About twelve years ago, I was walking the track on a prison yard at California State Prison-Lancaster with a couple of other guys and we were debating one of the most controversial topics in prison at the time. Who is better, Shaq or Kobe?
Round and round the yard we went, marching through the dust, absentmindedly nodding at the exact same people we'd nodded at the last time we'd circled the yard as we grew more and more passionate. Back and forth we went, making the same points over and over again, growing louder and louder as we became more and more entrenched in our positions.
For the record, I was a serious Kobe fan. A person had to be willfully blind to not see that Kobe was the second coming of Mike. No one cut to the hole like him, or made clutch shots on the basketball court the way he did. My nemesis (yes, it was that serious) was convinced that Shaq was a singular entity, bigger, faster, and stronger than anyone who had ever played the game before. Whatever.
As these debates usually do, this one eventually got personal. My opponent couldn't like Kobe because Kobe was a rapist. This was shortly after Kobe had been charged, and later settled a civil suit, for allegedly raping a hotel employee in Colorado. Normally, when this topic came up, it shut down the debate. After all, in prison there are a few things lower than men who commit crimes against women or children.
In desperation, I played my own trump card, "Yeah well... Shaq is THE POLICE!!" Stalemate. The only thing as bad as being a rapist in prison, is to be a cop.
That night after unit lock up, I replayed the conversation over again in my head because I was troubled. I'd been working for years by that point to shed my criminal thinking patterns and I was already striving to practice a law-abiding ethic. But in a moment of passion, I'd revealed that I still held a special animosity towards the police.
I already knew where my anger towards law enforcement came from. As a child growing up in one of the first interracial families to move to Ferguson, Missouri, I'd had many interactions with the police; some positive, the majority negative. Later, my general mistrust and hostility towards authority metastasized into a blanket hatred for the most obvious symbol of authority I knew. I internalized a belief that all police were the enemy and acted accordingly.
One thing I especially detested about the police was the way they would stereotype me and my friends as thugs; as if all young Black men were only good for selling drugs and committing other crimes. During the early stages of examining all of my beliefs after my arrest, I came to the uncomfortable realization that I was guilty of doing the exact same thing to law enforcement. Instead of seeing them as individuals who were neither all good nor all bad, and who approached their jobs with different mindsets, I'd dismissed all of the thousands of men and women around the country who serve to uphold the law as ignorant, racist hoodlums bent on locking me up for life, or killing me.
This is what doing work looks like. It is facing uncomfortable, often hidden faulty beliefs in yourself, and learning to empathize with the humanity of others. Just like I can acknowledge that Shaq is not all bad, even if he will never be the best Laker, I can also recognize that uniforms and jobs don't define people, their characters do. Today, I can honestly say that some of the most compassionate, kind people I know are correctional officers who refuse to accept the premise that C.O.s and incarcerated people are supposed to be antagonistic towards each other. I commend these women and men for rising above the expectations of formerly ignorant people like myself.