The United States has been gripped once again by a crisis in policing. The killing of George Floyd on 25 May may have been the spark, but years of egregious police misconduct, a lack of repercussions, failures of leadership, and systemic racism have provided mountains of fuel for society’s anger and frustration that has now ignited. And while the heart of the conflict is the United States, problems in policing as well as systems of racism and oppression are a thoroughly global and human problem.
While much attention of late has been placed on protesters and demonstrators, there is also a clear need to re-evaluate the role of the police in the modern world. No one is born a protester; no one is born a police officer. The role of each arises from one’s actions, one’s karma. For Buddhists, that karma takes on the weight of moral responsibility. Our actions are never left behind without a trace; nor are they predetermined or outside of our control.
The police in a Buddhist worldview arise in much the way other roles arise: out of a particular need to serve their community. The Aggañña Sutta, (D.III.80) outlines the rise of this need as a story of the origins of the universe with an underlying moral lesson. Humans developed, according to the Buddha in this discourse, in initial harmony and flourishing. However, greed arose among the earliest people, causing divisions. These divisions eventually led to divisions of land and private ownership—the first instance of the “haves” and the “have nots.” Out of this arose theft and dishonesty, and eventually a king was elected to assert law and order.
It is worthy of note that the king was named Maha-Sammata or “The People’s Choice.” The job of the king was to “show anger where anger was due, censure those who deserved it, and banish those who deserved banishment!” Nevertheless, the role was created by the will of the people, which should instill humility in kings and other leaders. Buddhism, with its principles of moral responsibility and interconnectedness, has consistently opposed the concept of “divine right,” whether arising from India’s ancient caste and varna system or Western versions of kingship. Our leaders, our keepers of the law, are servants of the people and should come from and live among them.
A second part of the discourse worth mentioning is that after the creation of the king as enforcer of worldly laws, a further class of beings who sought to “put aside evil and unwholesome things” was still needed. These were the first Brahmins and that title here means specifically: “They put aside evil and unwholesome things.” It is a title gained not by birth or by social decree, but only by one’s own moral effort. This, too, was a title the Buddha would assimilate from the pre-existing culture to refer to himself. While a Brahman was seen as a hereditary title for those around him, the Buddha wanted to make clear that the title was earned through actions, not inherited by birth.
As we ponder a Buddhist approach to policing, we must consider the difficulty of combining an intrinsically anger- and boundary-based occupation with a path that aims for peace and the elimination of divisions. To do this, we must seek to understand the problems of society today, which will vary from place to place, but will also carry inevitable similarities.
Racism, for instance, may be most pronounced in the United States due to its particular history of slavery and the genocide of Native Americans by European settlers driven by “Manifest Destiny”—a belief in God-given dominion over the entire continent. However, racism finds expression anywhere that differences in skin color, language, and culture can be used to justify stigmatization, prejudice, and exclusion from a society. (van der Valk 2003)
Insofar as racism plays a role in a society, any other work toward co-operation, caring for one another, and properly enforcing laws cannot be done. Racism is like an acid eating away at the foundations of all of those pillars of society. If we are of a dominant race, we might not realize it or be affected directly, but those who are stigmatized and excluded feel it every day. What’s more, the corrosion will lead to collapse. First those already most harmed will suffer, then more and more in society as the weight of ignorance pulls everyone down.
Therefore, in order to address policing, broader societal inequalities and prejudices must be addressed. If society is tilted toward hatred, then people with more hatred will become law enforcer, while those who join as keepers of the peace will quickly burn out or be forced out.
Retired US police officer Cheri Maples wrote in 2017:
This crisis in policing has to do with unnecessary use of force, racial profiling, militarization of police departments, lack of trust between communities and police departments, lack of strategies to address trauma and emotional health of police officers, unconscious and unspoken organizational agreements in police culture, and a lack of informal safety nets for people across the country.
In our police departments, we hear loud internal cries that we are losing the “war.” In the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was the War on Drugs. Since 9/11, it’s been the War on Terrorism. The problem is that we are not at war. We are protecting and serving our neighbors and fellow citizens. (Of course, police officers often see people at their worst. People generally don’t call us when things are going well. When is the last time you were happy to see one of us in your rearview mirror or at your house?)
Many of the tragedies now being uncovered in policing are the result of the fact that as police officers we simply cannot see what is actually in front of us—a suffering human being in need of help. (Lion’s Roar)
Maples goes on to suggest that what Buddhism offers her is an ethical framework for her life and her vocation; turning her toward a firm path of kindness and compassion through which to live each day. This turning of her own mind, Maples continues, turned her badge and gun into symbols of skillful means instead of power and authority.
But Maples also suggests that communities become involved: demanding changes to leadership and training. Communities also must examine themselves. Are we embodying the same egalitarian, free, and fair practices in our housing, education, and financial institutions that we would like to see in the police? If not, how can we expect them to be better?
This is not easy work. But the good news is that some of it is already being done. While we have been blind to, or willfully ignored, the racism of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s foods in America and Darlie—formerly known as Darkie—toothpaste in Asia, the uprisings and protests around the world have forced the companies behind them to begin to change. Statues celebrating slaveholders and slave traders have been removed. Some of the police involved in recent unjust killings of Black people in America have been arrested and charged with murder.
Police in particular might feel that they are on the losing side of this sea-change. And indeed some have resigned from posts or quit their jobs. Yet those officers who signed on to serve their communities with humility and care will continue and they will prevail not against their societies, but alongside it.
Van der Valk, Ineke. 2003. “Racism, a Threat to Global Peace.” The International Journal of Peace Studies. Vol. 8, No. 2 (Autumn/Winter 2003), pp. 45–66
A Buddhist Cop’s Approach to Justice (Lion’s Roar)
Uncle Ben’s and Mrs. Butterworth’s follow Aunt Jemima phasing out racial stereotypes in logos (CNN)
EXCLUSIVE: Darlie to rebrand – Colgate-owned ‘Black People Toothpaste’ to be reviewed amid Black Lives Matter demos (Hong Kong Free Press)