In mid-June, an old friend (I’ll call her Olivia) replied to an audio recording I’d made (14 minutes long). I’d sent it to a few of the folks we’d gone to grade-school with, one of the bizarre events that social-media has made run-of-the-mill. The recording was done spontaneously on my balcony, beer in hand; I’d started by celebrating the end of a long week, not sure at the time who I might end up sharing it with. But by the end, after I’d shared my impressions of demonstrations in Austin I’d partcipated in, even I was surprised to find myself in tears, over what’s befallen people at the hands of the police. I’d hesitated about sharing such a raw accounting with anyone, let alone folks with whom I’d been out of touch with for decades.
Olivia responded: It is good to see you care so much about people no matter their color. It makes me sad that you are okay with grouping all police as bad, just the thing you are fighting against for others. I think the majority of police are good people in a tough job and these good people need support too.
About a week later, I wrote her back:
Olivia, I think it’s telling that you chose to focus on what you think I said about police, while overlooking the opportunity to say anything at all about a) the people the police are killing, b) the thousands upon thousands of people who have turned out in the streets all over this country of ours to protest police killings, nor indeed anything at all about c) people of color in general, who for so long have been so systematically targeted for abuse, for incarceration and for death at the hands of the state. And I wonder why that is.
When you wrote It makes me sad that you are okay with grouping all police as bad, I stopped and thought: Whoa. Did I say that? So I went back and listened to the recording I sent, from start to finish. I did not say that; I wonder why you thought I did.
While I did not explicitly say I think all police are bad it’s obvious that you and I do have very different perspectives about the police in this country, and I’m genuinely curious as to why that is, too. You added: The majority of police are good people in a tough job, and these good people need support too.
When I hear people say the majority are good, I think: Uh-oh. Here it comes, bad apples: “The majority (of cops, soldiers) are good guys, but in every bunch there’s gonna be some bad guys.” [As an amateur linguist, I hope someone will let me know if they ever see “bad apples” used to describe protestors.]
Folks who think police are basically good are looking at the people in the system, the individuals, which pretty easily leads to thinking like: Well, to solve the “problem” of policing nowadays, all we’ve got to to is
1. invest even greater sums for training police, in diversity, in racial tolerance, in more peaceful ways of interacting with civilians, etc.
2. strengthen civilian police boards, or create them in the majority of places where they don’t even exist; and
3. come up with a whole bunch of other proposals predicated on the notion that we are dealing with a few bad apples,
rather than with a rotten system.
By now you may have heard about the roots of American policing: descended from slave patrols. By now you may have heard of Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book The New Jim Crow, which explores the school-to-prison “pipeline” and modern-day mass incarceration as only the logical extension of chain-gangs, and convict labor, and rounding up brown and black bodies not only as a means of social control, but to provide pools of cheap labor for the benefit of companies and state governments around the country. All of this machinery began being put in place following the failure of Reconstruction, and Eric Foner’s the man for any books about that period, a really talented and visionary historian.
So to talk about policing in this country as a problem of a few bad apples is to completely overlook the more complicated reality of a system of mass incarceration, for-profit prisons (?!!), massive injustice, and the state-sponsored terrorism that is part-and-parcel of the work of cops who even AFTER George Floyd’s gruesome public execution continue to shoot POC for the most trivial of violations.
You may find this the next bit the hardest part of all to stomach, but many of us have come to realize (much too late, but finally) that this criminal-”justice” system of ours is operating in exactly the way it was meant to.
One of the more recent (June 12) murders of a black man at the hands of American cops was Rayshard Brooks, in Atlanta: 27 years old, four kids! He told cops — who’d woken him from his sleep behind the wheel of his car, parked at a Wendy’s — that yes, he’d been drinking. These cops talked to him for 40 minutes!! and yet somehow after all that, Brooks still ends up shot in the back, dead.
I lived in Amsterdam for three years, and have some first-hand knowledge of Dutch cops and I’m telling you: the idea that they would wake up someone who was asleep in their car? I can’t imagine it. If you’ve had too much to drink, isn’t the sensible thing to get off the road? What happened to Rayshard Brooks, in my opinion, is only the latest, first-class example of over-policing. (By now you’ve probably heard the statistic that with just 5% of the world’s population, the USA has 25% of the world’s prison population. Ironic, isn’t it? In the Land of the Free?)
Just to give you some idea, and one tiny example, of the ridiculous way we ALL (but esp. the poor, and esp. people of color) are over-policed in this country, listen, for purposes of comparison, to the following tale.
One beautiful summer day in Amsterdam, me and a friend (a tourist) were drinking beer on a patch of grass near a canal. Two cops (both women) pulled up — on bikes, of course! — addressed us in Dutch, then realizing I was not Dutch, switched to flawless English, saying: Sir, do you know that it is illegal to drink beer like this in public? And somewhat sheepishly, I said: “Yes.” And one of them said, Fine. Please do not do this again, and then they rode away! They didn’t even ask us to pour our beers out before they left!
They did their policewomen’s duty of checking up on a couple of potential scofflaws. We were doing no one harm, and after they saw that (and after they’d made clear we knew we should not be doing that) they departed, because that was all that was required.
