Rebecca Hamilton is a former pro-abortion activist and leader. As the Oklahoma Director of NARAL, she helped establish the first abortion clinic in Oklahoma, and she continued her activism after being elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives. After experiencing a profound conversion to Christ, voters returned her to office as a pro-life Democrat and she spent twelve years defending life and families in the Oklahoma Legislature. Rebecca left her political career in 2014, and along with the National Catholic Register, she writes at Patheos on her blog Public Catholic.
I’ve been a bit hesitant to write about this, mainly because it sounds as if I’m blowing my own horn. But I’ve known since this tragedy of police violence and community reaction began that the fault lay primarily in the hands of do-nothing elected officials, and I’m beginning to feel as if I’m remiss in my responsibilities by not talking about my hard-earned inside understanding.
A situation as bad as the one we are now facing always has a number of causes. I think that the so-called press and its constant flogging of the American people has contributed greatly to the level of violence and disconnect we are seeing. They have engaged in hyperbole, lies and constant manipulation for far too long, and as always with these things, there is a payback. I’m going to try to write about that next.
But for now, let’s talk about the failure of elected officials to do their jobs and how that has led to this debacle. I’m going to use my own time in office and what I experienced and did to explain what I’m talking about.
The district I represented for 18 years has the lowest educational level, lowest income level, highest number of ex-offenders and highest number of immigrants of any district in Oklahoma. Despite this, I managed to maintain the peace and gain the cooperation of all the people who live there, no matter their race or condition.
How did I do this?
First, I represented all of them, and I refused absolutely to play them off against one another. I actually had to stand up in big meetings and tell them, like a mother scolding her children, that I represented all of them and that was the way it was going to be. This happened because they were angrily going at one another and trying to get me to take sides for one race or age group or sex against the other.
The only way an elected official can do this is by laying aside concerns about re-election and just doing the job in front of them. You cannot pander to their prejudices and hatreds and effectively represent a diverse set of people.
Second, and most important, you have to earn your constituents’ trust by actually doing the job you were elected to do, which is to be their voice—and not your political party’s voice, or special interests’ voice—in government.
You’ve got to go to bats for them, even if that means that the big boys with all the money and enough hubris to sink a battleship come at you and threaten you and call you everything but smart in their mouthpiece newspapers, radio and television stations. I’ve had some of the most powerful men in Oklahoma look at me and tell me that if I don’t toe the line, they are going to put money and force into my next election and “take me out.”
My reply: Not today you won’t. On that day, I was the representative for the people of my district and I was going to do my job and no amount of threats could change that. Tomorrow … well … we’d see about that when tomorrow got here.
If you do that sort of thing long enough, and if you add to it all the daily grind of interacting with and taking care of the needs of the people of your district, and if you add to that the practice of just telling them the truth and letting the chips fall on a daily basis, they learn to trust you. And if that happens, you can stand up in a meeting and tell them you are going to represent all of them and if they don’t like it they can get a representative they like better and have them quiet down and trust that you mean it and you will be there for all of them.
Now, what does all of this have to do with police violence? Just this. I represented these people two times. The first was in the 80s. Then, I had my first baby and quit to stay home and raise my family. Sixteen years later, I ran for the same office and was re-elected.
When I came back, I found a district in disorder. Among other things, the police were, to put it bluntly, taking advantage of the lack of leadership inside the district.
I had people from all over the area, people who didn’t know one another, telling me of police abuse that ranged from not answering calls to verbal abuse to actual and serious violence against innocent people, oftentimes, those who were trying to report a crime. I may very well have had the only district with an active and organized group of parents whose children were murdered in the jail.
Now, I could have done as the elected officials in areas where this violence has occurred seem to have done, and simply enjoy the perks and powers of elected office and let this continue. That’s the lazy, easy way. It’s what far too many elected officials are doing about the problems of their constituents all over this country.
Or, I could have demagogued the whole thing and made arm-waving speeches about them pooo-leees as many of my constituents called them. That would have made me a hero among the folk and given the illusion that I was representing my people without forcing me to do the hard work of actually representing them.
What I did instead was, with the help of some excellent police chiefs, fix the problem. It wasn’t rocket science, but it was work. And it did not involve me going out in public and being a big hero.
