Erika D. Smith

Black cops torn, standing guard over a divided nation

Demonstrators march past police during the “Shut Down Trump & the RNC” protest on Sunday in Cleveland.
Demonstrators march past police during the “Shut Down Trump & the RNC” protest on Sunday in Cleveland. AP

As details emerged Monday about the Baton Rouge shooting – how police were targeted and ambushed by an angry black man with a rifle – the Cleveland officers keeping the peace at the Republican National Convention didn’t flinch.

They looked on passively as a black woman rambled into a microphone for 10 minutes about how her son was killed by police and how police should have found a more peaceful way to subdue him.

They didn’t even smirk knowingly when the woman, squinting into the sun and suddenly noticing that she was surrounded by men in uniform, offered a hasty caveat.

“Ain’t every police bad,” she said, her voice carrying across a sparsely populated plaza, aptly named Public Square. No one applauded. But someone did shout, “No justice, no peace!”

Police officers are in hell right now – now that angry, unhinged black men are resorting to vigilante justice, setting traps for anyone with a badge. It happened first in Dallas, where a sniper killed five officers during a Black Lives Matter rally, and now in Baton Rouge.

It’s not much of a stretch to think the same could happen in Cleveland.

“Life’s cheap in the neighborhood,” my childhood friend, now a Cleveland police officer, told me. “They want to rally on us about Black Lives Matter? You need to address that.”

That makes for a special kind of hell for black police officers patrolling this city’s streets on foot and on bicycles, and protecting protesters even when they’re carrying signs that insist all cops are “racists” and “killers.”

I have two friends who are police officers – one in Cleveland, one in the suburbs. Both are black men with black sons of their own. We’ve known each other since we were kids, back when we, too, mouthed off to police officers trying to order us around.

As much we disagree about the value of Black Lives Matter and racial bias in policing, I have a lot of respect for what they do. “I couldn’t do your job,” I’ve often said. And they know it’s true.

I asked one of my friends, whom I agreed not to name because the department is troubled and, therefore, understandably closed-lipped, if he’s worried about working this week. Like all Cleveland police officers, he’s pulling 12-hour shifts for seven days. He also has a wife and three kids.

He shook his head. “Protesters want to cause a ruckus. They don’t want to take a life. I don’t see this week as any different as any other. What they’re doing in Dallas, Baton Rouge, they can do that anytime. Baton Rouge, that was a regular day for them.”

Is he scared? He shook his head again.

“You don’t think, ‘Oh, somebody is trying to kill me.’ I don’t know. You just expect them to. It’s normal. It’s a given.”

He works on the east side of Cleveland, which isn’t exactly the south side of Chicago, but it’s not great. It’s not unusual to get calls about toddlers being murdered; teenagers getting shot in the head; and bodies of adults found in cars, mutilated by bullets and forgotten.

“Life’s cheap in the neighborhood,” he said. “They want to rally on us about Black Lives Matter? You need to address that.”

Bring up Black Lives Matter, and that’s what I get. Anger.

Anger that the activists are missing what he thinks is the bigger issue. Angry that he regularly has conversations with black people at gunpoint, and sees black people when they’re shot, stabbed or beaten, usually after doing something criminal and stupid.

Angry that a couple of black men, who were angry over some of the same things that Black Lives Matter is angry about, ambushed cops. Angry that the shooters are making it easier to paint – with broad brushstrokes – the activists as a threat, which only dilutes their message, alarms police and makes it easier for opportunistic politicians such as Donald Trump to get elected.

And I suspect within that anger, there’s more than a bit of embarrassment about having to pay the price – not only as a cop being potentially targeted like other cops, but as a black man.

Because he is a black man, and cop or no cop, he knows.

“You can see both sides of the equation. I’ve been on both sides of the equation,” such as the foot chase he led police on in high school.

“Even now I know, when I’m out and about and I’m in regular clothes, that I’m just another Negro. The other thing is I’m a Negro with a gun. So, I always have my badge and something, like this band,” he pointed to the blue band on his wrist, “to give them a hint.”

His words echo a Facebook post by Montrell Jackson, the only black Baton Rouge officer killed Sunday. Days earlier and days after a fellow officer shot Alton Sterling outside a convenience store, sparking protests, he wrote: “In uniform I get nasty hateful looks and out of uniform some consider me a threat. I swear to God I love this city, but I wonder if this city loves me.”

The words accompanied a picture of Jackson holding his brown-skinned, infant son.

There is no “us against them.” There’s only us.

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