The police have already lost. The sooner they realize it, the sooner this nation can recover trust and respect for law enforcement. For a long time, white America could ignore the police state that people of color have lived in for generations. The occasional eruptions of mass police violence would fade from collective memory with the next news cycle. Most cops aren’t like that, we tell ourselves. Most cops are good people. There are bad apples in every profession.
But police are different. Bad-cop apples inflict brutality and death. Bad apples flock to a profession where a uniform, a gun, and the law itself confer the illusion of personal power. Most urban police departments were founded with the mission of keeping blacks and poor immigrants from encroaching on well-to-do white areas. For decades, urban police had the explicit mandate to “keep drugs in the black neighborhoods”. In Chicago, with the 1969 murder of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, the war on blacks devolved into targeted assassination. The killings by Chicago police were ruled “justifiable homicide”; the two men were asleep at the time.
Behind it all is racism, born and nurtured to justify slavery and never abandoned. After the Civil War, returning Confederate soldiers set about assassinating black leaders and even massacring free black communities. It was those killings that stiffened the North’s resolve to support free blacks during Reconstruction. The endless whining that Reconstruction was a tyranny imposed on the south in which “scalawags” and “carpetbaggers” ran rough-shod over southern rights, is a lie still taught throughout the nation. The south waged war on the Union; of course, there would be repercussions, but the real complaint was that blacks dared claim equal rights to whites. Once Reconstruction was sold out in the 1876 presidential electoral college deal, the unrepentant racism of southern whites, sharpened by the humiliation of defeat, whipped back at blacks with a vengeance via Jim Crow laws, voter disenfranchisement, and continued murder and violence. “Birth of a Nation”? More like business as usual.
So when we see pictures of lynchings in the 1920s and 1930s, with men, women, and children celebrating a dangling, castrated, incinerated black man, we realize those are the children of the same white slaveowners and soldiers for whom the Civil War was a devastating defeat and who killed black Americans who dared be free. The children in the crowd and the adults forty and younger were the screaming adults who spit on black children on their way to integrate southern schools in the 1950s and 1960s. Or murdered Medgar Evers, or Cheney, Schwerner, and Goodman, or Viola Gregg Liuzzo, or screamed “Fry the goddamn niggers” as they burned a bus of Freedom Riders in Alabama, all of whom did escape with the aid of Alabama state police. Many became law enforcement officers by day and Klansmen by night. That is not the only southern reality, but it was sizable enough to spawn a national culture of violence and police repression. This racism was not restricted to the South. The Klan was often more powerful in the midwest and rural areas of New York State and Pennsylvania than in southern states.
New themes continually fuel racism’s fires even as old flames burn out. Twelve years ago the United States elected a black president and many felt that at last we had turned a corner. Instead, Barack Obama, and his wife, became objects of ridicule, hatred, and vicious political backlash. These two dignified, brilliant people provoked a resurgence of white supremacism, a pledge by a Republican Congress never to pass any legislation proposed by President Obama, and an outbreak of racist rhetoric that Donald Trump rode to victory in 2016. Hate crimes are up sharply since Trump was elected, aimed at Jews as well as Blacks, Latinos as well as Muslims.
Everything about Donald Trump proclaims him a coward and a bully. When you see someone who constantly boasts about being the best at everything, say, Kim Jung-un of North Korea, or the repellent loudmouth at a party who brags about “grabbing pussy”, or the person who talks constantly about his possessions, do you think “There goes a real leader…A real man…He must be really secure with who he is.”? And when he attacks and mocks ethnic groups, uses surrogates to imprison them (or beat them up, to keep the analogy consistent), fires anyone who tries to rein in his reckless decisions, and shows not a shred of sympathy for those whom his actions hurt but instead spews hatred and threats, does any sane person think, “That’s presidential material. That guy must be a great father. I hope my child grows up just like him.”?
Of course not. Then why do tens of millions of Americans follow and even revere him?
There’s only one answer. They identify with him. They share his values. They are as weak and fearful as he is. Racism itself is a sign of self-hatred and cowardice. That one chooses to live their one life filled with blame and contempt for another group based on one arbitrary trait is a rejection of life, of decency, of heart and mind for the dubious pleasures of finding a scapegoat for whatever it is that makes one feel like crap.
And the proof is in the videos and photos documenting this past week’s protests.
A cop holding the barrel of a rubber bullet gun in the face of a black male protester standing peacefully with a little girl on his shoulders. If the cop shoots from a foot away, the father will likely die. His daughter will tumble to the pavement with him.
Charleston, SC, police rush a group of kneeling protesters and seize a young black man addressing police by saying “You are all my family. We are all together here…” They grab and arrest him.
Such visuals tell us that the police have lost this war. They lost when protesters who tried to speak with them were met with silence behind gas masks and riot gear and billy clubs and flash bombs and tear gas. They lost because they couldn’t let their fellow cops think they were soft. Pussies. Weak. They had to be strong men. Strong like Trump. As close to robo-cops as possible.
But it’s not just their fault. Oh, there’s a fair number like the one who said to one Boston protester: “Touch me. Go ahead. Just touch me.” Actually, that’s got a “Make my day” ring to it. But it’s not a movie. It’s the mantra of a violent thug.
Hundreds of such images and accounts are circulating the Internet. The rest of the world, already repelled by the circus clown president, is watching as America falls to pieces.
You’ve lost, men in blue. You lost when Philadelphia police posed for photos with armed white goons who attacked bystanders and protesters in Philly’s Fishtown while shouting racist and homophobic slurs. Philly’s mayor and police chief condemned the vigilantes and the posing cops. Culture wars are won when a critical mass of people come to a powerful realization together. And whether they want to or not, the police are doing their best to make us realize that a change is gonna come.
