What Do We Do About Police? A True Story
I have to start with a confession: in January it will be seven years since I had a confrontation that profoundly changed my life.
Back in those days I was a high school English teacher at a bad-reputation campus in north Philadelphia, which was nowhere near as tough as they pretended to be. I was pretty good at my job, or at least I had most of the students’ attention. I was a showman, my classroom discipline so lax it would sometimes lead to fistfights. Many of the children were mentally ill, broken by the disconsolate backgrounds they would never have a chance to overcome. The abused ones were mostly either sexually exploited and/or emotionally wallopped, their lives reduced to doubt, hopelessness, shame and rage. These children were ignored except when a parent was lonely and needed a friend. Sometimes, when they were younger, they might instruct their children to throw themselves down the stairs of their school to get a big district paycheck, the child a lottery ticket hoping to avoid serious damage. Yet there were these few moments, overjoyed, maybe listening to the same song or rooting for the same athlete, a few times over a year that these broken children believed they could understand love.
Of course most of the students weren’t anywhere near so bleak, their lives the same ordinary, dull, mostly lower-middle class yearning mixed with dreams of stardom in the future, like any 21st century teen. My style in the classroom, however, was confrontational (‘Confrontational learning,’ I would sometimes arrogantly boast in a staff meeting to nervous, by the book, endlessly boring fellow teachers, ‘is how you teach these kids to find themselves.’)
I told myself that it was my job to challenge every one of my students to consider exactly what it was they actually believed. In writing assignments I would declare “no censorship.” I would tell them, academically, “that your opinion might be this is the worst piece of shit I have ever read the first four pages of,” and I’d say that was “a valid criticism. But your job here is to tell me why. . . .” I taught them the style of writing I perform, and have tried to develop, self-assured enough to call myself a writer: beautiful language and no hope; a terribly blunt assessment of everything that bothers me. I tried teaching them to find their own voices, to know who they were. It was a remarkably satisfying experiment, occasionally even successful.
I had this one student — a 9th grader, barely literate. He was a cool little kid: genuinely nice and funny enough to keep his angrier, bigger friends from taking out their rage on him.
Now this kid, this kid, he was a horrible yet very active student. He was wracked with some difficult sort of learning disability, which my wife could explain, being the truly masterful middle school special education teacher that she is, a master at diagnosis. He was a smiling dope who knew little more than Kobe Bryant’s season average and how to get high.
Anyway, the assignment given, coming correspondent to the latest end-of-the-world craze, 2012 and the Mayan calendar, was meant to be fun. We were going on Christmas break, and I gave them an until the New Year’s assignment to “write at least five entries — I don’t care if each is five years apart! — telling of your first person experiences in a post-apocalyptic world. Make it a diary, draw a comic book if that’s your will. You have survived and the world is very different — go!” I had to add that I didn’t want any zombie stories. I received a few, a letter grade lower no matter how good because they didn’t listen.
So we get back to school and this sweet, barely literate boy is excited, bouncing around. “Mr. — — -! Yo, I got it!”
What he offered me was a hand-written doodle, six plus pages, the text filled in microscopically, the symbols indecipherable. He got an A. His story went up on the “Best” papers I had posted in the classroom (along with the usual and required “Good work!” pasteboard, and the sneering space I selected once a week for “Worst,” a thing good-natured students would try to avoid because I would humiliate them). He told me a little about his story and he had clearly worked incredibly hard, perhaps taking the whole time over vacation to devise his masterpiece. He got an A. This is one of my proudest moments as a teacher.
Anyway, I was tired, exhausted, not a morning person, one who has to arrive at work before seven AM to claim a copy machine in the office to make 120 slow-moving copies to distribute the new syllabus for the next unit’s requirements (there is a submitted rigid curriculum one is required to outline, quoting a basic education degree textbook with uncertain code numbers like 3:1 and 7.4e, defining the academic standards that the state imposes. Most of us just repeated lesson plans, the same thing over and over, shifting the numbers, the only thing our superiors looked at).
So you scribble out your corporate document, then return to the classroom and do anything you want. One doesn’t teach morality — for this they get fired. One can only teach, at its most controversial, a cold middle ground — what is right and wrong? You decide —
Yet why? That has always been the question. Why do things happen? There is no use to descend into secular margins and suffer the endless theories of who and what, sometimes where, while why is disappointingly answered with ‘because god told us so.’
