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?


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Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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