Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Turning Their Backs on Justice

If the police want to turn their backs on NYC mayor Bill DeBlasio, that's their prerogative. They are citizens and have the right to make a political stand, even on their jobs. To assail that right is to assail the 1st amendment rights of all workers. Unlike the military, they have a union that can sound the alarm when something is wrong in the system. In this way, the political expression of police is deeply tied to the health of our democracy. And that's why the stand that many in the political leadership of police unions have chosen to make has been both disappointing and unsurprising. 

Talkingpointsmemo.com has an interesting article about the reactions of police unions to widespread police brutality protests. The article notes that police are feeling under threat and their political leadership is more aggressively answering their critics. The back-turning on DeBlasio is the most high profile, but before that Gabe Crocker, president of the St. Louis County police association, was publicly demanding "discipline" for what he deemed the "misconduct" of Saint Louis Rams players who protested with a Hands Up salute before a game.
Note to Rams Players: Hands up only denotes innocence
when you're catching a football. For a touchdown.
The article talks about the shift in philosophy in law enforcement after 9/11, that went away from community policing to counter terrorism and how it lead to a deterioration in community relations. Charles Wilson, national chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers, puts it this way:
"People just don't think the system is working fairly for them. In some respects, I have to tell them, 'No, it's not,'" he said. "The basics of community policing are still the same. You have to understand the people in the community. You have to be able to gain their trust and respect.
Now that's a start. We need police union bosses to make more speeches about the ways that the integrity of police work has been undermined by the prison industrial complex: how officers are encouraged, and sometimes required, to put as many black men in jail as possible, no matter their innocence or guilt; how decades of corrosive drug policy has snatched whole generations of black lives, either on street corners or behind bars;  how some municipalities use the court system as a fundraising enterprise, ensnaring poor communities in a web of exorbitant fees for tickets and court services; how police lives are endangered to enrich the lives of white collar criminals on both sides of the law. Give that speech and I'll burn all my hoodies, remove Chief Keef from my spotify, and give out free belts to all the children with the lowly pants. Ha-lle-lu-jah.

Instead, they want to talk about respecting the law. They want to talk about accountability. They want to talk about "impoverished culture." They want to restrain us with bootstraps and Cosby sweaters.

Cos Conspiracy Note: Cos is no conspiracy victim. If ever the people who conspiritate
needed his pudding pops and victim blaming, they need it now. Don Lemon ain't cutting it.
One of the main dilemmas that police as a political force have is a simple equation that hasn't changed much since this country was a tiny Slavecom startup: demand for police is proportional to White fear of Black men. There are whole libraries with laws designed to imprison black bodies. And there's a job, with a badge and a gun, for each of those laws.

Slavery Note: Amendment 13 doesn't ban slavery, it bars
involuntary servitude "except as punishment for crime". 
It's no slander to police at large to point out this connection. In its most humane form, police work, whether it's in America or Europe or Africa or Asia or wherever, ensures that justice and the rights of the afflicted are protected. We are, quite simply, how we police. The people who are willing to take up this responsibility, people of moral conscience and humanity, should be honored for their sacrifice. They tend to us in our most human, and inhuman, moments. They can restore a sense of order and hope to shattered lives. The problem is that the inherent injustice of the system makes it so hard to act morally, especially when such action threatens political capital.

It would also be hypocritical as a teacher to deny the connection my profession has to the justice system. Teachers can pretend like we don't see the prison pipeline awaiting our students at the door, but it's there. Ask a prisoner where they learned their first lessons about systemic brutality and they'll probably direct you to an elementary school classroom.
Illustration: Seth Tobacman
And that's one of the reasons that it's so important to have organized teaching labor that has the opportunity to have a voice, even if that voice has been compromised by self-interested politics at times. Think what you want about Chicago's teacher strike a couple years ago, but who else was willing and able to put the corporate takeover of our school system on blast? Who else but Karen Lewis was calling out the inherent racism in the setup? Teacher's unions are far from perfect, but who else is going to be left to speak on behalf of poor children of color once they're gone? 

And that goes the same for police. Teachers have to defend ourselves from critics who say that we care more about our salaries than reforming the educational system that inequitably serves the children in our care. In order to have any credibility within the communities they work, police have to show they are advocates in reforming a racist justice system designed to destroy the lives of poor people of color. It's a tall order, that flies in the face of entrenched economic and political interest, but anything less is criminal.