John Alan Reese, U.S. Marine, former police officer, and American immigrant to Norway, reflects on systemic racism, police violence, and change
The Norwegian American
Shortly after the killing of George Floyd, Norwegian broadcasting company NRK published a story about an American living in Norway who responded to the ongoing protests against police violence against Black people. The man is John Alan Reese, an inactive U.S. Marine, a former Chicago area police officer, and, as he puts it, a lifelong Black man.
Reese, who lives in Drammen, is also a powerlifter, active musician, stand-up comedian, and the host of “The Comin’ Home Podcast with John Alan” (johnalanpod.com).
His podcast got the attention of Norwegian media, leading to an NRK radio interview, where Reese, in his Norwegian dialect with dashes of Nordnorsk, Vestlandsk, and a splash of Hallingmål (thanks to the Norwegian band, Hellbillies), responded to the systemic racism that permeates American society.
Reese’s perspectives are rich, and his ear—and heart—are sensitive to both American and Norwegian culture. With empathy, humility, and moral fortitude, he speaks to Norwegians and Americans alike about the current moment, centuries in the making. He is also full of hope.
I contacted him, and he generously met with me for an extensive, free-flowing conversation over video chat to share his perspectives here. Reese is a profound believer in good-faith dialogue, and he expressed interest in hearing our readers’ responses, which can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andy Meyer: How did you end up in Norway?
John Alan Reese: I’m born and raised in Ohio. I joined the U.S. Marines; I had four years of active duty. I then found myself in the south Chicago area and became good friends with the great powerlifter, Ed Coan. His girlfriend at the time, from Norway, started talking to me about this girlfriend of hers. I wasn’t interested, but she came back the next year to visit, and we clicked. We ended up marrying in 2001. I tell people, it was a Friday night, everything was fine, I woke up on Sunday, and I was in Norway, that’s how quick it happened. It was in 2002 we moved to Norway.
We lived in Buskerud for a couple years, and then we moved up north. My wife is Sámi, and her family is up in the Alta area. We moved to Nordreisa in Nord Troms for several years until we moved to Drammen in 2014 because of job opportunities. She’s a psychiatric nurse. If it were up to me, we’d still be up north. Northern Norway reminds me of my childhood in Ohio, the remoteness of it, the down-to-earth people, a place where everybody knows everybody.
AM: Are you still an American citizen?
JAR: I still have my American citizenship. I’ll never give that up; that has to do with identity. As crazy as things are back home, I’m still an American. It’s very interesting, since I’ve been here, I’m more aware of my Americanness, and my Blackness.
AM: As both a former police officer and a Black man, what’s your reaction to the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing protests?
JAR: Norway’s TV2 asked me about my loyalties, as a Black man and also a former cop. I told them, my loyalty is to what is right, and I distance myself from what is wrong. I’m a former cop, but I’m still a Black man. Obviously, there is a problem in the police culture in the United States. But I don’t want to be one of those people who say that all cops are bad. What I say is that enough cops are bad to where we need systematic change. And it’s not just policing, it’s also the whole judicial system. To me, there’s really no debate about whether or not there’s systematic racism. Why can’t white supremacists say it the way it really is: “Yeah there’s systemic racism, but we don’t care.”
Fear is part of it. When Black people begin to talk about reparations, it instills fear in a lot of white people, and I don’t think it should, because if we were saying we want revenge, yeah, be afraid, but we’re not saying that. And a lot of us aren’t even asking for reparations. It’s a question of right and wrong: we want to right the wrong. So, again, I’m a former cop, but I’m a lifelong Black man.
AM: I get the impression, too, that there is a “warrior” and “brotherhood” mentality in police culture; you stand up for your own. Do you have sympathy for that, as a former cop?
JAR: I understand the brotherhood and sisterhood thing. I felt that very much as a U.S. Marine, and to be able to continue with a similar sense of belonging as a police officer meant a lot to me. But I look at it like this: You are my brother, we wear the same uniform, we save lives together, we try to help society together. But do I want my brother to be a racist? Do I want my brother to destroy lives by discrimination? I have to put my honor in this job, and I cannot expect my colleagues to do anything less, and if they do anything less, I’ve got to call them out on that. And that comes from my time in the Marines. You have a responsibility. The brotherhood can be there. That’s a beautiful asset, but it must be held accountable.
I had a warrior attitude when I was a cop, but an attitude of a peace warrior. We always had cowboy cops back in my day, but something is happening today where there’s more of them, so you don’t hear that phraseology, peace warrior, anymore, there’s just warrior. They act as if they’re at war in some of these predominantly Black neighborhoods, and that doesn’t belong on the streets of America.
When I think of a warrior, I think of mental fortitude, of discipline, of a sense of justice. I feel that too many cops have lost that sense of responsibility. It’s this warrior, battlefront attitude. There’s a sickness in the police force.
AM: What about calls to “defund” the police?