This is a question we tend to avoid, all of us. Why do things happen? Is it a conspiracy against only me?
Because that’s what we think, in those frustrated moments, our selfish generation coming to a head, then saying ‘fuck you’ to the rest of the world; leaving whatever mess we’ve made for our children; those frightened, desolate, survivors of childhood. The misery we leave is tremendously cluttered, all with our shouting and certainty and conflicted faiths. Those kids we’ve never taught how to pick up the pieces of their lives then go out into an uncertain world and wonder what to make of it. Our lives, just like our parents’ lives before us, become wasted.
So I was coming home from a late post-Christmas/New Year’s work party, January 4th, sobered up, and a work mate sat in the car beside me, driving to a close-to-my-home train station where he could get a different ride home. Neither of us liked the other, yet each felt a professional responsibility to make sure that our workmates were protected. He sort of nodded at me as he left. He shook his head and said to himself ‘he’s no longer my responsibility.’ And I get that too. I was done with him as well. Why would either of us want to be part of the drama of another person’s life?
I was clear-headed by this time — my earlier drinking was pretty minimal: four-fifths a glass of terrible wine, nursed through two hours, and maybe a third of something weak with vodka I had before everyone arrived. This was hours before the ride home. I lived about a mile from this train station. I just wanted to go to bed.
So I sat there, at least considerate, watching to make sure my coworker got into the station unmolested. As I was waiting I noticed some flashing lights behind me. Now I was probably parked illegally, motor running, waiting to pull out into the silence of the night. I avoided the police car, pulling over further to let them pass.
Only they didn’t. They pulled up behind me. One of them rapped on the driver side window while the other peek-a-booed through the passenger side door. I ran down my window. I was a white guy in a suit, a teacher and therefore at least physically respectable-looking. I was in a sports jacket and tie. I had been dressed for my role at the party.
“Got any heroin in the car?” the officer barked at me as we faced each other.
This was baffling. Heroin? I’ve never tried heroin. I’ve only ever seen it in movies, or whatever brown sugar mix simulated it. Did he think I was a junkie? Or maybe a drug dealer? What the fuck, dude, I thought. It’s 10:46 on a Friday night in shittown. What makes you think that some douchebag like me could have any part in anything that at any time has to do with you? Why would I even know them, from another neighborhood, none of the same circles, public contempt for each other, we “pussy-ass teachers,” mouthing our liberal craziness to savages. To us the police were savages. They were savages. Savages.
Now sometimes proving a point is incredibly dangerous, and I guess that’s what happened, because my smiling and witty presentation of my non-drug dealing self ended up getting my head smashed into the roof of a metal car. Repeatedly.
I was dribbled twice, that I know of, hard, then as hard as this giant could. Of course I blacked out. He could have whacked me five more times until his partner finally told him enough. It is possible. It would be consistent with the physical damage I suffered.
So I was asked if I had “any contraband?”
This confused me too — huh? What’re you? — oh. Oh. Do I have any drugs? He is rephrasing the question politely. He wants to know if I’m high.
Now I’m a white guy, as I said before, (and I was thinking about getting high after I got home to shrug off this unpleasentness),and the sense of danger to myself over this exchange was minimal, I figured, the worst that was likely to happen being a threatening warning. “I’ll just tell this bastard who I am,” I thought to myself, “and then they can fuck off and I can go home and go to bed.” There was no reason, I felt, for them to even be bothering me.
Imagine, if you can, being a black man in a suit in a shitty, junkie, whorehouse part of town, parked across the street from the train station, watching someone leave, or maybe waiting for them to come. Imagine this. I certainly couldn’t, there in that moment. They were wasting my time. Come on — fuck off you idiots!
I stood there patiently, knowing nothing was wrong, being perfectly honest and making sure they felt no threat. They would imply whatever they wanted on their paperwork, which I thought likely resembled the bureaucratic torture of a teacher’s lesson plan (not so different after all, fellow city employee!)
“Well,” I said, “I’m a type one diabetic, and I have an insulin pen and two twist on syringes in my inside jacket pocket.” I asked if I should show him. He nodded.
