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Unknownsays hippie to hippie roommate, in a wickedly funny cartoon from the 60’s, when anti-war and civil rights protesters slapped this barnyard epithet on the police they battled in the streets.

The activists and their causes have changed, but the police are again at the center of an emotional storm — to some, animals; to others, angels; to many, mere humans, with human virtues and vices.

The sagas of Ferguson, and then Cleveland, and now New York City, challenge us to go beyond our worst prejudices and their convenient labels, and consider how we can achieve justice with security.

In the Ferguson case, when the Grand Jury declined to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of African-American teenager Michael Brown, many of us on the outside, looking in through a badly cracked window, joined the Wilson or the Brown camp.

If so, we probably missed the point. This was a classic tragedy, in which two lives were destroyed — literally, in one case, virtually in the other — by forces beyond their anticipation or control. Sophocles could not have plotted it more devastatingly.

We should sympathize with both, but, as stone-hearted as it may seem, we should look beyond them as individual cases and political symbols, and focus instead on the two communities whose well-being is immediately at stake — African-Americans and the police — and what implications their reconciliation or estrangement might have for our country.

If there is to be reconciliation, two key points have to be: (1) recognition that the ability of the police to keep the peace depends on their legitimate authority in the eyes of their constituents — all constituents; and (2) that African-Americans, perhaps more than any other single community, would suffer if the police were gravely weakened.

Security abhors a vacuum, maybe even more than nature does. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to recognize that there are forces, in existence or waiting to be born, that will fill any perceived security gap:

  • Gangs, of whatever neighborhood, ethnic, racial, pharmaceutical, and/or refuse collection affiliation, are ready, waiting, and armed to protect kin or kind or cash.
  • Proto-Militias, highly motivated coteries of well-armed government-haters, who would not be reluctant to wrap themselves in the soiled bedsheet of extremism.
  • The Gun Lobby, one of whose core doctrines is the right of every individual to protect him/herself with a gun.
  • Millions of frightened Americans who, at some personal breaking point, might conclude that, ideology be damned, they had no alternative to protecting themselves with a gun.

If you want an example of how bad things can get when public security collapses and other security mechanisms arise — drug cartels, anti-cartel vigilantes, religious extremists, warlords, so-called private security services — just toss your dart down Mexico way, or to Syria or Iraq or Libya or …

Assuring justice, from and for the police and the African-American communityUnknown-1, won’t solve our racial and ethnic tensions, nor assure equal respect and opportunity for all. But, if we fail, we’ll all be wallowing in it.