JAR: I think that what needs to be done to cure this sickness is exactly that. But first of all, let me talk about terminology. I think “defund the police” is a horrible way of labeling your solution. That sounds scary and negatively large. We need a large change, but let’s call it something else. How about “reappropriation of funds,” because I truly believe—and I saw this during my time as a police officer—if there was more focus on treating addiction as a sickness rather than running them through the justice system and jailing them—all that’s doing is building that negative relationship between these communities and the police. So, funding toward addiction treatment would take a huge burden off the police. I think the police issue would mostly fix itself if we put the proper financial focus on the problems within these communities.
AM: Right, it’s about treating people with dignity.
JAR: The way policing is done puts trauma on these Black neighborhoods. It’s constant harassment, creating yet another generation of Black kids who grow up to be Black adults who don’t trust the police. We have to do away with that kind of policing.
AM: I’ve had debates with relatives who say, “But look at our Scandinavian ancestors who came here with nothing and built a life for themselves.” I say, yes, but they got the benefit of the system because of their race.
JAR: Yeah, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “How can you expect the Black man to lift himself up by his bootstraps when he doesn’t have any boots?” You can say to those people that it’s not true that they came to the United States with nothing. They came with white skin, and that was quite valuable.
AM: How, in your experience, do these issues compare with Norwegian society?
JAR: I think it’s a deeper problem than Norway is willing to admit. I can tell you from my own experience. On three different occasions, we were not able to buy a home because I’m Black. [Once,] my wife and I were speaking English at a showing, but I think that the real-estate agent and homeowner thought that we didn’t understand Norwegian, so the homeowner says to the agent, “I will not sell this home to that n-word and ruin this neighborhood.”
So, there are issues here, but I have never once feared for my physical safety because of my color. I’m not going to be naïve and say that the Norwegian police don’t treat foreigners differently, because there’s documented evidence that they do that, but I don’t fear for my safety, and that is a relief.
I get an anxiety attack every time someone like George Floyd is murdered by the police, because I always put myself in their shoes. “What if that was me?” My wife says,“What if you get pulled over by the police in some town in the States, and they tell you to put your hands in the air?” Well, I’m recovering from a major shoulder surgery, so I cannot raise this arm. So, what if they told me to get both hands up, and I can’t, and some unhinged, possibly racist cop could use that as an excuse to—you know, just follow the storyline.
AM: I recently read a Pew Research Center study from 2017 in which 92% of white police officers thought the United States “has made the changes needed to assure equal rights for Blacks and whites,” while only 29% of Black officers say the same.
JAR: That says a lot right there. I think there’s a lack of empathy. A lot of white people go automatically on the defensive whenever the word race is brought up and it stifles the conversation. And if you’re not having the conversation, you’re not going to bring about the change. White people cannot be afraid to talk about it, to acknowledge that our history and our present day is what it is. There is systemic racism. Even the card-carrying Klansman knows there is systemic racism; the question is, “Do you care?” And if you care, then dialogue is the key.
AM: Yeah. Back to police unions—your face lit up when I mentioned them.
JAR: I am a believer in police unions. They serve their purpose. But they should serve their purpose and nothing more. So many times, the evidence is there, a cop should be convicted, or there should be a proper sentence. But the union has so much influence that they get in the way of justice. Of course, the union should be there to protect officers, to negotiate better wages and working conditions, but it should not allow a murderous cop to get away with it.
I do believe that an officer in good faith can make the wrong decision, which can cost a life or injure someone severely. And the union can be instrumental in showing that there was no malicious intent. But in cases like with George Floyd, that was about as malicious as you can get. Let’s have the union advocate for an officer so that he also gets justice, but the word morality should mean something.
AM: Lastly, a lot of people are pushing back on some of the more violent reactions to the killing of George Floyd. What’s your response to the question of legitimacy in violent reaction?
JAR: While it is very sad to see the rioting, I understand it, because in a lot of these neighborhoods we’re talking about post-traumatic stress disorder that can manifest itself as violence. But I see a clear barrier between the protesters and the rioters. I think some of them are local people who are angry, some are criminals who see an opportunity, and some are outside agitators, who come in to disrupt the protest with which they disagree. The people who have been suffering: I understand their anger. The criminals: I understand their criminality; they’re going to take an opportunity. The right-wing extremist groups: I understand why they’re trying to disrupt the protests.
But what gives me hope is that now we’re seeing fewer and fewer riots and more and more protests, and within those protesters, I’m seeing more and more white faces. Black people have been talking for 400 years, so we’re probably not going to make the change ourselves—we need more white allies. And I’m seeing that in the people out in the streets protesting: it’s a beautiful thing. It seems like it is a movement for the nation, it’s not just a movement for Black people.
If our weakest and most disadvantaged people are actually doing well and being treated well, just imagine what that will do for our country. So, it’s in everyone’s interest. Some people are walking around in ignorance. And maybe they’ve never had a Black friend; maybe they never really understood what it is like. So there’s no anger in it when I use that word ignorance, but now people are getting informed, now people are getting involved, and it’s just beautiful to see.
This article originally appeared in the July 10, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.