In a country where people took seriously the idea of the pursuit of happiness, no one asleep behind the wheel of their car parked safely in a parking lot would ever be awakened by cops for any reason, much less shot in the back 40 minutes later and killed.
Now, you and I know that would never happen in the USA, and in spite of all that, we all are continually propagandized to respect the police no matter what abominations they visit on our fellow citizens. Just imagine what cops were getting away with before everyone had a camera in their pockets! Look at what they get away with even when there IS video evidence of their crimes!
A headline in the New York Times (June 2):
Facing Protests Over Use of Force, Police Respond With More Force
Gosh, I could go on. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what I’ve got to say, and I do apologize. I didn’t mean to give you a whole essay to read, lol. But reading, researching and writing about what I’ve come to understand about things is one small way I’m trying to make a difference. Engaging others in the events of the day seems to me to have taken on a fresh importance.
Olivia, I’ve only got several more things to say about American police: (Ha! You thought I was wrapping this up, didn’t you!! Almost.)
All police are doing a job NO ONE asked them to do, and they apply for those jobs as police officers with a mix of motivations, which I won’t go into here.
In the USA, you ask someone what they do, and if they say I’m a policeman, it’s almost been turned into this Thank you for your service platitude that we’ve been mouthing like robots to soldiers for a few years now. But someone in Australia, for example, tells someone they’re a cop, and it would be as if they said they were a teacher, or a plumber, or an IT specialist. Australians, anyway, don’t look at the police as requiring glorification, and by and large tend to think of policing as just a job. Imagine that!
We are constantly told how dangerous their work is, a mostly false impression created by decades of TV shows and movies. Any cop will tell you that the great majority of their work is routine and administrative in nature: filling out reports, sometimes showing up in court. When they arrive at alleged crime-scenes, the action has often already taken place. All we ever see cops doing on TV and in the movies is high-speed chasing the bad guys, and shooting up drug-dealers (etc.) which sure does LOOK dangerous, but again, that’s Hollywood for ya. Yes, in real life, they sometimes respond to scenes of domestic violence; I’m not saying no cops ever face any danger. I am saying our impression of the dangers they face is wildly exaggerated. In the 2016 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, policing doesn’t even make the Top Ten.
Then these great heroes in blue of ours, when every once in a great while get dragged before a judge, what do they all say? They start out by making the man whose life they snuffed out into a giant monster (one cop literally described his victim as a “demon”), and then at the appropriate moment, proclaim: I was afraid for my life. This phrase has been turned by the Supreme Court into a magic talisman, whose utterance produces a Get Out of Jail Free card for any cop who kills anyone, in any circumstances, no matter how heinously or how unprovoked.
Of the five (or six) cops who contributed to the murder (July 2014) on a Staten Island sidewalk of Eric Garner (remember his crime? selling loose cigarettes?!), only one person at the scene has ever spent any time in jail, and that person was Ramsey Orta, the guy who shot the video, a Cop Watch activist. Staten Island cops were not going to let Orta get away with that, and they went after him with a vengeance: sent him off to four years behind bars for “possession” and a weapons charge. Gosh, they showed him. And they showed a lot of us what might happen if we dare to exercise our Constitutional right to film the police at work. (Orta is still alive, and was recently released.)
In March of last year, Javier Ambler was driving home from a friendly poker game in the early hours, when a Williamson County [Texas] sheriff’s deputy noticed that he failed to dim the headlights of his SUV to oncoming traffic. Twenty-eight minutes later, the 40-year-old black father of two sons lay dying on a North Austin street after deputies held him down and used Tasers on him four times while a crew from A&E’s reality show “Live PD” filmed. “I have congestive heart failure!” he repeatedly sobbed, as officers ordered him to turn face down on the ground. [more, still more]
The executive director of Color of Change Rashad Robinson has been waging a years-long war against the production companies which produce these disgusting spectacles of people at their worst, so one good thing that may come out of Amber’s barbaric murder at the hands of Williamson County’s Finest is national legislation prohibiting film-crews from riding along with active-duty cops. On Thursday, one of my favorite journalists conducted a really compelling interview with him, and who knows? Maybe a few Americans will start getting views of police work that are not quite so sensationalistic, so exaggerated, so basically misguided.
As we all should know, the safest neighborhoods are not the ones with a bunch of fences, and high-security prisons, and 24–7 policing. The safest neighborhoods are ones that have schools as good as the ones in neighboring districts, neighborhoods where most people have steady jobs that at least put enough food on the table for folks with roofs over their heads, that have playgrounds and rec centers where young people can meet and play together.
But at the end of the day, Olivia, you’re not a cop, and I’ve been wondering if you might be related to any police officers. (I am not, nor do I have any among my closest friends.) And so I think we should leave the last word to what it’s really like being a cop in this country .. to a police officer.
The article which I’ve linked to here was written by an American man who for ten years was “a police officer in a major metropolitan area in California, with a predominantly poor, non-white population”. I think that everyone interested in this new conversation the country is having about de-funding the police needs to hear what many police think about that, and this is yet another instance where I believe corporate media are seriously failing us. But anyway, see for yourself: A cop talks about what being a cop in the USA is all about (20 minutes).
I salute you for engaging in this discussion, Olivia! I hope to continue engaging like this (maybe again one day on Zoom?) for always greater understanding, and compassion. Power to the People! Make America Green Again!