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Shades of Grey

There's been yet another clash of citizens vs. police in my fair city. This time, it's an allegation of police brutality. The citizen (and his family & friends) tells one story. The police tell quite another. But I don't want this to be about that situation in particular. Really, I don't. Instead, I want to discuss something perhaps even more important, and that is rhetoric, and it's power to shape and influence a community, however large or small.

One sunny April day a few years back, I was standing in line waiting to be let into the Virginia Theatre to attend a day's worth of movie-going for the Roger Ebert Film Festival. It's a ritual of Ebertfest. It is typically accompanied by folks in-line chatting with one another about various topics of interest. That day, an upper-middle-aged man from Pennsylvania decided to engage me in a dicussion about politics. In his opinion, people needed to tone down the rhetoric. He thought that opposing sides just stood across from each other lobbing insults and accusations without accomplishing anything. I was polite and listened to the man, but this was at the height of my political activism, and all I was thinking was, "Damn right we fight the good fight. You gotta' stand up for yourself and be heard, yo! Lame old man."

Well, fast forward a few years, throw in some life experience, and I have to admit that I'm sounding much more like that man from Ebertfest. He was, in my opinion, correct in his assertions. Rhetoric is a dangerous thing. It can be used for good, but so often we use it to incite and inflame, even if we mean well by it. I've seen it happen at a political level, and at an activist level. Rhetoric is, it seems, the tool of the trade when it comes to folks wanting to get their point across these days. But people really do need to watch their rhetoric. Don't make it righteous, make it right.

I've had lots of encounters with the police over the years, most all of them traffic-related. A couple of times it's been to report a robbery/burglary. 90% of the encounters were in my hometown. And of those encounters, 95% of them have been fine. Above board. No problems. The police did their job, were courteous (if not always exceedingly warm and cuddly), and the situations were handled without issue. All of the aforementioned occasions and percentages are, of course, anecdotal. I mention them anyway, because a lot of community members like to bring their own anecdotal evidence to the table whenever there's a flare-up between citizens and police. We hear the horror stories. We hear how there's a systemic problem within the police department. We are told that something needs to be done.

I'm not here to take sides. I'm not here to doubt one version of events over another. That is something that can be decided by videotape evidence and/or a court case. The court of public opinion is overblown in its importance in cases such as these. I caution those who use general rhetoric about the police to think before they speak. Think how they would feel if the same rhetoric were turned around and used against another block of people (and it often is, and is -- rightfully -- denounced). If a few black people are guilty of robbing a liquor store, that doesn't mean that all black people have a problem. If a gay man tries to sexually entice a known straight man, that doesn't mean that all gay men are creepers looking to seduce the unawares. The same goes for the police. A few bad apples do not spoil the bunch.

It has been suggested that there be a citizen police review board in Champaign, IL. That sounds fair. With all of the incidents that keep happening, I think it's becoming almost a necessity. And goodness knows that there are some members of the police force who probably shouldn't have the job. But that's not something intrinsically linked to the police. It's the case everywhere, with all types of careers.

The police are here to protect and to serve. Citizens are here to make sure that they do so. I think that, in our fair city, this is happening on both sides for the most part. But let's watch the rhetoric, okay? Let's use it to unite, not to divide. Let's use it to be right, not righteous.


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