Downwardly Mobile Whites Meet the Police

Last night, a father walking with his daughter of about 5 pointed to a policeman and said: “That’s a cop, sweetheart, stay away from them. They have big sticks and pepper spray that can hurt you, they are bad men.” RIP Officer Friendly.

I overheard this exchange en route to Brooklyn’s main transit hub, Atlantic Terminal, to see my own dad, who earlier in the day had e-mailed me the UC Davis video of cops pepper spraying peaceful student protesters. The fact that my 72-year-old white father and my partner’s 11-year-old Black daughter sent me the same link is telling about our new Occupy era.

American police forces, militarized to the hilt and more repressive domestically than in decades, are exposing to all — especially downwardly mobile white Americans — what many in the world have known for years: the U.S. will act as a police state to defend power and profit at the expense of any expression of democracy.

The Sunday New York Times even ran an op-ed from the former poet laureate, Robert Hass, who was clubbed along with his wife at Occupy Berkeley last week. The next day, students carried signs reading, “Beat poets, not beat poets.”

Most Black and Brown Americans have developed at least a healthy skepticism of the police, if not outright hostility, which comes from any number of quotidian nasty and humiliating encounters with the cops. This has not been the experience of most middle-class whites in the United States, though poorer whites, too, have often been victimized by the police. Here are the incarceration stats:

Of the 2.3 million inmates in custody, 2.1 million were men and 208,300 were women. Black males represented the largest percentage (35.4%) of inmates held in custody, followed by white males (32.9%) and Hispanic males (17.9%).

The fact is, the American state hasn’t needed to use this type of daily force and brutality in the recent past. In times of relative economic stability, or at least perceived stability, the state does not need to crack 20-year-old students over the head — or aging poets, for that matter. But these are not ordinary times, and the days of economic stability are past.

Last week, when I joined hundreds in the middle of the night to defend Occupy Wall Street from police eviction, the terror meted out by riot cops in every direction was stunning, even to a movement vet like me. The overwhelming numbers of cops and their wanton use of violence from coast to coast is the U.S. ruling class’s way of warning us: this is what will happen if you continue to challenge our priorities.

With ideological cracks developing in the face of massive austerity alongside vast concentrations of wealth, how else can 1% defend their interests against 99%?

In ordinary times, the 1% rely on ideology to pacify us; brute force is not usually necessary. But in the end, survival of this colossal inequality requires a gobsmacking display of force by their 800,000 police troops nationally, paid a median salary of $51,020 plus benefits, as opposed to a national household median income of $41,900.

For weeks now, like thousands of others, I have found myself in street battles against police who suddenly and without provocation impose crackdowns on all expressions of free speech. Last night, police simply shut down Mayor Bloomberg’s whole block on the Upper East Side to stop a drum circle from disrupting his dinner, creating a “no First Amendment zone,” according to civil rights attorney Norman Siegel.

What strikes me is how even in the face of out-and-out state repression, many activists — not all — still insist that the cops are part of the 99%. In fact, as cops pepper sprayed and used their truncheons with wild abandon the night of the eviction, many people at first chanted at them: “You are the 99%, too.”

I disagree. Whatever class they emerge from, once they put on that uniform police MUST, regardless of personal conviction, act in the interests of the 1%. That is their job.

Are they all sadistic pigs, like Officer Pike, captured on video casually and purposefully pepper spraying UC Davis students in the face? No, not likely. Some enter the force to help their neighborhoods and even bring diversity to the force in hopes that it will change police behavior and minorities’ perception of them, instead, they are changed by becoming cops.

Intentions and personal character are not what are called upon when a superior officer demands cops suit up and crack heads. If police do not perform their job as commanded, their peers will not trust them, they will not back them up in violent situations and they risk getting sacked. These are facts every cop understands all too well.

Think about this: what are most laws? They are tools for protecting private property. So we have laws against stealing food, but none against starving. We have laws to protect homes from burglary, but none against homelessness. The police exist to enforce these laws, they are a goon squad for those with property to defend, the 1%.

Police are set apart from the working class in salary, benefits and perks; they often live in cop-dense neighborhoods and drink in cop bars. They are encouraged to think of the civilian population with suspicion; racial profiling is taught, even to Black cops — how else can we explain the extraordinary imbalance of who gets stopped and frisked and who does not. In NYC alone, around 86% of those stopped for no reason other than living in a high-crime area are Black or Brown.

