When I was about 5 or 6 my mom showed me a picture in the paper and said, “This is why we hate the cops.” In the photo, a man is held down by police officers, his bloody mouth gagged by several pairs of handcuffs linked together to form a chain. The man was my mother’s brother. When I was older I would learn enough about my uncle to know that he probably deserved what he got, but I have never escaped the feeling that those whose actions should be punished should not face that punishment at the hands of individuals who are supposedly assigned to protect them.
Three and a half decades later I was driving in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and as I approached a red light I slowed down, intending to stop. A police car approached the intersection from the left, also slowing down. As we both neared the stop line, my light turned green and I proceeded into the intersection. Just as I crossed the stop line, the police car, with at least three officers in it, coffee cups in hand, sped up just enough to cruise through the intersection, forcing me to brake hard as they drove by staring intently at me. “Did you see what they did?” I asked my passenger and was informed that this kind of thing happens all the time in the hood. It should not have surprised me.
About five years earlier in Chinatown I watched as two cops—both large men—confiscated a bag of counterfeit merchandise from an elderly woman. Sure, the woman was dealing in illegal goods, and the cops were doing their job, but they were doing it with glee; empowered by their ability to terrify someone far weaker, they could not hide the pleasure they were taking in their work. They proceeded to confiscate goods from other vendors, who quickly packed up and moved while shops were closing the gates to the backrooms of their stores. The people I was with wanted to shop for faux designer handbags; they were upset they were coming away empty handed, but as I watched these two cops doing their job, the smugness of their strut through the crowd of vendors and tourists allowed me to see firsthand what I had long suspected: the motto To Serve and Protect is followed by an unwritten direct object of the verbs, (the Rich).
Whatever arguments one might make about the right of individuals and companies to profit from their creations, the actions of those police officers did nothing to either protect or serve the people there that day—neither the vendors trying to earn a living nor the consumers trying to find a good deal on products they couldn’t afford. The people selling fake Chanels are not in competition with the stores who sell the real ones; the people who shop for fakes on the streets of Chinatown are not the same people who are going to buy the real thing in Bloomingdale’s. The actions of the police officers that day protected the right of those who already have money to make more; they served those who have already benefited from capitalist ventures, at the expense of those who are struggling to benefit from the same.
An internet video posted on October 15, 2011, reconfirmed all of this for me: it shows protesters at a Citibank near Zuccotti park who were attempting to close their bank accounts as an act of protest. As the video begins they are locked inside the bank; at the end of the video a woman outside the bank is forcibly dragged inside by police, allegedly because she is one of the protesters. Regardless of what happened before the video began (some say the protesters were just trying close their accounts; others that they were loud and disruptive), the fact of what is being shown on the video is that people are locked in a building against their will, and one person is forced into the building, and arrested for refusing to leave the building. Who were the police serving in this instance? When an officer grabbed an unarmed, nonviolent woman and carried her into the building, who was he protecting? These questions are not rhetorical: the answer here is Citibank, who stood to lose money by the actions of these protesters. No other people or entities were in any danger.
I was at Zuccotti Park that day and as I made my way through the crowds I would stop often to read signs and talk to people. That’s what everyone was doing, except for the police officers continually telling us to keep moving and keep the sidewalk clear. No one argued with them and we all did our best to not block other people’s passage, but when one cop justified his command with the excuse that not everyone wanted to be there and were just walking through, I wondered where he got that notion. I was one of the people being told to keep moving so that I wouldn’t block these hypothetical passersby, but it occurred to me that no one there was just passing through—everyone present, except the police, were there because that is where we wanted to be. Anyone just passing through would not have entered the park—it’s not a large park—they would have walked on the other side of the street, and I wasn’t the only one thinking this as one young woman said out loud the very thing I was thinking. Then I saw someone with a sign that read:NYPD – You’re Welcome for the Overtime.
The next day I heard on the news that overtime pay for police was well into the millions, and they were being kept from dealing with real crimes because the department was spending so much time and resources on the protests. Time and resources—money—wasted on maintaining a police presence where it is not needed, for the purpose of telling people who are where they want to be to not be there (and occasionally punching and pepper spraying them in the face).
Another thing that occurred to me that day was that these police officers telling us to clear the sidewalks were in fact doing their jobs, their instructions coming to them from those higher up, like the ones who shut down street vendors in Chinatown, and not all of them did it with conviction. The one who told us we all didn’t want to be there seemed to be happy he was somewhere he could boss people around, but other cops didn’t seem so content with what they were doing. One young officer seemed distracted as she directed us to keep moving; she had the look of a wary worker, doing it for the money with no joy, no sense of place in her occupation. I thought she should join us—after all, the police are working class people and stand to benefit as much from the movement as anyone . . . except of course those they are employed to serve and protect.
originally published Oct. 28, 2011