What happens when the police don’t keep you safe?

I noticed that the New York City “rape cop” case seemed to cause a shift in the thinking of some feminists, who saw police officers using their position of authority to do violence and basically get away with it. At around the same time, the SlutWalk movement caught on in a big way, inspired by the slut-shaming words of a Toronto police officer. I got the sense a lot of privileged white feminists learned a lesson many people of color, undocumented, poor, and trans folks have known forever: the police are not your friend.

Yes, there are decent people on the police force. But the job of the police is to preserve the status quo. Topeka, Kansas decriminalizing domestic violence is a stark recent example of how much the police and the whole criminal legal system don’t care about sexual violence. And in fact, we’ve seen the worst of this in cops raping a woman and getting away with it. The issue isn’t that there are a few bad cops, or that there are a few good ones. The problem is the institution of the police itself. They’re a force that works for those who are in control to maintain the social order. Anyone working to realize social justice, anyone trying to change an unjust social order, could come up against the police at some moment or another.

This is a lesson many feminists have been slow to learn. Folks who have grown up with the police serving and protecting them understandably think the police work for them. Folks who’ve grown up being harassed by the police – who’ve seen their family members pulled over for no reason, arrested for being in public space, or totally ignored or even charged when they were a victim of a crime – have a different image. When the cops work for you, it seems like a pretty good idea to trust them to serve and protect. When you’ve been a target of the police, you tend to see a different picture. A lot of feminists with more privilege, and therefore a bigger megaphone, have an experience of the police that doesn’t mesh with what more marginalized folks have seen.

Well, this lesson is being put on video, again. Occupy Wall Street is showing us what happens when people stand up against powerful financial institutions. You want to know who the police work for? Watch this video of people being arrested for closing their CitiBank accounts en masse. Including a woman being forced back into the bank by police so they can arrest her:

Every time this sort of police behavior becomes public, I pray something good will come of it. That mainstream, privileged white America, for whom the police work, will wake up and realize what their protectors are doing to the rest of us is beyond any notion of justice or human decency. I was glad to see a white dude make the argument so well on MSNBC recently – maybe the mainstream will remember this:

We’re told to turn to the police when we’re in trouble. But is this force, who will turn against us when we’re threatening those in power, really who we want to trust to respond to injustice? I believe passionately in building community-based responses to harm, in building alternatives that create learning, growth, and change.

Occupy Wall Street is creating an image of a different world, one free from the cruelty of capitalism. We’re seeing that vision clash with the violence of the police. I know I’d like to work towards a world more like the one OWS envisions, not the world the police are defending.

Are recent activist clashes with the police changing your thinking? Do you see this as an issue of reform or much larger cultural change? How can we create a world where we don’t think social order needs to be maintained by police violence?

Related:

Is criminalization a good prevention tactic?

Why I don’t support hate crime legislation

“What is the value of a life of a black man in America?”- No justice for Oscar Grant

Notes from a bitch…untitled…

$1.3 Million does not mean justice for Oscar Grant

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11 Comments

  1. Posted October 17, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    THANK YOU FOR THIS!!!!

    As to whether or not my views on cops have changed, well, I’m one of those people who has been subjected to police harassment at different points in my life, as have a number of people I’ve known. One anecdote I’m ok sharing is last summer when a police van pulled up alongside us and they started hassling my husband about the way he was walking (though to be fair, they did drive away when he explained about his disability.) I’ve had to deal with them on other occasions that got stranger than that though.

    By the same token I’ve also encountered helpful or reasonable cops. I can tell about the cop who, after I’d had a scrap with a mugger, bought me lunch out of his own pocket when he learned I hadn’t eaten that day. I’ve also sometimes thought to myself “The cops are working class too. What if they were to cross over instead of upholding the system that keeps them in their place like everyone else?” Would those who partake in the perks want to give that up? Honestly I have a lot of nuanced experiences and thoughts about cops, which I guess would make sense, given it’s a force of individuals, like anything else. I don’t buy the “protect and serve” thing for a moment, but I don’t think it’s quite as simple as “Fuck the pigs” either.

  2. Posted October 17, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this– if you are as outraged as I am, you might like to know that I found a name and number for Citibank’s President, Vikram Pandit. His direct office line is (212) 793-1201, and his email address is vikram.pandit@citi.com I just rang his office and left a message with a secretary stating that I will never use Citibank.

    I realize that this is just one incident in a huge network of police injustice, but it still feels good to let Citibank know that people are watching.

