‘I can’t breathe’: A Christian response to George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis
'As a person, I'm outraged. As a city, we're trying…
When protesters filled the streets in Fort Smith, Ark., Police Chief Danny Baker didn’t feel it was necessary to approach them with pepper balls and tear gas.
Instead, he sent a snow cone truck to serve the crowd.
“First, snow cones are a lot cheaper than tear gas,” said Baker, who also is a worship leader at the Poteau Church of Christ, across the state line in Oklahoma. “And second, they seem to be a lot more effective.”
Officers in the western Arkansas community of 88,000 also handed out water bottles to the demonstrators.
“As police officers, we should be treating every encounter with every person we have as an opportunity to improve their life so that they don’t need our services anymore,” said Baker, who stressed that he understands Fort Smith’s approach likely was not possible in places where protests turned to rioting.
Policing in America, since the death of George Floyd in late May, has been tense, stressful and challenging.
“We’ve had our hands full the last several weeks,” said Wendell Franklin, police chief in Tulsa, Okla., the state’s second-largest city with 400,000 residents.
In many cities, the protests following Floyd’s death grew larger than expected. The crowds were demanding changes to what they believe are “systemic issues” of racism in policing and government across the country.
In Tulsa, Franklin — a longtime member of The Park Church of Christ — took over as the department’s first permanent Black chief in February.
He had met with protesters and said he knew their motives were peaceful. However, he believes some used the protests as an opportunity to cause trouble — breaking windows and looting local businesses.
“Obviously, the First Amendment allows people to peacefully assemble, and we will protect that all day long,” Franklin said. “When it gets to a point where there is civil unrest, that is no longer peaceful and no longer something that we can allow.”
Besides the protests, Franklin’s department mobilized as a public rally by President Donald Trump drew thousands to a Tulsa arena, then mourned as Sgt. Craig Johnson, one of two officers shot in a traffic stop in late June, died of his injuries the next day.
In Calhoun, Ga., a town of 17,000 about 70 miles northwest of Atlanta, protests were mostly peaceful, said Detective Kevin Sutton, an elder of the Adairsville Church of Christ.
But with so much unrest across the country, the tension could still be felt.
“We’re just a little bit more on edge because of the radicals that are out there,” Sutton said.
“I don’t think that there’s a law enforcement officer anywhere that could defend what took place and justify why that happened.”
All three Christian officers said they believe what happened to Floyd, who was accused of trying to pass a fake $20 bill at a convenience store, was wrong.
“I don’t think that there’s a law enforcement officer anywhere that could defend what took place and justify why that happened,” Franklin said.
Baker said he believes the unrest has been building for years, mentioning previous cases involving unarmed black suspects who died in police custody.
“There are a lot of things in our country that I think need to be evaluated,” he said. “We need to look at how we treat people, how we interact with people.”
As for the idea of systemic racism, Baker believes there are always areas that police departments can evaluate and seek to improve.
Sutton, who has been in law enforcement for 40 years, said he believes the idea of systemic racism is more of a political agenda than an actual need for change.
“Our country is suffering from possibly the worst scam in its history, and it’s running on emotions and ignorance that’s being fueled by lies and a false narrative and not on the facts,” he said. “Obedience to the word of God is the answer, but most people aren’t interested in that.”
There are “knuckleheads” in any line of work, he said. Unfortunately, it’s the actions of those few that reflect negatively on the entire profession.
Franklin does believe the idea of systemic issues is worth investigating.
“There are always opportunities for improvement. I’ve always believed that,” he said. “I think also there are people who are one-sided and don’t think holistically and really look at what some of the underlying conditions are.”
However, he said in order for change to be effective, it needs to be researched by those who understand policing. “It would be similar to you going to a doctor and saying, ‘Hey, I think you should do surgery this way,’” Franklin said.
“I think we have a responsibility as believers. We need to be the ones that aren’t losing control right now.”
He and Sutton point to deeper issues that face the nation and drive the need for change.
“It’s not just a law enforcement problem,” Franklin said. “We need to talk about our education system, parenting, our family life.”
“This country is a product of the homes in this country,” Sutton said.
Baker sees the unrest as an opportunity for God to use him — and all Christians — for a higher purpose.
“To me, this is a golden opportunity for God’s people to be what we’ve been called to be — to be the salt and to be the light,” Baker said.
“Satan is successful by creating division, by creating calamity and chaos. … I see that becoming more and more and more the issue in social media, in our interactions with each other, in our politics.”
He believes there’s a hardening of hearts happening in the U.S.
Christians, he said, need to evaluate their own hearts, deal with any “ugliness” and focus on God. He encourages fellow disciples to pray for those on the frontlines and look for ways to bring their communities together without sowing discord.
“I think we have a responsibility as believers,” Baker said. “We need to be the ones that aren’t losing control right now.”
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