Monday, December 08, 2014

This Is Breaking My Heart

I needed a lazy Saturday. I don't usually sleep in, but I did, then after a big breakfast, I finally got dressed and took a nice long bike ride that took me up until late afternoon. I was aware that there were "I Can't Breathe" protests planned for Seattle, but intentionally steered away from them, not because I don't support the cause, but because I needed a day to clear my head, to reset my heart, to sweat profusely, and, yes, to breathe deeply.

And also, like Eric Garner (the New York small business owner who was strangled to death, on video, by an out-of-control police officer, who won't even be tried for what looks to all the world like murder) I have asthma and the Seattle Police Department is notorious for the liberal use of pepper spray, something I want to avoid. As I sat in my living room, however, cooling down, it became evident that the protests had come to me. I first heard the unmistakable sound of someone leading call-and-response chants with a bullhorn. From my window I could see flashing lights of SPD vehicles blocking off streets. I knew the "official" protests had been scheduled to start hours earlier at Garfield High School and were to end at the SPD headquarters. I was surprised that it had made it's way to South Lake Union, then remembered the 4th precinct, a few blocks from my apartment, and thought that maybe I'd misunderstood the plan.

In any event I couldn't sit in the comfort of my home and went to check things out. As soon as I saw the small knot of maybe 100 protesters blocking Blanchard Avenue, I knew what was happening. This was a splinter from the larger group of some 1,200 the media were reporting had taken part in the earlier event. I'm familiar with this phenomenon. Maybe it takes place in other cities as well, but in Seattle, when the big protest is over, there is always a committed group, mostly young people, who are not ready for it to end. This is usually when people do stupid stuff. In this case, there were some reports of guys throwing rocks.

I considered just heading home, but decided I should at least stand with the protesters for awhile. There was a clutch of bike cops on the sidewalk, a double line of yellow vested officers blocking the street, and a dozen or so black suited guys with what looked to me like rifles, although they were probably something less lethal. Then behind them there were a bunch of SPD vehicles with tinted windows through which I could make out more cops. All of them wore riot gear. There were probably as many cops as protesters, a group that was mostly comprised of kids in stocking caps.

The scene struck me as ridiculous. The protesters weren't doing the righteous cause any favors by just roaming the streets blocking traffic. The cops struck me as a bunch of boys playing at being army men. I was trying to get as close to the line of cops as I could, when one of the bike cops told me I had to stand off the sidewalk.

I asked, "Where can I stand?" He pointed to the private parking lot which was about 6-inches from where I was already standing. Okay. It seemed arbitrary, but I moved 6-inches. He was still staring at me so I asked, "Is this okay?" There was no response so I walked up to a small section of cyclone fencing where I was within a few feet of a few of the cops.

I could see their expressions through their face masks. They were attempting to stare straight ahead; to look tough. They were so young. In fact, they looked younger than most of the protesters. The older guys were the ones with the guns. It suddenly occurred to me that this is the moment I've been waiting for. I'd been giving speeches about this in my head: now I had the audience I most wanted.

I said, "This is breaking my heart. I keep hearing that most of you guys are good guys. I believe that you are the good guys, but I also know some cops are bad guys. I can't tell which is which, so I have to act as if you're all bad guys." The guy closest to me broke his stare to glance at me. I know he heard me. I said, "This is on you now. I don't know who the bad guys are, but I'll bet you do. If I were you I'd be sick of them making me look bad. Only the good cops can get rid of the bad cops."

I was in sad-dad lecture mode. Several of them looked at me without responding. I know they could hear me: I was so close and the protesters were, frankly, so quiet. As I talked, one of the older guys with a gun approached the fence, positioning himself within a few inches of me. It was intimidating, but I didn't move. Instead I turned to him. He made eye-contact with me.

He said, "Tell me. What you say, doesn't that also go for the protesters?"

I answered, "No. You're the police. Without you, society can't function. It's a fundamental part of your job to figure out which ones are bad guys. My job is to be a citizen. Right now, you're treating all of us citizens like we're bad guys. That's why young black men are being slaughtered by cops." As soon as I said it, I regretted the word "slaughtered." I could see it got under his skin. I tried to fix it, "Listen, I'm sure you're a good guy. I'm sure you go to bed at night and think about this stuff because you have a conscience. I just wish you good guys would get together and get rid of the bad guys. Until you do that we're going to be afraid of all of you."

He shook his head dismissively and chuckled.

I replied sharply, "It's not funny. Bad cops are killing innocent people." I waved toward the protesters, "You might think this is all ridiculous, but the message is serious. The anger is justified. I want to respect cops, but right now we just fear you." He stopped laughing and walked away. God, I hope I made him think. I know the younger cops standing like robots heard the entire exchange. I hope it made some of them think.

It was about this time that the protesters decided to start moving. We were only a couple blocks from the 4th Precinct so I figured we were going that way. I decided to follow along, not exactly taking part in the protest as much as acting like an observer. They walked down the middle of the street, while I remained on the sidewalks, obeying crosswalk signals unless the cops had already blocked off the street. We walked right past the police station. I'm not even sure the protest leaders knew where they were. I followed them to Westlake Center, then for some reason they turned around and headed back up Westlake Avenue.

