Leonard Pitts: ‘Respect your local police. Or else?’

Let’s get two things straight right off the bat.

The first is that, in the last few years, no one has protested police wrongdoing more vociferously than African Americans.

The second is that no one has had more reason.

Those reasons include Darrius Stewart, Oscar Grant, Jordan Edwards, John Crawford III, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Terence Crutcher, Sandra Bland, Sean Bell, Rekia Boyd, Botham Jean, Antwon Rose, Amadou Diallo, Anthony Hill, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Freddie Gray, LaQuan McDonald, Stephon Clark, Corey Jones, Atatiana Jefferson and all the other African Americans (almost all of them unarmed) who have inexplicably wound up dead from their encounters with law enforcement.

So when Attorney General William Barr complains about certain unspecified “communities” protesting against police, let there be no confusion over who he’s referring to. This came in a speech at the Justice Department last week before an audience of cops and prosecutors. Barr compared protests against the Vietnam War a half century ago to those against police misbehavior now.

Americans, he said, "have to start showing, more than they do, the respect and support that law enforcement deserves." He warned that "if communities don't give that support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection they need."

It was a threat wrapped in an axiom: "respect your local police." And who can disagree with the axiom? Police have a difficult and sometimes dangerous job. When they do it well, they are absolutely deserving of our esteem. "Respect your local police," indeed.

But “respect your local police — or else?” Respect them or the next time you ask them to provide services to which you are entitled as a citizen and a taxpayer, they might — what? — refuse? And where is the First Amendment in all of this? Are we to accept that government will henceforth punish communities that exercise their right of protest?

Barr's threat is superfluous evidence of the moral rot that has infested American governance since January 20, 2017. It is also a deeply fascistic expression of contempt for the Constitution he purportedly upholds. Coming from the nation's chief law enforcement officer, it amounts to a wink and a nod of implicit permission for bad cops to do bad things, knowing the government will always give them "respect," regardless of their crimes.

But respect is a two-way street.

Where was the respect for John Crawford III's right to shop at Walmart? Where was the respect for Corey Jones' right to wait by his disabled car? Where was the respect for Atatiana Jefferson's right to play video games in her bedroom? And yes, where even was the respect for Walter Scott's right to foolishly flee a traffic stop without being executed for it?

Where is the respect for our right to say that this is wrong?

Lord knows that it desperately needs saying, especially given that most police officers who do such things will never answer for their crimes, that prosecutors will refuse to indict or juries to convict. So that a badge and a gun amount to an implicit license to kill.

Again no serious person disputes that good police are worthy of regard. But our blanket refusal to take seriously killing after killing after killing of unarmed African Americans, our insistence on holding these particular public servants above accountability, argue persuasively that Barr has it exactly wrong. He thinks we give police too little respect.

Truth is, we give them too much.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com