  3. Posted October 17, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    Yes! Thanks for this, Jos! It’s such a relief to hear other white folks calling this out (women of color have been naming this in their critical responses to SlutWalk organizing for months).

    Here’s another great resource for recognizing police as a source of violence and not safety in many communities: http://www.incite-national.org/index.php?s=52. The toolkit includes a section on police violence against sex workers that is particularly important for activists aligning themselves with law enforcement to “end sex trafficking.”

    Also, I agree that we can’t lose sight of individual officers’ humanity and solidarity as members of the working class (though their earnings are often enough to put them in the upper middle-class income bracket), as Jos said, it’s not just about a few bad apples. The police is a force designed to uphold the status quo, maintain social order and protect people with power and privilege. Sadly, I don’t believe individual people’s positive actions within this institution can change the institution’s design, intent, or impact on society.

  4. Posted October 17, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    The recent police brutality hasn’t changed my mind at all, since I’ve expected this stuff from the police for basically as long as I knew what police were. I was never under the impression that they would protect and serve me, they were always terrifying. Hopefully, those who have enough privilege to expect better from them have now learned that you can’t. But unfortunately, I agree with the guy from the MSNBC video, this will almost definitely blow over and be forgotten, and the police will get away with it like they always do. Police can pretty much get away with anything, it makes me sick to my stomach. I had a friend (don’t want to give names or anything), whose father was a police officer, and he molested her. Needless to say when her mother found out, moved away from him, began the divorce and filed charges, they were just thrown out, and nothing at all was done. He’s still a police officer.

  5. Posted October 17, 2011 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure I’ve ever lived in an area that had anything but distrust for the police, and I’ve lived in some pretty “white” areas…I think this is less surprising to non-racial/ethnic minorities than some assume.

  6. Posted October 17, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    Not to the nature or the injustice of the mentioned police brutality above, but speaking as a cis white feminist, I think there’s a lot to be said for not appropriating a distrust of the police when it’s not my lived experience.

    Still trying to tease this out.

  7. Posted October 18, 2011 at 2:28 am | Permalink

    As a kid I was taught to trust law enforcement officials. Getting older, I suspected that trust (officers are people, people are shitty), but my own interactions went fairly well. Then, around age 20, an officer pulled me over for kicks and proceeded to give me crap with an air of Dude In Power And Not Afraid To Use It.

    This terrified me. Not for myself, at the time, but for my brother. Lil Bro is autistic, and he’d recently gotten his license. He’s a very reliable driver–I doubt he will ever be pulled over for an actual infraction, since that’s Breaking the Rules–but he’s terrified of the police. (“They put you in jail. Forever!”) And, I realized, rightfully so. Lil Bro acts a little differently in perfectly calm situations; when agitated, as he certainly will be when faced with an officer, he comes off either as high or evasive. When truly upset, he seems potentially violent (he isn’t) and is incapable of giving a coherent answer to any question. Not behaviors Asshole Officers will take kindly, I’m sure. Lil Bro and I have talked about this, both with our parents and one-on-one; I’ve even asked him if he wants a Med Alert bracelet because I’m pretty sure they’d have to look at it during processing. (Currently the answer is “no.” Lil Bro tries very hard to live as a “normal guy” as he puts it, so I won’t force it.)

    Someday it’s going to happen. I live in fear of that phone call. And with that fear comes a deep, bitter distrust of the people who could potentially use their power, the trust invested in them by the people, to abuse my brother for nothing more than being a little different, just the way he was born.

    • Posted October 18, 2011 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      Verity Khat, that sounds pretty scary. I hadn’t addressed disability and interacting with the police in the OP, and I’m glad you brought up this story – it’s a really important issue.

  8. Posted October 18, 2011 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    I agree wit Emily Egan, I ‘ve never trusted the police. Being white doesn’t allow you into the patriarchal culture, I think it only lets you think you’re an insider. I think the “privilege” only extends to white heterosexual males. I do realize many women think they belong and think they have a say in the “privileged” white culture, but we all know that they really don’t.

  9. Posted October 18, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    THANK YOU FOR POSTING THIS. It’s not very often that I see people call to create community solutions to hate crimes — but in my (privileged, white, cis, English-speaking, documented) experience, I have realized that introducing the police into a situation makes it MORE dangerous, not less.

  10. Posted October 18, 2011 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    I agree with the other posters who are excited to see this critique of the police on a feminist blog. I also highly recommend the book Colors of Violence by INCITE! It is a really great critique written by women of color on domestic violence shelters and the problems of using the police/state to “solve” domestic violence.

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