But what about all the good cops? Tens of thousands of dedicated, honest police officers put themselves on the line every day to serve and protect. That is a fact that cannot be dismissed. But they too have been shut down by a culture of intimidation and a code of silence as rigid as any omerta. And that code prevails because the thugs are not just a few bad apples but a sizable portion of many law enforcement departments. It’s a code enforced in the locker room, in hiring practices, in how veterans initiate rookies, in all the ways a culture is transmitted. And often with a racist sub-text that can be dangerous to question.
When police riddle a man or woman’s body with bullets as they reach for a cell phone or key, it’s tragedy. When they justify the killing by saying, “We feared for our lives. We thought it was a gun”, it’s cowardice. And when they are supported by police and city officials, it is police state oppression, pure and simple. When a grandmother is shot as she waves a kitchen knife in a state of confusion, and it’s justified by saying she attacked with a weapon?—hell, I could have disarmed her. Probably a nine year old kid could have gotten her to put down the knife. And the list can go on and on. Yet we see those same cops doing their best imitations of men of steel as they face down unarmed protestors.
Yet there are signs of change. Chattanooga’s Police Chief David Roddy stated that any officer who didn’t have an issue with how George Floyd was treated, should turn in his badge. Many officers nation-wide knelt with demonstrators. Many more engaged in real conversation with protesters. There was the extraordinary gesture of Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson in Flint, Michigan, when he asked the demonstrators what they wanted from him and his deputies. When they chanted “Walk with us! Walk with us!” that’s exactly what he and his officers did. Or former Deputy Defense Secretary James Miller, Jr., who resigned from his current DoD post with a blistering letter to Mark Esper, Trump’s Secretary of Defense, telling Esper that he had violated his oath to the Constitution by tear-gassing and clearing out peaceful demonstrators at D.C.’s St. John’s Cathedral so that Trump could have a photo op there—holding a Bible.
That is leadership. That is strength. When Joe Biden spoke after speaking with the Floyd family, his anger and anguish were genuine. There were no cliches of “balanced perspective” or bland tributes to the progress that’s been made. He denounced the poison of racism in America more strongly than any white politician of comparable national stature has done in decades and he demanded change now, change for all our sakes.
On June 28, 1969, the NYPD, as police had done countless times, assaulted patrons of a gay bar, this time the Stonewall Bar in Greenwich Village, dragging them into the street. To most of these cops, gays were a perverse distortion of masculinity, “faggots”, “pussies”, “perverts”, objects of ridicule and hatred and cops knew they had a free pass to beat on them and humiliate them any chance they got. Only this time the gay patrons of Stonewall fought back and were joined by neighborhood sympathizers. For six days they battled police and when it was over, the political and social landscape for gays in America was transformed. It was still going to be a long, hard battle marked with numerous gay bashings, police harassment, legal fights, and unforgivable delays in the quest for an AIDS treatment. But nothing was ever the same again and, needless to say, police could no longer expect to play the bullies without having a full-scale counter-attack on their hands.
Well, we may be witnessing America’s Stonewall. Derrick Chauvin has been arrested for the murder of George Floyd. It only happened because of protest. His three associates should, and may still, be arrested as accessories to murder. Cops have been put on notice. The blue wall of silence is no longer politically expedient. We have seen the cowardice, the racism, the excess that it protects. And we no longer believe. We can’t hear another whining excuse about the cell phone they thought was a gun or the choke hold that went too far.
Yes, there are lots of good cops. But it’s not enough to be good and silent. And for all you so-called “moderates” out there who don’t support Trump’s excesses but still vote for him, you have to wake up too. You cannot support a man who courts white supremacists and encourages their race hatred. You cannot support a man who violates the Constitution and the laws of the land. If you support him because you think a nine-time-bankrupt mafia-backed real estate developer brings useful business expertise to the White House, fine. Find another candidate businessman. But if you support this odious creature for any reason whatsoever then you support the worst of what he is and does. You are complicit.
And if all you good cops out there turn away and refuse to condemn the excesses of the racist cops, violent cops, the cops who clearly committed serious crime, then you are as bad as they are.
And that’s what a critical mass of Americans now believe. The old police culture has lost. It will kick and scream and hurl tear gas and make stupid pronouncements that “an investigation has shown that the officers in question felt they were being threatened” and all the rest, but it’s over.
But something has to take its place.
At this point, we need leadership. Not the lip-service to injustice so many politicians recite like a memorized school lesson. At a vigil on June 2nd, in Boston’s Franklin Park, police came roaring in on motorcycles and squad cars, sirens blaring, right up to the front lines of a peaceful vigil. Many of the motorcycles edged back and forth as if they were about to rush the crowd. Has the mayor lost control of the police? Has the police chief? Or was this tactic planned in advance?
If a politician wants to exercise real leadership, let them proclaim a day of healing where they lead a march of police and protesters together in support of a new era in police relations. Bring the community into dialog with the cops, not in some committee stashed out of sight for a year that then issues conclusions everybody already knows. We need an ongoing process in every precinct in the city. This can be messy. It can generate frivolous charges against the police and make their jobs more dangerous. Police concerns must be addressed as well. Do we want more years of killings and riots and growing mistrust? The time to change is now. The old guard has lost. Let’s hope the new guard can embrace an apporach to law enforcement that serves every community, whether police, neighborhoods of color, or those many citizens who can no longer sit in their backyards and ignore this rampant violence and injustice.