The protests that followed the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner — and the decisions by grand juries in Missouri and New York, respectively, not to indict the officers involved — have produced scene after scene of large crowds facing off with police officers in cities across the country. They have also largely been slotted into an “us vs. them” narrative (with both protesters and police seeming to view the other as “them”), one that had largely set in during the sweltering summer days that followed Brown’s death in Ferguson and seems to have calcified more recently amid the tensions between New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and members of that city’s police department.
As recently as Saturday, police officers who gathered in New York for the funeral of a slain officer said that occasion was a chance for their voices to be heard. “Everyone has been protesting that they are targeted, but this tragedy just goes to show society that sometimes it’s the other way as well,” Vincent DeMaio, a police officer, told my colleague Emily Wax-Thibodeaux.
In this regard, the recent letter posted by Nashville’s chief of police is rather remarkable. Steve Anderson, who heads up the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, posted a message on Friday, the day after Christmas, thanking his officers for their hard work over this past year. He also printed a critical e-mail he had received from someone angry with how Anderson’s officers had responded to the protests in the city.
Hundreds of people have protested in Nashville to decry the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the former Ferguson police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in August. These protests have occurred in cities across the country, and the results have been the same: Dozens of arrests in Oakland. More arrests in Boston. In Minnesota, authorities said they hope to file charges against the people who organized a demonstration at the Mall of America. Meanwhile, in Nashville, the police offered the protesters hot chocolate and coffee.
Someone in Nashville wrote to Anderson complaining about this very fact, according to the letter posted on the Nashville government site (with the name and identifying information removed, Anderson said):
Instead of at least threatening to arrest them, they were served coffee and hot chocolate. I don’t feel that is an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars. It sends a message that they can do whatever they want and will be rewarded….
I have a son who I have raised to respect police officers and other authority figures, but if he comes to me today and asks “Why are the police allowing this?” I wouldn’t have a good answer.
In response, Anderson wrote nearly 1,200 words defending his department as well as the importance of a diversity of opinion. Among other things, he disputed the person’s contention that their feelings represented “the majority” of the Nashville community.
“As imperfect humans, we have a tendency to limit our association with other persons to those persons who are most like us,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, there is even more of a human tendency to stay within our comfort zone by further narrowing those associations to those persons who share our thoughts and opinions.”
He went on to note that this tendency causes people to believe they share an opinion with the rest of the world. (Think of the apocryphal story about Pauline Kael saying that she didn’t know anyone who voted for Richard Nixon in 1972, an oft-cited example of the phenomenon.) Anderson added: “It is only when we go outside that comfort zone, and subject ourselves to the discomfort of considering thoughts we don’t agree with, that we can make an informed judgment on any matter.”
Anderson also wrote this in response to the person bringing up their son (after noting that he finds it “somewhat perplexing” when people mention children during debates):
[I]t is laudable that you are teaching your son respect for the police and other authority figures. However, a better lesson might be that it is the government the police serve that should be respected. The police are merely a representative of a government formed by the people for the people—for all people. Being respectful of the government would mean being respectful of all persons, no matter what their views.
It is not entirely useful to compare the reactions of law enforcement officers in different environments, responding to different citizens with potentially very different complaints. In New York, where a grand jury opted not to indict police officers recently, much of the enmity involving the mayor and the police has focused on his sympathetic comments toward protesters. This is not necessarily analogous to Nashville, just like the police and protesters in any other city will likely be approaching dissimilar confrontations infused with wildly varying histories.
Still, Anderson’s note (which you can read here) is rather unusual. Admittedly, sharing something like this, highlighting something that had been posted on a day when most people do not seem to be paying much attention to the Internet and the news, can seem cloying (or “Upworthy”-esque, back when Upworthy was a thing). But at a time when our opinions seem carved in stone, and when we have an infinite array of options for echo chambers online and in our media consumption, a message like this stands out for seeming more inclined toward “us” than in viewing any group as “them.”