Now the other guy, a tall, bulky fellow, certainly too old to be trolling around such a dangerous neighborhood, in uniform, merely the heavy for his partner’s higher ranking decisions to investigate. He was at least six-foot-four, maybe 270 pounds, some of his brawn gone to fat. He was balding, probably forty-five, a pock-marked face and an appearance of seething disgust for humanity.
He was fiddling around my car, this other guy, throwing papers out of the glove compartment, checking the rear seat pocket, then tearing up carpet from under the driver’s and passenger’s seats. I expected him to produce a pen knife and then slice up the backseat too, ripping with glee, seeing the stuffing as bubbling intestines.
I went for my pocket. The guy questioning me was watching calmly, expecting nothing. The other guy, perhaps looking for the affirmative praise he had received over his last few beatings, geared for action. Never a promotion for him, but a certain avoidant admiration, this guy ‘did good’ to the hoodlums rampaging around, he had been told. There were winks and pats on the back. A whole round was bought by others at the cop bar, the place he found himself more and more, his wife probably gone, his children grown and wouldn’t talk to him anymore. He would sit there getting drunk, rambling wildly with a group of other unhappy, drunken cops. They would talk about arrests, and tell adventure stories; tales of joyful pain inflicted, and some exaggerations about just how bad the true villains ruling the community were. They would toast and rant. They would yell “nigger!” and “spic!” and more from the cheap variety of slurs they used to classify people. They talked about Jews in city government, and women who acted like men, and the whole fucking Chinese and Arab massacre. And those white pussies — oh those goddamn limp-wristed faggot liberals — they were the worst! They would vent their anger at the world, seeing all civilization against them. They had denied the once noble slogan “To Protect and Serve.” Now it was kill or be killed.
So the big guy saw me going for my pocket and he instinctively reacted, a product of his police training. Now I don’t know if the first cop looked at his partner grabbing me with horror (or at least concern), but I’d like to think he did. I know that he broke it up, the end of pain giving me a motive to wake back up. I was dizzy. My head hurt. All I could see were dim, decreasing manifestations of light, shadows of what I was actually seeing. I was stumbling around. I know that someone was barking at me.
The next thing I remember (and I can’t be convinced that this is true, my memories of the next few days blurred, my attorney helping me define the narrative of the events leading to their letting me go) is getting back into my car. There was an echoey warbling, the better cop leaning in and talking instructively. “Wub wub wub wub wub,” he was saying. Then he looked away and pointed. Turning back he said what sounded to me like “Go home.”
I do not remember driving. I do not remember going into my house (although I did). I do not remember anything of what my wife told me were two days of crying and erratic shouting and talking to ghosts on the ceiling. I was bumping into walls. I fell down the steps. I began falling asleep at random moments — in the middle of dinner or playing with my children. My wife and I started growing distant. My children were suddenly robbed of an example of a father.
The next thing I remember — and I remember this vividly — was sitting on a desk in my classroom the following Tuesday. It was second or third period. I have no idea what I was teaching, or if I’d even been there the day before. I suspect I wasn’t teaching at all. Finally one of the students came up to the desk and shook my shoulder.
“Mr. — — -, Mr. — — -, yo? Yo, you okay? You been sittin’ on that desk and starin’ at the wall for, like, twenty minutes. Yo, you want me to go get the nurse?”
I realized I needed to go to the hospital. Something was clearly wrong. I had been afraid — I was still afraid of everything and I just wanted to forget about what had happened and return to normal life. I had continued driving since that first blocked memory of getting home the first night (although a number of increasingly dangerous smash-ups, over the ensuing years, has mostly cured me of this, running to a nearby store about my limit.) I got up from the desk quickly — have no idea if I told anyone I was leaving — and wound up at a nearby hospital saying that the noises in my head were killing me. It was my last day with a regular job.
My head was swollen. My face looked red. I guess I was making some sort of sense. I do not remember the day before, or the weekend. Perhaps the lesson being taught was displaying for my students that I was in need.
Lawsuit, blah blah blah, big city police, settlement. We moved into a new house. I sit here and write this to you.
