Virtues for Civil Discourse: Solidarity

If you are reading about virtues for civil discourse for the first time, you might want to catch up on five prior entries: civility, tolerance, humility, justice and mercy. Today, I want to turn to the sixth virtue, solidarity.

I learned of solidarity by being the son of a New York City police officer.  From my father’s work, I learned about a set of relationships that were neither with family nor friends, but rather with “partners” or fellow officers on the “force.”  These were the people with whom dad enjoyed a certain solidarity, a tangible and very evident one.  At any family event there were aunts and uncles and cousins, there were friends and neighbors, but there was also my dad’s partner, Frank Tornabene and his wife Joan, who fit in just as easily as everyone else.  Frank was never identified as anything but “my partner,” a term filled with meaning.  

At family parties my dad would tell stories from the force, that were always livelier when Frank was there.  My dad was a great raconteur; I heard every type of story from police chases to interrogations to cover-ups.  I developed an appreciation for his vocabulary---at six years of age I knew what a “perp” (aka perpetrator) was.  I am sure that his love for humanity and fairness that so animated those stories is what moved me to be in the field I am in today.  

Later, when he worked in Manhattan South homicide, I would walk into his office in lower Manhattan, and as I did, I knew that everyone knew who I was because like every cop, Dad shared his family with his squad.  From his stories, I knew who they were, and I knew that everyone there had “each other’s back.” There in those offices and from those stories, I learned what solidarity was like.   I was learning about the police force in all these stories and from them I knew that cops relied on one another, reflexively.  They didn’t give it a second thought.  

I remember once standing in front of my home in Brooklyn as a police car raced down our block and my father dropping everything and racing down the street after the person the police were pursuing.  My father caught the man as he dodged behind a neighbor’s garage.  Though I had never seen him do that before, I was not surprised; he was helping his fellow officers uphold the law.

In life and in death there was solidarity.  Whenever there was a death of a fellow officer, I knew every cop would be at the funeral and whenever a police officer was killed I would see the “sea of blue” in the newspapers, knowing my dad was among them.  They stood together.  

I remember too when there were scandals, stories of bad cops and overhearing Dad and his fellow officers talk about whether the charges were credible or not.  I remember being impressed that there was this, what today we would call discernment.  Though solidarity was a given, when there was corruption, that solidarity was compromised.  No one liked a bad cop especially other cops and contrary to what people thought was a blind fidelity, I heard discernment about honesty and trustworthiness as essential to true solidarity.  There I heard the awareness expressed that to uphold fairness, the police had to be fair.

Solidarity is a human phenomenon.  When there’s a struggle, we need to have support.  When there’s a cause, we don’t want to stand alone.  We want to stand with others and we want their presence as a guarantee.  Look for instance at “Black Lives Matter.”  Their members learn that in their ranks there is deep solidarity, and an unspoken but recognized and appreciated trust that they don’t walk alone, that they have partners.   When they insist that the racism in the United States needs to be addressed, that the excessively racist levels of incarceration in the US is an indictment of our criminal justice system and nothing more than a continuation of the Jim Crow laws, they want us to awaken from our complicity with the racism embedded in our society and our social structures.  Their claims are not from singular persons but from a solidaristic movement.  

When they are rebuffed with slogans like “All Lives Matter,” then in solidarity they respond, “You are missing the entire point.” By standing together they are trying to awaken America from its “innocence” where we fail to recognize that America is capable of wrong-doing, that it has racism in its roots, that discrimination happens in our precincts, courts and law-making, and that our deafness to these claims is itself part of the racist strategy of America.  

Their solidarity needs to be ours, yet until we enter into their solidarity, they will need to break through our comfort, ease, innocence, and complacency.  Awakenings can be rude for the subject, but sometimes when you can’t get a response you need to try other more assertive methods to get another’s attention.  In civil discourse, this awakening has been through protest, but a protest that leads to dialogue and an engagement.  But that protest which is animated by long-standing pain, frustration, and righteous anger must continue until we finally  understand that Black lives matter, that our racist rates of incarceration and our racist profiling are awful extensions of a complicitly racist society.

Rightly, in light of the killing of black men by police officers and the killing of police officers by black men, the solidarity among the police and the solidarity among Black Lives Matter must somehow enter into a framework where they can come to mutual understanding and respect and where these killings and this violence comes to an end.  But they cannot do that alone.  We cannot stand on the sidelines. We must enter into this civil discourse both to end a racism that as horrendous as it has been, might actually be amplifying and to restore a new law and order that esteems all our citizens and along with that a deeper and abiding respect for all our law enforcement officers.  

These groups therefore cannot be polarized.  Their solidarity is fundamentally good and important. We need our African American, white, Latino/a, and Asian American leaders to be in solidarity with one another to name and raise up American racism so as to eliminate it.  We need our police to trust one another in their struggle to maintain law and order and to promote justice.  These two groups of solidarity are necessary for us today.  

We ought not to see the solidarity of these two groups as inimical and we cannot scapegoat them: we certainly cannot blame Black Lives Matter for the violence that has long found a home in racist America and we cannot blame the police for the racism of our country. (In many ways, as the son of a police officer who never used his gun, I think the problem the police have today has more to do with the militarization of the police force that distances them from the community whom they serve and also encourages all too frequently the preemptory use of violent restraint and force, but that’s another, albeit related, matter.)

We need to understand that these two solidaristic groups are constitutive of the structures of social justice.  We need to remember the words of Pope Paul VI, “There can be no progress towards the complete development of the human person without the simultaneous development of all humanity in the spirit of solidarity.” (Populorum Progresssio, 3).  I found that quote in Meghan J. Clark’s outstanding, The Vision of Catholic Social Thought: The Virtue of Solidarity and the Praxis of Human Rights.  Clark rightly argues that solidarity is constitutive of the tradition of social justice in the Catholic common good tradition.  Indeed, she brings this insight into an important relationship with the human rights movement.   But she highlights too that as a virtue, solidarity stands between vices.  Uncritical fidelity and disregard of other’s liberties is not solidarity.  

The virtue of solidarity, deeply dependent on prudence and justice, is about the right struggle to attain an interdependence that guarantees rights for all.   Thus when any officer uses excessive force or racist profiling or worse the frequent combination of both, everyone suffers, the community of course, but the police and the African American communities in particular. When participants in movements like Black Lives Matter cry for or act with violent revenge, they compromise the message of the movement, and, when they are not censured by their ranks or by their leaders, everyone suffers, the community of course, but the African American communities and the police in particular.  

As we enter the final phase of the campaign elections, I am concerned that politics might compromise and manipulate the emerging discourse between police and Black Lives Matter.   Signs of that discourse are there.  I was never surprised but I was heartened both that Black Lives Matter decried the violent attacks on the police and that the President’s outreach to and correspondence with the police was warmly received.  While both sides might look at one another with enmity, underlying their emerging encounters I think is the possibility of true engagement.

We need therefore a bridging solidarity that must be measured by justice and prudence, but also by civility, tolerance, and humility.  While the lessons of civil discourse and the claims that only a solidarity rooted in justice and prudence is a true solidarity go largely ignored, we have our police and the leaders of Black Lives Matter each committed to justice and to the common good.  All the more reason for us to leave the sidelines for Black Lives Matter and the police, two true solidaristic movements, that recognize at least that we must confront the truth of racism in our land and that to get there that we need to stand with one another and learn from each other.

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James F. Keenan, SJ, is Canisius Professor at Boston College. His most recent book is University Ethics: How Colleges Can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics (Rowman and Littlefield).

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