As I said, I represented that district for 18 years. During that time I dealt with a number of sheriffs and chiefs. Every single one of them was responsive, honest and cooperative when I talked to them about a community problem.
When I was re-elected after my 16-year hiatus, I was faced with a district that absolutely hated and feared the police. I was dealing with people who “took care of” their problems themselves, and who robbed, raped, beat and killed one another with depressing regularity. It was my responsibility to get this situation under control.
I did not lie to them and flog them with demagoguery in order to manipulate them according to my own political agendas. I did not attack the police and inflame the people entrusted to me to violence.
I knew, from dealing with them, that the cops on the beat in that area were scared. In fact, they were frighteningly scared. Nobody with a badge and a gun who is that scared is safe to be around.
What I did was call the police chief and say, Let’s have lunch.
I told them, we have a problem, and we need to work together to solve it. I told them about the unanswered calls, threats, verbal abuse and violence from the police. I told them that my constituents hated and feared the police and that, as a politician, my surest bet for getting votes would be to attack the police. But that I had no interest in doing that. I wanted to help the people of my district and the police solve their problems.
After that, I had meeting after meeting with big numbers of constituents and the police, with me refereeing. That was work too, you know. It meant arranging the meeting place, notifying the public, and getting everybody together. Then it meant keeping things on track during the meetings and following up afterwards.
Sometimes, things got a bit gnarly. Them pooo-leees inadvertently —and it was inadvertent, they didn’t come there to start a fight—said things that sounded like disrespect to the people. I had to jump in and take my constituents’ side in the argument. It was usually pretty easy to do that.
For instance, when they said crime wasn’t all that bad, I told the story of the drive-by that had happened in my own block just a few days before. Or when they said that there were areas of the district where they were afraid to go, my constituents pointed to little church lady me and said, She’s not afraid. She goes everywhere.
Then, I had to be available 24/7 to my constituents as they interacted with the police, and I had to be the bridge between them. The breaking point was surprisingly easy. Some of my constituents called in a problem. Then, the whole neighborhood sat out in their front yards, waiting to see if them pooo-lees showed up. No one did.
I called the chief the next day and learned that the officer in question had reported that he’d come out and “cleared” the problem. The chief and I both knew that this officer had just skipped doing his job and lied about it.
End of problem.
Within just a very few months, the people were taking cookies to the police station to thank them. I stopped getting calls about police who didn’t come, or who cursed and threatened little old ladies, or who assaulted innocent constituents. There was also a huge drop in drive-bys, and other such. Things settled down.
I’m not writing this to tell you I did a good job representing the people of my district. I know I did a good job. I am writing it to chide the elected officials out there to start doing their jobs.
I want to emphasize that I was able to do what I did because of the power of the office I held. This was not my power; it belonged to the people of my district. When I left office, the power didn’t go with me. It remained where it belonged; in the office itself.
The people of my district had chosen me—elected me—to exercise that power on their behalf. It was not mine to use for myself or for special interests. It was vested in me for a few years so that I could use it to represent them and their interests in the halls of government.
Our elected officials in this country—from Congress on down—have abdicated their responsibilities. All they do is demagogue and jockey for political position for their party in the next election.
Their loyalties lie with the puppeteers who paid for their campaigns and the extreme and bizarre economic and moral ideologies they use to explain their dereliction of duty. They lie, shout, scream and perform. But they do not do the jobs they were elected to do.
I will admit that doing the job of work they applied for is a lot more gritty than attending expensive dinners and getting stroked by lobbyists.
People who’ve been in office too long start avoiding their old friends and even their family because those folks —the ones who honestly love them—treat them like normal people. Being treated like normal people feels terrible to them after all the flattery and puffery they’ve been getting from the shills.
Constituents are even less obliging when it comes to politician flattery. They will tie into you and tell you exactly what they think and what they want you to do. As they should. After all, you work for them.
Or you should.
Politicians who are beamed in on a beam of corporate money and who have not done the jobs they were elected to do are a big part of the reason why we are caught in this upward-ratcheting battle between whole communities and the police. The elected officials are the point at which the system is breaking down.
Somebody needs to call elected officials out for their failure to do their jobs. I guess I’m doing that, right now.