As I followed along on the sidewalk, the unmarked vans full of riot-gear wearing cops filling the street behind the protesters, I fell into conversation with a man and woman, both well-dressed. They were doing what I was doing. We joked about how fast the main group of the protesters were moving, how us "old people" were struggling to keep up. The man, an African American, introduced himself as "Rick," the woman, an African judging by her accent, didn't volunteer her name. As we passed another line of cops, I slowed down to offer an abridged version of my lecture, telling them that I was counting on the good cops to get rid of the bad cops.

Rick laughed, "I like what you just said. That's just right."

I answered, "I know most of them are 'good apples,' but you know the expression, 'One bad apple spoils the bunch.' That's what's happening right now. They aren't policing themselves. They keep protecting the bad apples and it's making all of them stink."

We then fell into a conversation about our kids, how we worried about them. Rick said his 18-year-old daughter was "mixed" and he worried about her every time she went out with her friends. We also talked about how our kids were starting to be afraid of the police and how that wasn't good for anyone. The protest continued along Westlake under my apartment window, then down amongst the office buildings, where, for whatever reason, they started to head back toward downtown. There was obviously no plan. I lost track of my companions in the surge of protesters and police back in our direction.

I considered just heading home because it was all starting to seem silly and I was almost home, but then decided to at least stick with them back to Denny Way. I guess I just wanted to see what was going to happen. I fell into stride with a tall African American man, again a guy closer to my age. I've seen him at other protests. We talked about how cops (both public and private) had historically been used to put down union protests, often violently.

The protesters went up the steep Denny hill. Honestly, I pitied some of the bike cops who had to follow them to the top. The older guys really looked like they were struggling. When they got to the Fairview intersection, the protesters again stopped to block traffic. It was an early Saturday evening: there wasn't much traffic to block.

I stood with my new companion on the street corner across from the main action. We talked about the police and their tactics. He clearly had more experience at these things than me. At some point he said, "I'm the kind of guy who brings a knife to a gun fight." I'm not quite sure what he meant, but it sounded kind of cool.

It was at this point that the cops decided to end things. They singled out someone with a bullhorn and a whole gang of them threw him to the ground in a way that looked excessively violent. By now they must have known he was just a kid engaged in civil disobedience. It didn't have to be like that. My companion started yelling, "Police brutality!" and he was right. It was unnecessarily brutal. He said to me, "All those guns and body armor makes them crazy. They think they're in combat." Again, I thought of little boys playing army.

I crossed the street to get a closer look. I wanted to be a witness. My way was blocked by one of the black-garbed guys with rifles. "Start walking that way!" he said, motioning me away from the action.

I took a few steps in the direction he pointed, then stopped.

"Keep moving."

"How far do I have to move?"

"All the way to the end of the block."

"Can I go back across the street?"

"If that's where you'd rather go."

I asked, "Are you ordering me? Is this a lawful order?"

"If that's the way you want to play it, yes, it's a lawful order."

He started to follow me across the street. I stopped in the middle of the street and said, "I'll bet you're a good cop. I know you're one of the good cops. We're out here because of the bad cops. You know who they are. Until good cops like you stand up to the bad cops, no one will respect you. I don't want to fear you. I don't want my child to fear you. This is breaking my heart."

He started to say something, then stopped, turned around, and walked away.

The protesters, bereft of their bullhorn leader, started heading toward Capital Hill.

I followed along across the street. Finding myself walking with the African woman from earlier. We tracked the protest for a few more blocks, then decided it was time to turn around.

As we walked, she said, "I've been watching you. You know, the things you've been doing: walking up to the police, talking to them, scolding them. If you weren't white you couldn't do that. They listen to you."

I said, "I hope so."

"A black person can't do that. You're using your white privilege for good."

We then fell into a conversation about our respective spouses. Then she said, "You know that guy Rick? He was a cop."


"Yes, when he started talking to me he was asking a lot of questions about why I was there and what I was going to do. That's why I didn't tell him my name. I was at the Occupy Wall Street protest and I'm a psychotherapist. I had him figured out . . . Of course, then I saw him get into one of those police vans. That was also a clue." We laughed.

We parted ways at my apartment where I spent the evening reading reports about the "I Can't Breathe" protests taking place in every state in the nation and around the world, some of which had turned violent. I thought about the things I had said to "Rick." I'm glad I said them. I said exactly what I want American cops to hear. If his task was to infiltrate our ranks and bring back intelligence, I hope he includes what I had to say in his report.

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Melissa said...

Well said! I love your good cop/ bad cop approach. I needed to read this...thank you for being a voice of reason!

Jeff said...

Hi Tom.
I have an excellent link to the most recent FBI report on police officers assaulted/killed. Very interesting read.
If anyone wants to understand the big political picture behind these sort of events, I would highly recommend following him.

Nancy Schimmel said...

Thank you for doing this and for telling us about it. We white folks need strategies for being good allies. I like yours.

Amy said...

Interesting experience you had. Your post leaves me thinking and wondering about whether police officers are actually empowered in any real way to take the important actions you urge them to take. I know little about the culture of that profession but suspect that the pervasive philosophy that proactive policing is the key to reducing crime has created cops who don't know how else to do their jobs, which has essentially created the situation we face today. I wonder if it's so much about good or bad cops at all. Maybe the system is broken because it essentially requires good cops to treat people disrespectfully as part of the job description. Thought-provoking article I recommend:
Also thought you might want to know about this:

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