I recently bonded with a friend over the work of meditation teacher and psychologist Tara Brach, who just published a new book called “Radical Compassion.” We kept coming back to the same question: Is it wrong to feel compassion towards the police?
I’m angry at the cop who killed George Floyd. I’m outraged about cops harming protestors. But I’m also a little empathetic towards the police. It’s embarrassing to admit, but it’s true.
Let me be clear. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something about police brutality. I’m with Black Lives Matter: #DefundThePolice. Fire cops and hire more social workers. Build public housing instead of sending cops to terrorize the homeless. Give people well-paid work so they don’t have reasons to commit crime.
If anything, humanizing cops highlights the systemic nature of the problem. Cops are just doing their jobs — and that job is a violent tool used by the rich and powerful to control poor and working class people.
We might think that cops “protect and serve” the public. But modern policing began with slave patrols in the South. After slavery, cops helped break up labor strikes, regularly shooting and killing workers.
Today, cops are asked to do way too much. For decades, we’ve cut public budgets for things like education, housing, and social services while spending more and more on policing. Kids don’t need cops in their schools — they need higher-paid teachers, safer buildings, and more counselors.
That is to say, there are no “good” cops. There are good people who are cops. But policing in America is inherently violent and racist.
So, here’s my issue. I’m mad about the cops, white supremacy, capitalism — yet I know in my bones that compassion is the strongest catalyst for change.
I can’t just turn off my empathy. I used to hate the hustling part of myself that’s always striving to do more and more work. But then I started listening, trying to understand why that part wanted me to work so hard. Turns out it was trying to protect me. It thought that if I wasn’t always working hard, I’d be worthless, a loser, a nobody. Once I empathized with that part, I gained the ability, for the first time in my life, to actually, truly, authentically rest. (See Chapter 2 in my ebook “How to Get Out of Your Head” for more on this.)
And you know what? The more compassionate I‘ve become towards my workaholic part, the more empathetic I’ve become towards others who can’t stop working. As Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön writes, “By being kind to ourselves, we become kind to others. By being kind to others — if it’s done properly, with proper understanding — we benefit as well.”
She goes on: “So it is with aggression. When you get to tell someone off, you might feel pretty good for a while, but somehow the sense of righteous indignation and hatred grows, and it hurts you.”
I’m not going to lie. It feels really good right now to hate the cops. I felt a complicated sense of joy watching the Minneapolis Police Department 3rd Precinct building burn. But I’m also feeling compassion. Not towards police buildings, or for that matter any property. Towards the human beings who think they’re protecting but are in fact hurting us.
Again, that’s not to disarm your anger towards cops or whoever has hurt you. I’m just laying all my feelings out on the table, hoping that allows you to give yourself permission to do the same.
For now, all I’ve got are questions. Does compassion make me a less effective fighter against injustice? Is it just making me feel better in a fucked up, broken society?
Or better yet, here’s writer bell hooks: “For me forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?”
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