But we were talking about the police. We don’t even need to list the seemingly endless number of people being shot in the back and killed only in the past few months. I avoid the word “murder,” in this context, because before we convict the violent individual of an individual murder, one must wonder if these continual events — even after all the rage and crazy shit in the news, during a scary pandemic, outrage trumping mortality, morality, and money — even after these horror stories that have finally expanded a movement that had been nascent for so many years despite their own spate of being killed — even considering all of this, and the videos for all to see of the commission of murder — blame, like for the guy who hires the hitman — has a very difficult face to reconcile.
Today there is a genuine state of confrontation, a “fuck the police,” that I cannot help but have great sympathy with. And you see these poor fellows flipping some terrified cop off, and the only option must be to shoot him as he walks away: a dangerous revolutionary.
But is this really all those nervous kids’ fault, these cops? Think about the stress in just the paperwork of the job (teachers can get fired — even in a union job — for not turning in or completing their documentation). They are always getting yelled at by their superiors, sometimes the demands made upon them beyond comprehension. These people have miserable jobs, the other side being that the people no longer trust them. “To protect and serve’’ is no longer taken seriously by anyone, regardless of their social persuasion. A police officer is forced to perform all sorts of humiliating tasks too. “Scoop the shit up that the guy who got away left behind. Take it to the lab. Wait for the results and then come tell me. That’ll be all —”
These are common tasks for police, one they’ve never been trained for. I imagine that getting in that car and roving around your beat is a real treat after confronting the stultifying everything else in your life. Many of these officers selected this option for a career out of loyalty, or about revenge against schoolyard bullies, or a disgust with what the world has become, attempting to be an agent of change, trying to stop it. Of course many come from police families, having been raised on the cynical sense of duty so pervasive in the police force these days. And others just need someone to blame for their rage.
Some believe in service — to protect and serve the public. But then their training gets in the way and transforms them, as with every lifestyle choice, making them into people they never thought they would be.
No doubt many police were the bullies themselves, perhaps grown bitter as they watched the weaklings they used to torment grow up and move on to bigger and better lives. There is a certain rage to their decision to join the force, be it political or social anger, very strong views, a simmering hatred for humanity, or being an organizational sociopath, fully aware of how to sort criminal activity without acknowledging the concepts of good or evil.
Others just sullenly want to help. These are the good cops, the publicly sad ones, usually a little bit older, prematurely graying or bald, who take pity on the desperate, and those poor, tragic souls who find themselves homeless. These are the guys friendly with prostitutes too, sometimes taking them out for a three AM breakfast, other times sleeping through the morning together at a two-star hotel. They shake their heads and take the joint out of a thirteen year old’s hand, then tell them to scat. Often they take a pull or two, sucking up enough to start coughing. They go back to their cars, take deep breaths, and maybe make a phone call to somebody in their life while they wait there, on watch, ignoring all of the crime going on outside.
So police are nervous people, mostly — nervous or arrogant, some big tough guy, maybe a former soldier missing the gig, and sometimes they are high school failures, a losing football team stand-out, mourning a girlfriend who left before graduation, a dead mother, a drunken cop father, a few girlfriends or boyfriends they now hate. A few cop friends. Secrets to keep and be held. Some genuine horror stories they never talk about yet remember every night when a black man truly was the danger, some hardass TV watcher wanting to live life like a character in a movie they just saw, or a TV show they’d been following for years. Often it is video game reality: shoot your way out, kill all those motherfuckers. Such people exist, pretend gangsters gone crazy, always desperate to prove their worth. Cops tell stories of this and it inspires those who have never experienced it to see a threat in the darker races, seeing all the crime in the city — especially in the black neighborhoods, where more than half of the police force nightly roams. These guys are eagle-eyed, scared, taught by their teachers that every person might kill you.
This comes from an actual police training transcript — one of the lectures where they’re supposed to take notes:
- . . . your life . . . may depend on [having freedom of action]. . . . [A] police officer must not hesitate. If he does . . . the security and safety of your family may be jeopardized.
Now this isn’t entirely wrong, this rant. It is one of the terrifying prospects of the job of a police officer. The whole new world young officers are entering is unknown, random chaos. Instead of teaching them how to deescalate a situation they are taught to be on their guard, always. There are definitely times when they need to be.
But then there are mothers believing that their young children are going to be gunned down by a posse of yee-hawing cops, whether realistic or not (and, at least in public exposure, we all know such things happen increasingly). And a frightened cop and a horrified mother is not a good recipe for peace.
