When I was a kid, my small rural town had two or three police officers and we knew each one. The daughter of one was in my elementary school class. Our family was friends with the family of an Amherst officer; we played with their kids a lot. My stepfather is a retired officer in both the Amherst Town and Amherst College police departments. We know these people. We love them. We know they're looking out for everybody's safety, even when we get hassled a bit (my father joked that once I learned to drive, he wanted to let the police know so they could flash their lights behind me and then wave--it never happened.) We are or were in small towns, however. The personal connections are strongest there, and yet I know there are professional codes that exist, a bond between coworkers which must be maintained.
My father, who was a volunteer firefighter and EMT, once told me that debriefings back at the station were often full of the most incredibly black humor pertaining to the calls they were just on, jokes as black as the coffee everyone drank while they made hideous remarks that could never and would never go beyond those fake wood panelled office walls. He never told me a single one; I never wanted to know. It was all stress relief, laughter, a much-needed valve because the demands of the job and the sights one sees and the dangers one faces can be horrific indeed. The lingo I do know the EMTs and ER workers share is cynical though humorous and never cruel or dismissive: "frequent fliers"; the abbreviation SOCMOB which stands for Standing On Corner Minding Own Business which is what nearly everybody who comes in beat up claims they were doing; and the ever-popular FDGB: Fall Down Go Boom. But the private stuff stays private and that's how it should be. It helps them and them only.
I do not know if the Ferguson police consider what they are doing as venting. I should certainly hope not. But it feels to me that their continued actions are indeed a lashing-out, a venting of pent-up frustrations and dark anticipatory wishes which go beyond just wanting to have a try at all that fancy military equipment they got from the government.
I am of two minds of the cops' "Thin Blue Line" standard, their own omerta
, whether you assert it exists or not. I respect a professional's right to silence in many cases: the rescue worker's right to vent their demons by themselves with dark humor, the doctor's right to keep doctor-patient confidentiality, the police's right to stay appropriately silent when giving out information would actively compromise a current investigation, notify fugitives of their actions, etc. But I cannot respect or condone anyone staying silent to hide, deny, cover up or otherwise ignore knowledge or involvement in illegal actions--and let's face it, shooting an unarmed man in the back and then several times again when he turns around with his hands up in surrender is straight-up cold-blooded murder, plain and simple, no "he/we both reached for the gun" bullshit.
The officer had plenty of time, as Michael Brown ran and even turned back, to assess his situation, stand down, and choose an alternate course of action. That he did not is the problem. If it turns out that he had panicked and/or involuntarily violently reacted in the face of an assault perceived or otherwise, which is a completely legitimate scenario, then he needs to be taken immediately off the force pending investigation given some serious counseling before, during and after the criminal trial. Something ain't right and they need to address it. If, on the other hand, the officer straight up gave no fucks, then he needs to be given the banhammer, no paid suspension, and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law under each crime committed, hate, first-degree and otherwise. As one often hears from justice-minded citizens, "Don't do the crime if you can't do the time". Here are some crimes, St. Louis. Let's find some time.
But the real problem isn't that this is happening right now in Ferguson. The real problem is that it's happening all over the country and it has been happening; only the current spate of news coverage makes it seem surprising. Yet every time it happens the issue seems to just die out. A current joke floating around Twitter right now how the three big news networks are covering the week's events: MSNBC's headline would say "Police fire tear gas into crowd", Fox News reports "Authorities bravely holding back rioters", and CNN is going "Seriously, guys, where is that plane?" This is a form of humor last seen prevalent in the Czech Republic and other parts of Eastern Europe pre and post-Soviet breakup. I am glad to see it still exists; unhappy that it has to right now.
And when there is coverage, it's often completely and horribly twisted: Today's print edition of the New York Post has a headline in 96-frickin-point bold which simply reads "COPS RIGHT". (DOWN UP. WAR EURASIA ALWAYS.) The headline tops a story about New York Mayor de Blasio, a man with an ugly name and an even uglier attitude, telling New Yorkers that when it's time for their arrest, which he makes out to seem almost as commonplace and to be as expected as muggings were in the worst part of the 1970s, that they shouldn't resist and instead just lie back and think of Brooklyn. I'm copying the relevant quotes here so as to not give the NY Post the benefit of any clicks or Facebook data. You can go to nypost dot com if you wish.
"When a police officer comes to the decision that it’s time to arrest someone, that individual is obligated to submit to arrest..."
and"Arrest is not always the goal . . . but once an officer has decided that arrest is necessary, every New Yorker should agree to do what they need to do as a citizen and respect the police officer and follow their guidance. And then there is a thorough due-process system thereafter..."
Ah, yes, this would be the same New York City court system where, in 2011, the nice lady on the other end of the police-run taxi complaint line told me that cases such as ones where a taxi driver ripped off his passengers, say, would take at least nine months to over a year to be heard, and even then both litigants needed to be personally present at the hearing. This meant, for out-of-towners at least, that if you chose to press charges you'd either spend time and money getting back to NYC only to find that the other guy just plain didn't show up, or you both don't bother to show up and the case gets thrown out. And all for twenty lousy dollars. So you'll pardon me, then, when I say that I'm not exactly confident by de Blasio's claims that if New Yorkers behave like good little doobees when the handcuffs come out, their case will be heard quickly and efficiently.
The mayor, by the way, was responding to comments made by his police commissioner, Bill Bratton, who is a piece of work himself. Bratton recently about "...a number of individuals just failing to understand that you must submit to an arrest, that you cannot resist it," which puts me in the frame of mind of the government official in Terry Gilliam's Brazil
who talked about how "a ruthless minority of people seem to have forgotten old-fashioned virtues" and how if only those people would just play the game...
The two weren't talking about the Ferguson police state, either; they were actually discussing the earlier case of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who recently died when police locked him in a chokehold. All over selling loose cigarettes on a stoop. I can't see any conceivable way in which that was justified. I don't care if he was mentally ill or they'd had problems with him the past or if they thought he was lying when he called out for help; you just don't kill someone over loosies. I can't believe I have to type that out. de Blasio's response is inconceivable and reprehensible. As far as the Worst New York Mayor Race goes, de Blasio is currently neck-and-neck with Jimmy Walker, both trying to gain on John Lindsay. I sure hope we don't go that far.
I was brought up, among the police I knew, to think for myself while respecting the law. The law could and should be questioned, but respectfully. The ability to stand up and say "Okay, but--" without fear of reprisal is a fundamental human right. So is the ability to say "I would like to know how/why/what..." when things personally affect you. Peaceful assembly, that's cool, too.
However, when it comes to sides and one or both break their inherent promise, things get ugly. The Ferguson PD is ugly. What they're doing is ugly. Michael Brown's death was ugly. The break-up of the peaceful protest was ugly. The subsequent looting and escalation was ugly. Eric Garner's death and the laissez-faire reactions from New York officials are all ugly. Ugly, ugly, ugly.
Somewhere along the line the police turned from the people we knew and grew up with to a nameless, often-faceless force which couldn't care less about you even while they claim it's for your safety. I understand inherent mistrust; mistrust or at least skepticism seems justifiable. But there's also fear, which there shouldn't be. But there sure is.
Eight years ago I was awakened in the middle of the night by three Somerville police officers pointing flashlights and weapons in my face. They had received a call which Verizon had erroneously traced to my house; somebody claiming they had weapons and were going to either hurt themselves or someone else, I don't know. I honestly don't know the details of the call beyond that. Once the police realized they were indeed in the wrong house and neither the naked man they just scared out of bed, nor his cat, nor his other housemates were about to commit a crime, they turned off the tough guy act. They stayed police-professional, true to duty, even as they explained to us just why and how they had broken into our home (they broke in through our back kitchen door after trying the doorbell; we were all on the third floor sleeping in closed-off rooms with fans on) and that if we wanted, we could try to request reimbursement from the City of Somerville for our kitchen door, broken beyond repair, but "good luck with that". They didn't give names or badge numbers (honestly I think we were still so shocked we forgot to ask), they assured us the "full report" of all they had done would be available to view in a few weeks, and then they left us without so much as an apology.
The police never apologize.
That incident was the start of a lot of changes in my life, some good and some bad, many of which still affect me to this day. I'm not including it in this piece as an ego signal boost, neither as a message of "Oh I totally understand what the people of Ferguson are going through because look what happened to me me me" nor a message of "gee if a white middle-class guy can't be safe around cops, who can?" because honestly those are both crass as all hell. What I'm saying is that something has happened in America--let's not quibble when, it's happened
--which should give us all considerable worry about the handling of authority, enough to find ways to stop it or at least make sure those who deserve justice get it. The cops who busted in on us in 2006 were Regular Guys. They had names, families, houses nearby, facial hair. They were doing what they considered to be their job. They backed off when they realized their error, which to be fair was the appropriate response. Maybe they laughed about it after their shift, maybe they just forgot it in all the paperwork. They've gone on with their lives and I certainly don't wish them any ill nor do I seek damages this long after the fact. They got it out of their system first; I'm still working on it though time does help mellow the memories. The emotions mellow much slower. Still, I can't begrudge them anything-- but I can no longer trust them.
And losing trust in local law enforcement is a terrifying outcome indeed.