cross-posted at New Orleans Slate
“This sends a powerful, powerful message, and that is that public officials, especially law enforcement officers will be held accountable for their acts. The citizens of this country should not have to fear the people called upon to protect them.”
~US Attorney Jim Letten, 8.5.11 addressing the verdicts in the Danziger Bridge trial
On March 6, 2011 this happened:
Ten or so minutes later and one block down, this happened:
One night a while back, I sat talking with two friends. We had some beers, we talked about everything under the sun. Somehow we wound up discussing police. POH-leece. I explained that as a child I was told that if ever something happened, if I got lost, if someone weird approached me, even if I was just plain scared for no apparent reason, that I should look for a policeman and he’d save me. St. Michael in a blue uniform and peaked cap. I knew my address, parents’ names, phone numbers. Get hold of that guy in blue and you’re gonna be okay.
I went on for some time about this, in my reverie not noticing that my friends remained silent. I lit a cigarette and looked at them. They were looking at each other askance. I was bewildered, replaying my conversation in my head, wondering what I’d said. Was I not clear? Had I said something off the wall, hell I am prone to that. Had I said something to offend them?
Finally both of them looked at me and said in unison, “WE were NEVER taught that!” Both of these people are native New Orleanians. Both of these people are black. They explained clearly that they were certainly not taught that, and that in fact, avoidance of police was the best approach as police could not necessarily be trusted. They were stunned by what I’d said.
My statement had made very clear the divide in our realities in America during those decades just past the Civil Rights era. Police were never a safe haven for these friends. I have to wonder if they saw cops walking a beat, some guy with a Polish or Irish last name. “Officer Krupke. . . .. .” Probably not, but if they did they certainly didn’t see him as someone to turn to in time of need, someone on the side of the angels. Not happening for these friends, and they are much younger than I. As Bunny Colvin says in a conversation with Carver in the Wire (Season 3 I think, late episode), once it became a war on drugs, a war, their jobs were no longer POH-leece, their jobs were to be warriors and they acted as such. The neighborhoods no longer were places to be protected and served, they became occupied territories. My experience and my friends’ were very different. I had a different skin color and a different zip code.
Spring forward a few decades. Nixon’s war on drugs has lasted all these years. No actual dent has been made in terms of stemming the flow of drugs in this expensive “war”, nor in my opinion will it ever be an effective program for anything other than bogging down the court system, filling the jails, making people with drug charges unemployable and draining the tax coffers. The only people making out are the cartels, big time dealers and the prison system (especially the privatized institutions—don’t get me started on that). We now have generations of steroid enhanced cops who come out of the Academy with their shiny new badges and a “them vs. us” mentality. Knock some heads. Put on kevlar. Riot shields look awesome. Helmets and pepper spray and commando attire are the stuff of heroic macho dreams. We’re heading for the front, boys, and if we make it we’ll get a pension, but we gotta get “them.” We gotta be the cowboys. Christ, they all think they’re Wyatt Earp, who was not a hero really in any measure. He was a vigilante, with rigid ideas and a million get rich quick schemes in his head. Really. We don’t need Wyatt in our streets.
Last March I wrote about what happened during the Eris parade. I saw it with my own eyes. I had not seen violence like it since the sixties’ anti-war protests. Clubs swinging. Cuss word slinging. Heads being bashed. Pepper spray being dispersed in clouds. Arrests that looked like they were made out of spite not probable cause. Cops that looked like they were enjoying the power. Cops waiting til the parade was almost at its end point, where it would have dispersed naturally in a quiet end of the Marigny/Bywater, to do all this. Cops who seemed to have a major chip on their shoulders. I pulled four kids out of the street that night. Two of them had been bashed badly. Meanwhile, two blocks down, the police, yeah those guys I was told were a safe haven in a storm, were saying, “Don’t look back, all I want to see is backs, keep going” as they walked in a line pepper spraying the paraders. They were the storm.
What was the big crime? No permit. Okay. I’ll give ya that. No permit. Oh yeah and that brick that was allegedly tossed at and hit a cop, who has yet to be named. (If anything they blew a prime PR moment by not trotting out the alleged injured cop, with bandages on his/her head in a wheelchair looking pitiful. If they’d done that, the public would have instantly gone to their corner in this. But they didn’t. Which just makes ya flat out wonder if. . . . )
So where’s all this leading?
When I saw what was happening I hit Facebook, Twitter (which I abhor) and started writing here about what I’d seen. I actively solicited photos, videos, first hand accounts. I published whatever I was sent including censurious comments about property and car damage alleged to have happened. If that happened, and I’m not doubting the veracity of the commenters, then the ones responsible should have been surgically removed and arrested. I am not an anarchist, nor am I interested in protecting vandals. Arrest those folks. For real. For sure. Fo’ tru. But don’t start indiscriminately bashing heads of folks that had nothing to do with all that. Okay, wait. They were out there in fairy wings with a brass band without a permit. Ticket worthy maybe. Billy club warranted? Not on your life.