When cops don’t conform to cop think, they can be punished and shunned among their kind until they either get in line or resign.

Our Occupy movement has accomplished many things so far, especially winning the idea that we can resist inequality and win some gains. Now we must learn a new lesson to advance our struggle, because if we’re unclear about who is on our side and who is against us we can make decisions that are dangerous and naive. We’ve come too far to be fooled.

Cops are theirs, not ours.

Join a discussion about this Tues., Nov. 22, 7:30PM: Our Enemies in Blue: Why the Police are Not Part of the 99%, Walker Stage, 56 Walker St., sponsored by the International Socialist Organization.

7 responses to “Downwardly Mobile Whites Meet the Police

  1. Excellent post Sherry. I’m sure you have heard about this, but other readers may have heard about Adrian Schoolcraft. He is a suspended New York Police Department officer who in May 2010 released secretly recorded tapes to The Village Voice. Schoolcraft alleges that these tapes show corruption within New York City’s 81st Police Precinct. The recordings were later published as a series of articles titled “The NYPD Tapes”, and led to allegations that “commanders at the 81st Precinct pushed ticket and arrest quotas on officers.”.

    This former cop is still regularly harassed by NYPD. Here is the Village Voice article:

    And the story on “This American Life”

    This is what happens to the very rare incidents of Police following some kind of moral compass. They are forced out!

  2. Just curious, why are the words Black and Brown capitalized, but white is not?

    Is that some kind of subconscious racial statement that “white” is a default, or a “normal” state, and “Black” and “Brown” require the status of proper nouns due to their Otherness?

    • Jason-
      The capitalization of words used to describe racially oppressed people dates back to the 1960s, to my knowledge, and is an expression of solidarity with the struggles of those who are racially oppressed. Thanks for asking. Best, Sherry

  3. We should carry around placards and push slogans in the next stages of the Occupy Mvmt that read to police and riot cops, esp in the hands of radical youth, Get the Fuck Outta Here We Didn’t Shoot the shit Out dem Cowards on you as Kids Anyway.”……A”Time To Come Home to da Truth to US and Not Dem.” “They need for bulypump Protection and not for your humanities.” “Yea, I know itz hot out here RIP to all my patnas and riot cops on LIFE ROW”…….AND of course with more explicate banners that touch on the dynamics that seperate and at the same intertwine police to the world community…ie. they are cops, with raw visceral power and bigger salaries and seemingly divergrent teleological purposes from their socioeconomic status but they were also kids to say, like most of us, this is really not the world we wanted….hence why many of them joined the force…….to repair, not destroy in the first instance…….I think Sherry we need people who need us……I like to tell people in the first instance I was a humanitarian not a socialist because many dont get it what socialists are really about……they think we are merely about superstructure overhaul and not individudals of great courage and veracity to see keenly into the contours and thus needs of the human spirit and soul…..I feel these days with the right kind of direction and perspective on another’s life station and correlating life view and pychic condition I could get practically anything out of any individual that I want….i derived this understanding from socialist analysis that I gained from the ISO and reworked it into an understanding of how to achieve and win on the microscopic level……..We can engage and win over practically anyone so long as we talk intuiveltely to their souls and understand the telos and cononudrums of their basic nature……..I agree the academy or the instution of law enforcement is systematically hitched to the upper 1 percent but I suppose the strategy I am pushing forth is to, if we must view it in the first cynically, a stratagem much akin to a small man fighting a big cat pretending to be a cat or asine stumbling fool before the fight to draw the bigger, more belicose, and aggressively overconfident foe into his orbit just to deliver that proably much unexpected and well deserved knock out blow…….this stratagem is what i mean in the first instance by the Banners……Let’s make em for these protests on Occupy or any other avenue resistance where police and detractors period will but mainly cops to reshift their perspective and beings out of their normative orbits so that they may either listen or be bitten (bitten by any means necesary Ii mean of course)…..Im not afraid of bringing out the guns but am no fool about power equations either……Eitherway I agree we will not turn back just accelerate our righteous demands for justice, aid, and ultimately revolution……

  4. Well said. Thanks for saying what I’ve been thinking so effectively –

  5. Great article ! Solidarity from Boston !

    Dave Burt

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