Yet does this instruction of shoot first excuse them for their actions? Plenty of courts aparently think so. Does the fear imposed upon officers by the city and state and press and public, not to mention, more than anyone, their union, does this somehow excuse their actions of shooting a belligerent person who isn’t interested in talking with police? Is there a reason for them to be talking with them? If there is, if the person is unarmed, if they are merely telling the cops to go fuck themselves, there are certainly other ways to arrest someone (sometimes physically) beyond crushing their windpipe or shooting them seven times in the back.
One can understand a worried mother’s anxiety over her children, the police killing someone up the street a few days before, and the general tone when randomly pulling people over is more like a prison guard calling for inspection. When we talk about systemic racism, this is it with a spotlight, a satellite projection to the world that even those denying such social evils as racism feel stupid debating. They offer weak asides about, “A few bad apples,” or admit “that one cop shouldn’t have done that. He deserves to be fired.”
The political hierarchy in a large city allows the chief of police to consider running for mayor and governor after improving statistics like an athlete learning new tricks. Crime goes up or down, there is an easy way to fix it. Under report. Cover things up. Make excuses. Deny police brutality. Blame the victims. Lie to the press. Give speeches igniting a fearful social divide that will eventually lead to protests and riots, heroically put down by the leadership of brave police.
Such ambitious politicians are the accountants balancing the books — the experts “predicted this number of violent crimes this year and if we don’t reach our goals — or, worse, if we go over them — then some of our funding is cut. You guys better make something or cover something up because the city’s out to get you too!”
And then, once the budget is fixed, it is time for improved weapons, for making training fun, ripping a target to shreds with a single shot. There is an awesome supply of left-over military guns and clubs and missiles and flame-throwers sold at big discounts to larger cities so that they can “keep the peace.” Some cities are armed much better than entire units in, say, Afghanistan, and in the states it has become increasingly common to use them. There is nothing left for improved police training.
Police are trained to be soldiers, no longer saving the innocent, but executing bad guys for rattling the public. They are better equipped than ever before, even armed with cameras to document and then edit their reasons for feeling threatened. They can cause damage and then have some partial report shoved into a file, wishing it all away. If something gets too egregious, yeah, throw that guy away. He was crazy. Nobody liked him. He shouldn’t get away with what he’s done, they can tell the public.
But the public has also evolved into a military state, armed with cameras to document and then edit their reasons for feeling threatened too. Their versions are filmed far more frequently than the jagged shapes from an officers blurry chest projection, which capture generally pointless excerpts of a victim stumbling drunk. Or maybe they are scared based on recent television reports and they only want to get away alive. Perhaps there is a struggle and maybe the panicked guy even throws a punch. And this is where the edit stops — he tried to hit me. I had no other choice but to repeatedly shoot and shoot and shoot (also like a video game) because he was going to get away and the boss would be pissed.
The public, contrarily, waves around their cell phone cameras, documentarians watching events unfold. While most see sympathy and are too frightened to get involved (how many of you would take that step forward when clearly there is no limit to what the officers might do?), others are even excited — this is a great moment for me! I can release this to the press and make some money and get interviewed and I can be a star!
The social chaos is never ending.
So what do we do about police, as society unravels and revolutionary movements pop up in all directions like in Russia before the First World War? It is true, as sacred mementos of a past that has hardly been fair to anyone, that people on every side of the issues have a right to be scared. You may even justify the comedic cowardice of some
or the genuine horror others experience
But does that mean that all those demanding social justice — that a fundamental change needs to take place and it should start with the police — does this mean that such people shouldn’t be afraid?
And so what do we do about police? How can we cure this world, this violent realm of distrust and paranoia? How do we fix the police, so often, and often justifiably at fault, the cause of terrified alarm, or righteously held up by other violent people as the symbols of oppression they feel need to be oppressed? Can better police training help? Can we teach dignity and respect in school? Are we even allowed to in this contentious and divisive age where everything is politicized (including, no doubt, the eventual implementation of such initially worthwhile progressive plans)? Can we make a difference just by facing the issues head on, by confronting the ills with our passionate minds?
How the fuck should I know? The police bashed all those thoughts out of my head years ago. . . .