A couple weeks later I heard through the artist grapevine that is very accurate and fast, that police were looking for me at the local store. I got worried. I was told to be worried by some folks who know what the score is better than I. I was told they hadn’t liked what I’d written and the speed with which I’d gotten the information out. I mentioned going up to the cop shop to tell them they were looking for me and answer their questions. After all, I wasn’t involved, had done nothing wrong, what did I have to be worried about by answering their questions? Three lawyers who know their way around said, NO WAY. So I didn’t. Did I mention I live in the Fifth District? One very dear friend said, “Write it up, write it up NOW.” A lawyer I talked to said, “No way. Don’t say a word for a bit. Just sit tight.” So I did that. I trust both of them but the lawyer’s word meant more at that moment.
So for months I went the right way down one way streets on my bicycle worried that I didn’t have a light. I was careful not to weave if I’d had a few at the local bar. I checked outside my house to see if anything hinky was going on. I looked down the alley when retrieving my mail. I double checked if the dog barked. I felt like I was under siege. Nothing happened. I got my story out to the people who could protect me, made sure that everyone knew who to call should I be hauled in for no apparent reason. Had friends checking on my having made it home. I was invited to parties and barbecues. I didn’t go. I was afraid that perhaps I’d draw the police to that place. I looked in the mirror and realized that I was not John Dillinger and drank myself into the courage to show up for a fundraiser for the legal fees of those arrested that night. The entire night I was paranoid. Probably stupid. Narcissistic? Perhaps. A leftover of the sixties when we were all certain everyone knew we were tripping? Possibly. Nevertheless, the stress level was beyond what a citizen reporting what was seen, and in fact documented, should feel.
I lived in an Occupied Territory. Yup. That was how I felt for months living in the Fifth District of New Orleans.
Shortly the commander was replaced. Promoted I heard. A couple weeks ago she was added to the list of commanders being investigated. I see a POH-leece and know by virtue of my color and age that if I walk up to them reasonably sober and tell them I have a problem with a prowler and I’m afraid to go home alone that they’ll accompany me—unless they’re having a bad night and decide to haul me in for public intoxication. Therein lies the problem. I’m not sure which guy I’ll be talking to, the guy who will help me or the guy with a chip on his shoulder. Most of the rank and file are okay guys who actually give a shit. But then there are the others. The Occupiers. The ones who don’t care if the street lights are out, who hold grudges against vocal neighbors, who point air finger guns (think air guitar) at citizens who dare to ask them to turn down the volume on their partying. The ones who see themselves as the good guys and the rest of us, white or black, young or old, as the “other,” the enemy.
This is not an occupied sector. It’s a neighborhood. A neighborhood with people who own, rent, pay their taxes, get their brake tags re-upped, cut their grass. Who lock their bikes, sit on their stoops and want to see their police in the streets knowing who they are. The kind of cops that as a five year old I was told to look up to, to go find if I needed help, who know that Miss Janie is alone and is ninety and might need to be checked on sometimes. Who don’t view every black person (Male, 6 ft, white tshirt, jeans) as a gun carrying drug dealer when he might be Miss Ellie’s boy, and she’s a “bonified colored lady of the old school” so you know that young ‘un was brought up right, nevermind he’s carrying a brass instrument next to his stellar report card rather than a Glock. If you walked that beat, Officer Krupke, you’d know the people and the kids in the neighborhood and you could make a difference.
And the difference wouldn’t be how much paranoia and fear you could engender. That is the attitude of an occupier, not a police.
I learned, as I always do from my friends, what it’s like to feel like the “other.” I can never possibly know their experience. I wouldn’t presume to say I could. But a few months of that kind of fear, fear of the very people I was told to turn to in times of trouble, made me wonder what it’s like to live an entire life in that mode.
I wonder too what toll it takes on the Occupiers. You officers are supposed to be here for us. We’re not all your enemies.
Some of you are decent, caring people who chose this career in order to serve your city and your fellow citizens. You’re out there every day, dealing with stuff the rest of us don’t have to carry into our dreams at night. We understand that and are grateful that you stepped up so we don’t have to have those nightmares. Seeing what you’ve seen, you probably have some constructive ideas that the rest of us haven’t thought of in terms of keeping young black men from filling the jails or worse, filling the streets with their blood. An idea that doesn’t necessarily involve handcuffs and billy clubs. You are the guys that see the day to day problems of poverty and unemployment. You must have some insights that can help us get a start on fixing the problems, instead of your adding to them with fear and divisiveness. That’s gotta be more important than a bunch of folks parading through the streets during Mardi Gras with babies on their hips and fairy wings on their backs and no permit in their pocket?
What made that warrant such a violent response from the officers out there who continue to view all of us as the enemy? Why would you officers want people like me to be afraid of you? Afraid to call you in an emergency, afraid you might haul me in rather than go after the guy who just tried to get in my front door? Is that really your goal? Fear? Most of those arrested were charged and are awaiting court dates right now. No doubt if fear is your goal, you’ve reached it.
Let’s lock up the guys spilling young people’s blood in the streets. I am not saying let criminals go. I am saying that by tempering your responses and treating us like fellow citizens you can put an old one like me into a position where I can again make my case for calling you in times of need. Let’s do that. It’s what we must do to have civilization.
This shouldn’t be a war, it should be a cooperative venture. And from where I’m sitting, decades of “us vs. them” has turned the urban landscape into the occupier’s patch of carrots and you view us as the annoying rabbits in that patch. And some of us are afraid you might have set a trap or loaded your rabbit gun. Wouldn’t you rather we called you over to our stoop to have a cup of coffee and admire our geraniums?