On policing, institutions, and individuals

It was September 2012, and I was in New York City to medic the Occupy anniversary protests. It was dark, and I was walking with my medic buddy to stash their pack. My medic buddy was homeless at the time, this pack had all their posessions. The NYPD and Zuccotti Park security wouldn’t let them bring the pack into the park because it was “too big.” They had already tried to stash it, with permission of the WikiLeaks people, on the WikiLeaks truck, but that had nearly ended in disaster when the police made the truck move, so they found a friend who was willing to let them stash the pack at the friend’s office, which was near Wall Street. Which was somewhat difficult to navigate because the police had blocked large parts of the area off.

We walked up to a barricade that was being policed by three very bored officers keeping watch in the night, all black women, two of whom looked to be in their early 20s and one a few years older. We started chatting with them. They were happy to have something to do. They had never heard of street medics before, so we explained in a gentle way about providing first aid. Maybe we were a little overly-gentle, because they missed an obvious implication about why protests could need their own first aid. “Oh, so you help if someone falls?” My medic buddy, wanting to make the point about police brutality but also not wanting to piss them off, tried for tact*. “Yes, if someone falls, and also things like, um, blunt-force injuries!” I think the slightly-older cop got it, because she gave us a Look. The other two, probably a couple of rookies, did not. After about 15 minutes of guarded but genuinely pleasant chatting, we went on our way. The slightly-older cop told us to be safe tomorrow. “You too,” we said.

I keep hearing people, including relatives, claim that Black Lives Matter protesters and supporters hate cops – meaning, that they hate all individual cops as individuals. I heard it, explicitly and implicitly, from a lot of irate bystanders at last night’s New Year’s Eve action, in ways ranging from straight-up calling us cop-haters and telling us to shut the fuck up, to shouting “Cop lives matter!” at us (I overheard a few interesting comments from cops, too, including one telling another that people are protesting because they’re “angry at their parents”).

Look, there’s a lot of diversity within the movement, and all activist movements (whether their cause is directly related to policing or not) that interact with cops, when it comes to how people feel about cops. But so many people are taking anger about our *institutions* of policing, our patterns of policing, the politics of our policing, the difficulty in holding police accountable, and acting as though it were about individuals and hatred of those individuals. And our institutions of policing are deeply at odds with what holding people accountable for violating the law would look like in a just society. I have a previous post that links to numerous articles and studies documenting this. Here are some more.

There are police who understand this too. Reuters had an interesting recent report in which they interviewed 25 black current and former NYPD officers and found that 24 had, while off-duty, experienced racial profiling (and five had had guns pulled on them) by their own colleagues (and had great difficulty, and sometimes experienced retaliation, when they reported to Internal Affairs). MAMLEO, the association for police of color in Massachusetts, was so unhappy about racism and sexism within Boston’s police union that they were willing to team up with a campaign of Occupy Boston activists in order to publicize the problem. Redditt Hudson, a former St Louis police officer, joined the police hoping to help his community, but was overwhelmed by the problems with the institution and now works against police abuse with the NAACP and the ACLU of Missouri. Seriously, read his piece at that last link. He articulates the systemic aspects of the issue clearly.

I didn’t hate those cops that I talked to on a September night in 2012. Even when it comes to departments that I particularly have a problem with, I don’t hate most of the individual cops who work for them. When I’m medicking at protests, and I’m near the front line during a standoff, I will often just look at them, with a neutral, vaguely interested expression on my face, wondering what they see when they look back at me, and wishing that we all existed in a better system.

*In contrast, this same medic once, when asked by a cop if they were a street medic, answered brightly, “Yep! You beat ‘em, we treat ‘em!”

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