The first Tuesday in August is National Night Out in neighborhoods across urban America. Roadblocks stop traffic on one block or another as old men roll grills into the street and the young fellas gather for a pick-up game. Grandmas put their lawn chairs out on the sidewalk, and little girls skip rope double Dutch until they fall over on the ground laughing. I love these block parties. They’ve been a staple of summer life in Walltown since before we came here in 2003.
But I didn’t go to National Night Out this year. As much as I wanted to be with my neighbors, I couldn’t stomach the police dancing in the street and slapping high fives for one evening while they patrol Walltown like a militarized zone the other 364 days of the year.
Don’t get me wrong: I like the idea of a National Night Out. Local police partner with communities to “take back the streets” and create safe places for folk to be together. In places where violence has driven folks off their porches and out of the parks, coming together on the block can be a bold act of community building. Indeed, I’ve seen it happen right here.
But any partnership depends on trust, and my young neighbors have been teaching me how difficult it is to trust police culture in our neighborhood today. Beyond the age of thirteen, any young black man in Walltown knows that he is subject to being stopped on the street, asked for identification, frisked and possibly put in hand-cuffs while officers “check things out.” Jamal or Tyrone do not feel any better about this treatment for having seen Officer Brown do the electric slide last week.
Of course, they’re better than me at wearing the mask. They probably went down to the park last Tuesday to catch up with folks and eat a free hot dog. But I can’t shake this reality that they’ve forced me to see. I can’t, in the words of Jeremiah, say, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.
So what to do? Cry aloud and spare not, the prophets say. We must speak truth to power. And Frederick Douglass was right: power concedes nothing without a fight.
Those of us who are committed to social conversion—to God’s kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven—must cultivate a revolutionary patience. Thanks to the Fostering Alternative Drug Enforcement (FADE) coalition, we know we’re not alone in the long struggle to reclaim our neighborhoods as places where people live. It’s been two years since we first brought our concerns to the police chief here in Durham—almost a year since, following his refusal to consider the facts, we appealed to City Council for relief. After months of hearings and presentations, our City Manager was tasked with assessing our recommendations for change. He will make his report to City Council on August 21st. Pray for him—and for us.
But the struggle to change policy and challenge a culture of fear and domination is not the only struggle. From the beginning we have said that this is not a campaign to get the police chief fired or to weed out the “bad apples” from the department. We cannot demonize the police because the principalities and powers that are using them to destroy our community are beyond them. And those powers can use any of us. The great struggle—the final fight we can never give up—is the struggle to love.
It’s not enough to win the policy battle. We want to win our sisters and brothers in the police department over to beloved community.
Which is why I cannot smugly boycott National Night Out, resolved to never go back. No, I want to be there next year. I long to be there, even now. But I can’t just practice loving my enemies one night a year. It’ll take at least 364 days of practice to get ready for next year’s National Night Out.
Pray for me,
PS—Our partners at Southern Coalition for Social Justice produced this video of people telling their stories about racial profiling in Durham. These are the stories that compel me to stay in the struggle.