This summer, I walked into a restaurant with a group of Orange County Sheriff’s Deputies. “Can’t sit there,” one of them told me as I pulled out a chair. I looked at him in confusion. “We always sit with our backs against a wall. It’s safer.”
It was yet another moment during my internship where I learned to see the world a little differently — to understand that law enforcement can feel under threat, too.
I’m a college senior, a black man from inner city Atlanta, and I spent the summer riding the backroads of Orange County as an intern with the Sheriff’s Office. I learned a lot about the world of law enforcement, including that restaurant lesson on “being vigilant.” I’ve never walked around with the fear of being shot or targeted, and it was jarring to know that deputies do.
My internship was about seeing what law enforcement goes through every day, how they see the world and how they respond to it. It was a summer-long exercise in empathy.
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It was a chance for the deputies to walk a little in my shoes, too. An officer and I stopped into a store during patrol one afternoon, and a lady remarked that the deputy must be in the store to keep me from stealing.
Her unthinking meanness didn’t even phase me. I am a black man living in America — I’ve heard those whispered fears my whole life. But I am still an American who cares about his country and his neighbors. The question of how to fix what ails us — how we can assume better of one another on streets and in grocery aisles — haunts me daily.
History can give us context for our own time and offer clues about our future. I’ve been replaying President Kennedy’s 1963 address on Civil Rights, and I am amazed how relevant his words remain more than half a century later.
“It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this is a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the fact that we face,” Kennedy said. “A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all.”
At a time when cities were literally burning, when the most basic elements of America’s promise were unfulfilled for citizens of color, Kennedy found the kernel of hope and truth that still guides us today — that all men are created equal, and we should all treat people the way we want to be treated.
Those words sound so simple, but the reality of our history has made them complex. To me, the question of how we assign blame or decide who’s at fault for today’s anguish is not nearly as important as how we’re finally going to end it. I want to be a part of that ending.
This summer, when I switched apartment complexes, I had no idea where I was going to live for about two weeks. I told this to some of the deputies, and two of them offered to open their homes to me.
I did not understand this at first. Why would people who barely know me invite me into their homes and offer to share meals with their families? This didn’t feel like an ordinary gesture to me. But I finally realized that it was easy for those deputies to host me, because they were already willing to take a bullet for me. Anyone who is ready to lay down his life could easily give me a place to lay my head. The trust had been built during our time together.
I’m not naïve by any stretch. I know the narrative surrounding police and black males doesn’t involve a lot of trust right now, and building it will take a long time. My heart goes out to all people of color, police officers, and their families and friends that have lost loved ones or been injured or hurt during tragic encounters. And I’d like to lend my hope to all those working to heal a nation’s wounds.
To all those who would view me as a threat because of the color of my skin, please know this — I too, love America. That is why I’m willing to go the extra mile to make sure our country doesn’t lose hope, that our cities don’t burn to the ground, that our neighbors don’t grow more distant.
My message to communities of color is that law enforcement officers across the country are hearing us, however slowly and imperfectly. As President Obama has said, change will come “in fits and starts,” but change will come. For all of the pain, for all of the agonizing slowness of progress, the end result is worth the challenge.
America is not beyond redemption. I believe in the goodness of my fellow citizens, and I will give life to that belief by organizing, energizing, humanizing, empathizing and realizing that it is never too late to start over with each other. I hope you’ll join me.
Josh Smith is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill.