I have long held fear and distrust towards the police, the very people who are supposed to “protect and serve” the rest of us from … what? ourselves? each other? The connotation has never been exactly clear, especially when it seems that the police are there to protect and serve the very institutions that are holding us down. I wrote about some aspects of my feelings about the police and the nature of their power a few months ago in a previous blog post (police state) in response to increased national/local security and surveillance and the situation in Ferguson in which (yet another) young black man was killed and excessive force used when the police were supposedly occupying the area during protests, “to keep the peace.”
Since then, a grand jury dismissed charges against the police officer who killed Michael Brown. There have been protests and riots and people taking about everything from police brutality to institutional racism to white privilege. But the fact remains: the police officer was not charged with murder – even though he shot and killed an unarmed young person. He was not charged because he is a police officer. Many people feel that he was not charged because the person he killed was a young black male. There can be no doubt that there is a disproportionate number of young black men killed by the police. But this is not solely a race issue; this is an issue that affects every person who comes into contact with the police, no matter what their race, gender, sexual orientation, age, or socio-economic status is.
When I heard that the police officer was not charged for the obvious crime of killing another living person, I was upset. I was not alone. I remember cooking dinner and talking with my children about what had happened. My 16 year old daughter said, with all the innocence of a child, “But mom, he shot the kid like 7 times. He killed him. Why wasn’t he charged?” I shook my head. I took a deep breath. I told her that he should have been charged. I said, “if they convicted him of murder, the system would basically be hanging themselves.”
We discussed the fact that if a person is driving and hits someone, accidentally killing them – the driver is always held accountable. I heard about a very recent case of which had the defense pleading for vehicular manslaughter instead of the murder charge that the prosecution was almost sure to get by the jury, based on the high level of alcohol in the driver’s system. The driver was drunk. The driver didn’t mean to kill anyone. But that didn’t matter – the driver had committed a crime by killing another person, and even if it was accidental, that person would have to “pay.” That is what Americans call justice.
However, if that exact scenario occurred and the driver was a police officer, it is very likely that the police officer would not be charged with anything. A police officer can shoot with intent to kill, and they do, and they consistently are not charged with abusing their power. Police officers make mistakes. But they are never held accountable for their mistakes, because doing so would flaw a system built on the idea that “father knows best.” Police officers are the law. We are a society of abused children afraid to go against our parents. We are told that it is a bad world and we need to be protected. We are told that if we step out of line, we will be punished.
The police, much like the government, controls people with fear. This is inculcated and ingrained. A police officer’s abuse of power is not only permissible, it is implicitly accepted. We accept it. What other choice do we have? We are gaslighted into submission. We are taught from an early age to follow rules and not question authority. We want to believe that the police are there to help us, not hurt us. We want to believe that they are there to protect us, not protect the system against us. Just the idea that police officers carry guns and other weapons visibly and refer to everyday people as “civilians” separates them from the rest of society and denotes an unequal power balance. But when “civilians” are required to concede all rights to the police, who watches the watchmen?
When people find out that I have had numerous run-ins with the police, they are often surprised. Why? I’m a “white” (Italian-American) female. I’m not a “trouble maker.” I’m educated. I’m quiet, reserved, even shy. Yet, that hasn’t afforded me the “white privilege” that some people seem to consider comes along with having light colored skin. I was never assaulted. I was never even formally charged with anything. I have no police record, but I have been arrested multiple times. For a long time I wondered why I had such bad luck with the police. But I no longer consider luck having anything to do with it.
The first time I was arrested, I was 19 years old. I had gone to visit a friend in upstate New York, where he was going to college. After I brought my bag to his house, he decided to show me around the small college town. We went to an area where there were several abandoned factories. We peeked into one of the buildings where of the windows were broken. Feeling adventurous, we decided to take a look inside. The door was unlocked. We walked right in. However, it was completely empty inside. There wasn’t much to see, so we decided to leave. But when we went to leave, my friend noticed a few cop cars outside, so we hesitated by the door. A few seconds later, we heard a booming voice, “come out with your hands up.” As if we were in a movie. We looked at each other in shock. We didn’t move. Or even breathe, I think. Within another few minutes, a police dog came bounding in. The dog ran past my friend and attacked me. The police came in right after, and we were separated, handcuffed, and brought to the station.
The police seemed disappointed that the dog did not bite clean through my coat and made me give it to them so they could inspect the material, but they congratulated the dog for attacking me. I was brought to every officer in the station so they could view the bite on my arm and how nicely placed it was. Then I was put in a holding pen unlike anything I’ve ever been in afterwards – for hours. It was like a small closet and very dark. I could not extend my arms, which gives an idea as to how small it was. The one window was a tiny square at the very top of the door which only let in a sliver of light. I could see long black streaks on the door, and imagined that at some point, someone had kicked at the door violently to be let out. There was no phone call. There was no miranda rights. No one in the world knew where I was, besides my friend, who was in his own kind of hell in one of the prison cells. I cried uselessly.
Later, I was fingerprinted, photographed, and interrogated. Again, this process took hours. I was questioned about my piercings, my tattoos, my short black hair. I was asked if I was a devil worshiper, and if I had any knowledge of satanic rituals happening behind the abandoned building – even though I had been in the town for less than an hour before the arrest. They asked the same questions over and over again, and I gave the same answers. About 8 hours after our initial arrest, we were set free. We had a summons to appear in court. We were both being charged with 3rd degree burglary. We stopped at the grocery store on the way home and he picked up a case of beer. Later, we went to a rave and dropped acid. It just didn’t seem real. The reality of it all hit when I had to speak with a lawyer – the town’s public defender. I was being charged with a felony. After a couple of months, all the charges against us were dropped.
After that incident, I had other incidents. There was the time I was picked up in the city for smoking weed, handcuffed and thrown into the back of an unmarked van by “undercover” police, which was a terrifying experience. I was in college at the time and again no one knew where I was. I missed class; I was held in a van for hours. I was never read any rights. I had the panicky thought that maybe I was just being abducted by two people who flashed a badge. Were they really cops? They weren’t even dressed as cops. At first there were only a few of us, but slowly they stopped to ambush and pick up others. When the van was filled, we went to the precinct, where we were held for processing, then released. There was some legal issue with the way they had arrested us, so no charges were filed.
Another time, I went for a walk after work with a friend. We went into a park after dark, which is technically considered trespassing because the parks around here “close” after dark. I didn’t realize that I hadn’t paid a parking ticket that I received in Manhattan about a year prior. A warrant was out for my arrest. So not only was I arrested for trespassing, I was held in the police station overnight, waiting for the police from NYC to come and pick me up. I was handcuffed to a chair for over 6 hours in the middle of the room, the only female in a room of men, as if I were a window dressing. A police officer removed my pony tail holder and fluffed out my hair. When I protested, he said that I was not allowed to have my hair in a pony tail. They asked me personal questions about my love life. I didn’t answer. They said I was “a bad girl” and “uncooperative.”
In the morning, a new shift arrived and was surprised to see me there. I was shipped to the basement of the old courthouse a few towns away, to wait in a cell for the NYC police. When the NYC police finally arrived, they said “the cops out here must be real dicks to keep you overnight for this.” They brought me straight to the courthouse in Manhattan, where I met with a public defender and told her what happened. I stood in front of a judge. Again, all charges were dropped. I had spent over 10 hours in police custody. For what?
All of my contact with the police has been negative. Even just being pulled over by cops while driving has had weird repercussions for me. How could I forget the cop who pulled me over for having a brake light out? Then again a few days later. Then again, a few days after that, even though I had fixed the light, just to say “I keep seeing you on the road, I almost feel like we’re dating” (I changed my route home from work after that and never saw him again). Juxtaposed with this, how could I forget my friend whose dad was a cop, who constantly was being pulled over for speeding? All she had to say was, “do you know my dad?” and every time, every cop let her go without a ticket.
Because of these early experiences, for most of my adult life I have tried to avoid any kind of conflict with the police. I “stay on the right side of the law.” I follow all traffic laws. If a cop is behind me on the road, I will turn at the nearest opportunity. I have never encountered a police officer without feeling some kind of anxiety, and I think this is the case for most people. Because even if you aren’t doing anything truly wrong, the police are at liberty to take away your most basic freedoms at a moment’s notice. Because they can. And they do.
If I were a black man instead of a white woman, my experiences with the police would look very different. Most likely, I would have dealt with underlying racism and unmitigated violence. As a woman, I have dealt with underlying sexism and implied violence. Neither one of these is okay. Neither one of these scenarios should be acceptable. And there are so many other scenarios that I’m not even getting into here. What if I wasn’t poor? What if I was married? What if I was a different race? What if I was openly gay? What if I had been older? What if I was a man? Would I have been handcuffed to a chair for over 6 hours then for a bullshit reason? All of these factors – race, gender, age, sexual orientation, socio-economics – are social constructs. They are divisive constructs. The fact is and always will be that people are people. We are all here, together, trying to do the best we can. We are taught that difference is bad. We are pulled apart into so many different pieces, we can’t get it together; it’s divide and conquer. It’s so sad.
Today another police officer was not charged in the death of another unarmed black man. There is video footage of the police officer using such excessive physical force on Eric Garner that he killed him. Still, the officer was not held accountable. After what happened in Ferguson just last week, it feels like a slap across the face of society. We cannot allow this to happen any longer.
When I was driving home from work, I heard the news on the radio, and I was just shocked. How many times does this have to happen? How many people have to suffer from the abusive hands of the police? How long can people go on and on and on hoping and waiting for things to get better, without actually doing anything to make them better? What will it take for people to say … “Your problem is also my problem. Your fight is my fight. We are in this together. We will fight this together. We will protect and serve each other, because we are all brothers and sisters in humanity.” Police brutality and these systematic abuses of power tread on very dangerous territory which affect us all.
“United we stand, divided we fall.”