In 1997, as a graduate teaching fellow, I began teaching two introductory classes in philosophy at the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Many of my students were training for careers in criminology and law enforcement. Some hoped to join the FBI, yet others, the New York City police force. And, as I had been told (warned?) some of my students were serving NYPD officers, perhaps hoping to become detectives, gain added educational qualifications and so on. In my first semester, I did not meet any of these worthies.
A few weeks into my second semester, soon after I had finished teaching for the night, a student walked up to me, asked me a couple of questions about the material I had just covered and then introduced himself. He was a serving officer in the NYPD, working in a Brooklyn precinct. We chatted for a bit, and then as I headed out to the subway station to take a train home, he accompanied me. At the station he indicated he could wave me through with his card, but feeling uneasy, I politely declined and said I would use a subway token instead. Shortly thereafter we said goodnight. From that night on, after the end of class, he would sometimes accompany me to the station; we would chat about his educational plans and of course, his work at the precinct.
1997 was the year that Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, had been assaulted and sodomized with a broken-off broom handle by the NYPD after being arrested outside Club Rendezvous in East Flatbush. That incident had sparked angry demonstrations and the same old calls for reform of the NYPD, for an inquiry into race relations in New York City. (Incredibly enough, the officers who assaulted Louima would go on to serve time.) That fall, that incident was something my new ‘friend’ returned to again and again. It made him ‘unhappy.’
Not because he felt for Louima. Not because he sympathized with a man who had been beaten and raped by the police. Not because he felt for the mothers of the black and Latino men who had been shot dead or assaulted by the NYPD. Not because he thought that communities of color were unjustly targeted by the police. None of that that bothered him. What bothered him was something else altogether. Now, the people of the borough didn’t ‘respect the police’. They were ‘disrespectful.’ They walked by the precinct waving broom handles at the police, shouting angry slogans, reminding the police of the night that another broom handle had been used to commit sexual assault on someone like them. It was so ‘hurtful’ to see that kind of contempt, that kind of language directed at policemen, who were after all, only trying to ‘do their jobs.’
I was talking to a man who seemed curiously consumed by self-pity. He was not happy his profession was being maligned, but he didn’t seem to think it had anything to do with the way his colleagues–other than a few bad apples, who he wanted to disown all too quickly–behaved with the communities they policed. The police were the real victims here, unfairly made to bear the brunt of a community’s wrath. Louima might have suffered one night, but all the agitators and demonstrators–sometimes folks who didn’t even live in Brooklyn!–were now making life oh-so-difficult for the rest of the police, forced to deal with this daily reminder of their brutality.
What makes policemen really dangerous, I think, is that their implements of destruction do not end with the deadly firearms that they discharge so easily and so carelessly. They carry around too, a toxic mix of self-pity, righteousness, and resentment at a deliberately obtuse world. When they walk the streets, they do not see a ‘community’ around them; they see the sullen, non-compliant subjects of their policing. They are convinced of the rightness of their actions; if they are ever subjected to critique then it must be flawed, infected with an ignorance of the nature of police work. They are mystified and angry. They seek to bring ‘these people’ law and order; why don’t they encounter more welcoming behavior? My ‘friend’ was caught up in this mystery. He could not fathom how the folks who said the police were ‘pigs’ could not separate out the good from the bad, how they could not exercise a discrimination finer than the one they put on display.
In this attitude, urban police forces in America today are very much like occupying and colonial forces elsewhere: they are puzzled why the occupied are not more grateful for the benefactions of the armed forces that stride through their neighborhoods, stopping and frisking, getting young men up against the wall, stamping out ‘disorder’, showing by their body language and their voices that they are armed and dangerous and will not tolerate dissent in any form. And just like those forces the police ask again and again: Why do they make us hurt them so? Why do they make us do the things we do?
Is there anything more deadly than self-pity, the conviction that you have been sinned against, and the right to use arms?