incumbent on me, as a police wife who cares about law enforcement, as a human who cares about people of color (because the two are not mutually exclusive), and as a mental health/addiction recovery advocate, to speak up. The system is never going to change unless the people within it have the guts to say the wildly unpopular thing. We need to be willing to get uncomfortable on an individual level. It’s not the job of a person of color or a person with mental illness to make us understand, it’s our responsibility to get uncomfortable, ask hard questions, have tough discussions, and change.
“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must take it because his conscience tells him it is right”.
It would be naive of me to think that writing this open letter of sorts is going to abruptly change the world. It will, however, change me. At the end of my life, I can look back and say that I stood for something. I don’t want to be ashamed of my place in the history books.
In his poem, Mental Fight, Ben Okri wrote:
You can’t remake the world
Without remaking yourself first.
Each new era begins within.
It is an inward event,
With unsuspected possibilities
For inner liberation.
I pulled that poem from a piece called, “On Hope” by Daisaku Ikeda, which appears in Tricycle Magazine. He writes,
“An inner change for the better in a single person—one person becoming wiser, stronger, more compassionate—is the essential first turn of the wheel toward realizing peaceful coexistence and fulfillment for the whole human race. I firmly believe that a great human revolution in just one person can be the start of a transformation in the destiny of whole societies and all humankind. And for the individual, everything starts in the inner reaches of life itself.
When we change our inner determination, everything begins to move in a new direction. The moment we make a powerful resolve, every nerve and fiber in our being will immediately orient itself toward the fulfillment of this goal or desire. On the other hand, if we think, ‘This is never going to work out,’ then every cell in our body will be deflated and give up the fight.
Hope, in this sense, is a decision. It is the most important decision we can make”.