BY DAN KLEIN
It’s summer 1942, and you watch as police officers descend on your neighbor’s house. You have known the neighbors for many years and never had a problem with them. The officers quickly force the neighbor, his wife and children into a police van, and they drive away, forced to leave all their property behind as they are placed in internment camps. Their crime? Being Americans of Japanese ancestry.
It’s springtime in 1965 in Selma, Ala., and you watch as protesters, peacefully marching for equal rights, are beaten, attacked with police dogs and shot with high-pressure water from fire hoses. Their crime? Being Black in the South and not accepting their predesignated position in life.
It’s 2011, and you are standing in line at any number of county clerks’ offices in America as a gay couple is attempting to obtain a marriage license. They are denied but refuse to leave until police officers are called and arrest them. Their crime? Wanting the same rights and benefits that other married couples receive.
It’s 2016 in Maricopa County, Ariz. You watch as deputies take your middle-aged neighbor and his wife away, while their children scream and cry for them to stop. Their crime? Working illegally in the United States for 20 years. Their children were born here; they were not. They will be deported and the children raised by, who knows?
Police officers swear an oath to protect their communities, enforce the law and support the Constitution. What does a police officer do when the majority of a community is harming a minority part of the community? When the laws are illegal and harmful to their community? When the laws they are supposed to enforce are in opposition to the Constitution they swore to uphold?
What would you do if your neighbor, an American citizen, was being sent to a concentration camp solely because of their faith or ancestry? Would you voice your opposition? Would you intervene? Would you jeer at them while they were driven away?
What would you do if you saw police officers beating unarmed, peaceful protesters? Would you mumble that they are getting what they deserved? Would you stand with the protesters? Or would you close your door and say nothing?
Did you stand with gay couples who simply wanted the same rights guaranteed to others under the Constitution? Or did you say it didn’t involve you? Or did you complain that others asking for the same rights you enjoy somehow would harm you?
Would you take in the children of those illegal immigrants whose only crime was trying to provide their children a better life? Would you say they caused their own problems because they should have waited years to be citizens? Would you turn your back on their children while caring for your own children?
This has been a dilemma that I have thought about for years.
How would I have acted if I were a member of the Alabama State Patrol on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that day in 1965? Would I have tried to stop the violence my fellow officers were inflicting upon American citizens who simply wanted to be treated as equals? Or would I have joined in the beatings?
If I had been a member of a California police department in 1942, would I have blamed every American of Japanese ancestry for Pearl Harbor? Would I have smiled as I forced American families to suffer in internment camps? Or would I have refused to act, stating that this was an illegal, unconstitutional act?
Because of Albuquerque’s status as a sanctuary city and a welcoming city to gay couples, I never had to confront these issues. But would I have had the courage to stand up for those members of our community?
James Madison, a drafter of our Constitution, stated that “the Bill of Rights would protect individuals from abuse by a majority.” But there have been laws that violate the Constitution, Bill of Rights and humanity. What then? Does a police officer have a legal and ethical responsibility to his oath, community and nation to refuse to enforce those laws?
In November, we will have a presidential election. One candidate has stated his intention of putting Americans in concentration camps, breaking apart American families and bringing back forms of torture. November is coming: Will we live in a police state, or a free state? Which do you want?
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