We have a reverse Smith in Pittsburgh.
You will recall that Smith College president Kathleen McCartney attempted to show support for her students protesting racism and police brutality by sending a campus-wide email titled, “All Lives Matter, ” and came under fire by campus activists because the protest slogan was “black lives matter.” She quickly apologized, saying that she didn’t intend for “all lives matter” to be interpreted as rebuttal to “black lives matter.”
Now, in Pittsburgh, the Chief of Police is being attacked by his own officers who say that this photograph, posted on Facebook…
…accuses them of being racists.
The problem is that the Chief is endorsing a slogan of a group called Fight Back Pittsburgh, which has engaged in anti-police rhetoric in the past and carried signs saying “End White Silence” in protest marches. It describes itself as a Pittsburgh-based collective (I would call it a Marxist group) with the mission of creating a world that is free of destructive white privilege and oppression. OK, Fight Back Pittsburgh sounds like a group of racists to me. But the message of the sign is hard to take offense at. Who isn’t obligated to challenge racism at work?
Nonetheless, many of Chief Cameron McLay’s force are furious at the photo and what they feel it implies. Fraternity of Police President Howard McQuillan told an interviewer, “The chief is calling us racists. He believes the Pittsburgh Police Department is racist. This has angered a lot of officers.”
Is a pledge to oppose racism in the workplace by a supervisor the equivalent of a statement that there is racism in that workplace? McLay vigorously defends the photo, saying,
“I was hired to restore the legitimacy of the police department. I did not seek these young activists out…Their message is not anti-anybody. It is simply a call for awareness. The photo was a great, spontaneous moment in time. Please join dialogue for community healing.”
Once again, we have to start the ethical analysis with the critical question, “What’s going on here?”
1. From the Chief’s perspective, he views his job as building trust within the community, which has been led, thanks to the national campaign of fear-mongering by civil rights activists, to attribute malign, anti-African American sentiments and motivations to all police forces by pressing the false Ferguson narrative that Michael Brown was executed while surrendering. The way to do that, he concluded, was to eliminate the “us vs.them” mentality and to embrace the ostensible objectives of protesters: fairness, racial justice, and police reforms where needed.
2. The police themselves, as in the ongoing conflict in New York City between Mayor de Blasio and his police, feel that they are being unjustly impugned by the broad-stroke nature of the protests. Any approval or endorsement of the protest rhetoric is seen as a betrayal. A core duty of a leader is to support his or her followers and subordinates, and not side against them. By seeming to adopt the rhetoric of a group that has accused the police of excessive violence and racism, the Chief has, from perspective of the police ranks, sided against them.
The ethics verdicts:
- There is nothing wrong or unethical about the messages portrayed in the controversial photo, except the implicit message that the Chief has joined the anti-police protest group that prominently displays the “Hands Up!” symbol on its website.
- Police anger and indignation at their leader’s appearing to side against them was predictable, and McLay was irresponsible and incompetent to court it.
- For their part, again as in New York City, police should be able to understand the impossible dilemma city leadership, including the Chief, are facing. Denying that any problems exist with police practices and community relations is a strategy guaranteed not only to fail, but to make racial and community tensions worse, if that’s possible. Police need to acknowledge the importance of trying to bring the two sides together, and not be hyper-sensitive to perceived betrayals.
- The Chief should apologize, because his message was misunderstood, and it is his fault that it was misunderstood (A “I’m sorry that my actions were misconstrued, and apologize to anyone I may have offended” non-apology won’t suffice). I don’t think it will do much good.
- It is hard to see how the police chief can whole-hardheartedly endorse a group that is blatantly anti-police and remain trusted by the police who have to work for him. Even de Blasio didn’t go that far. Police may understand why their boss acted as he did, but the damage the act does to their ability to trust and respect him, apology or not, cannot be argued away.
I doubt that McLay can continue to be an effective police chief after this. If he leaves, protesters will take it as a statement that the police have hardened their position, and that they are choosing violence, racism, and defiance.
This is a very strong, very dangerous box meticulously constructed, by carelessness, foolishness, hate or incompetence on the part of both municipal governments, national leaders and irresponsible journalists and commentators. I have no idea how to escape it.
Source: Fight Back Pittsburgh