Like many of my friends, I have been deeply disturbed by the behavior of police breaking up Occupy Wall Street encampments. Images of officers spraying chemical agents into the mouth of a young woman in Portland and another sashaying as he sprays seated, passive college students at the University of California at Davis are haunting and remind me of my own, bystander, experience of police brutality in Pittsburgh, PA (where I attend Carnegie Mellon University).
Since last fall when I witnessed police slapping and threatening to taser a peer, I have been hesitant to contact the police in any situation unless I am certain they could not make it worse. I haven’t called them to report disruptive neighborhood parties, I haven’t called them when protesters at my clinic get physical, and I haven’t called them when illegally parked cars force me to joust with on-coming buses to get to school.
I would call them if I were a victim of a crime. If I were mugged on my way home from school, I would call the police and expect them to treat me with respect and professionalism, no matter what I write about them here. When a peer’s credit card was charged after I placed her wallet in the lost-and-found, I felt completely comfortable directing her to call Carnegie Mellon’s police officers after her bank. (And other than an officer other than the one with whom I interviewed getting confused over whether it was my wallet or hers based on his colleague’s notes, they were great). This seems unfair–I trust the police as crime solvers, but not as nuisance control.
Perhaps this faith in law enforcement being good at solving crimes comes from my love of police procedural shows–Bones, CSI, NCIS, even Grimm all feature competent cops who can be trusted to investigate and protect. But when I see a police officer stationed in Carnegie Mellon’s student aid office as a visible reminder of who has the power in that space? When I see officers patrolling my neighborhood? When an officer rolls up outside my clinic to eye-ball the situation? I don’t feel safer.
To me, there are two distinct faces that a police officer must live within. The first is the crime-solving face. The officer who responds to a mugging or break-in has a victim, a suspect, and is a truth-seeker in between the two of those. A victim should feel comfortable trusting that officer to treat her like a person. The second is the public-safety face. The officer who stands guard at a St Patty’s Day parade has no individual responsibility for any of the revelers but a broad responsibility to keep the tone of the event within a certain key.
The functional militarization of our local police forces does not seem to have warped the crime-solving face. I believe this militarization has ravaged the public-safety face of local police. It has viscerally changed the relationship between the people in the crowd and the officers responsible for their safety. I see strong parallels between the way Iraq war veterans talk about crowds and were trained to handle crowds in Iraq and how NYPD, Oakland police, and Davis police talk about crowds and were trained to handle crowds in their communities. These similarities have not gone unnoticed elsewhere and are destructive to the role of police in a democratic society. As a fictional military man said:
“There’s a reason you separate military and the police. One fights the enemies of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people.”–Commander William Adama, Battlestar Gallactica
They way that an American soldier is trained to feel and react to a crowd in Basra should be clearly different from the way an American police officer is trained to feel and react to a crowd in Portland. The people are not the enemy, they are those being served. This does not appear to be so. And this is not a new problem nor unique to the United States.
It’s tempting to vilify individual officers, but just as Occupy Wall Street is about addressing systemic failures in our approach to capitalism and democracy, any work to end police brutality must first see it as a problem of systems not a few rotted-out souls. Men and women who choose to put their bodies between bullets and other people deserve respect, even if the system within which they function encourages them to dehumanize those people.
I believe to have a police force in Pittsburgh or any American city which I can talk about with the pride in my voice which comes from our libraries and parks, we will need to demilitarize the public security face of local policing. We did it in the 1970s, and maybe we can use the impending vicious budget cuts which will be hamstringing our libraries and parks to end funding for flash grenades, sonic cannons, and riot shields. Replace them with funding for more time office for officers, negotiators, and horses for truly peaceful crowd control.
Maybe Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic thinks that we have the cops we deserve, but I want the police our children deserve. And we don’t have them yet.
“I went down to Greenham
I was cutting the fence
Cops pulled me out of the way
Then they waded in.
Said ‘You’ll never get arrested,
‘A little lady like you,’
I says ‘Who are you talking to?
‘I’m a woman on wheels.’
I said ‘Hold on.
I’ve got my rights to demonstrate.’
Next time I went down
And took a dozen bolt-cutters
And a dozen wheel-chair-mates,
(Roll on.)” –Peggy Seeger, “Woman on Wheels,” from her Period Pieces on the anti-nuclear protests in Greenham England in the 1960s and 1970s.