Who are cops…the police? Mostly guys, mostly white. In the past few decades a few women, more and more “ethnic” persons: some African-American, in Minneapolis-St.
Paul they reflect the recent immigrations…somewhat…as far as I know. Not too many Hmong persons, a few Latinos from various countries…
Who are we…in thinking about the police – wondering how they think about us, and what they’re “up to?” How many of us would like to be cops? Do police “like” being cops, or filled to various levels of…fear, import, wondering about each next person, in each approaching moment?
How do they get to be cops? I mean what’s inside their heads, their thinking, that we might get to understand in their terms – more than in our reactive minds?
Also important – maybe very important is the fact that they dress in “uniforms.” Uniforms seem to take individual identity and help make them all into police – cops. (Where has their “individuality” gone?)
More signs: their cars, bright flashing lights, rear seats which can be made very separate from the front ones; painted black and white (in lots of places). Quite obvious. (Except that we might forget to notice them when we’re driving a bit too fast: over the speed limit. And they can make really loud siren noises which instill us with fear and the immediate reaction to stop, and pull over.)
All this to say that the police have quite a “presence” in the world: in many/most senses they are all “alike.” Uniform…has several meanings and even more connotations. (The differences between police and the military? – has gotten a bit complicated and confusing especially in these moments driven by war, terror, fear… (Observing the RNC meeting in St. Paul last fall: the police “looked” remarkably like military – faces obscured, wearing odd/different uniforms, carrying threatening looks and clubs. Whatever it takes to “keep the peace” said the mayors!)
Sargeant Crowley and that “Uppity Professor” (from Harvard no less), “Skip” Gates. What were the exact circumstances? Never totally clear: perhaps so “obvious” to many of us, that the moment-to-moment “facts” don’t seem very important to the situation.
A white cop (likely with some ethnic background which might still be “important” – was very important a couple of generations ago – Irish Catholic? Boston, a long history of Irish Catholics bathing in money and power. But we should remember the movie, “Gangs of New York” pitching the Irish immigrants against the (then) white Protestant majority to taste those senses of their history. Tough (mostly) guys? Ethnics, culture: what sorts of culture do the police have? “White ethnicity: gone entirely or some residuals?
And an African American, in many ways “the African-American Professor” in these times when being “Black” is taking on some “new” meanings, especially as Barack Obama is our President. And Harvard: In “spite” of being at Harvard, Gates is probably the most important historian/critic of what is African-American. (I got to watch/listen to him an entire evening at the U. of Minnesota a few years back, being interviewed by colleague John Wright of the English Dept. here: two very interesting/fine minds at work in trying to understand and be critics of the American world, and “blackness” within it. And Gates is a public figure frequently on TV and elsewhere.)
African…American? Some history here. The Irish Catholic history seems to have effectively disappeared – but there might be some “cultural” habits or thinking – maybe especially about what it means to be a cop…
So who am I? Writing about all this?
An Anthropologist who tries to observe the world, all the people(s), who they are, how they world “works,” how their heads direct their thinking. What is law and legal? What do I know? How to behave and stay out of trouble! Be a good boy! Observe, think…
In some ways, I am a cop. I teach and work hard at keeping some semblance of peace in my classes (not usually much problem…but sometimes, Yes!).
I am a bureaucrat, don’t exactly wear a uniform…but I apparently “look like a Professor” – dress pretty correctly in that scene. Lots of people at the University (mine, or wherever I visit) say “Hello,” as if I …belong there. Gates looks like a professor, as well, but his professorial appearance is sometimes overwhelmed by…color!? (And is being a Professor a “good thing” in these times of money mongering and little thought about different cultures and how they are often misunderstood: e.g., Iraq!)
Some personal history (we all have “some history”) with cops. A police station just 4 doors away till I was 5 – police all very nice to us neighbors. No memory of any sense of fear. Next house, had to walk a bit to school. Remember a very nice cop who helped us cross the major street, with buses and all kinds of traffic and stores. No sense of concern or worry thru high school: careful, cautious…sure. My Buffalo home was across the Peace(!) Bridge to Canada: we learned to deal with the Provies (Provincial – very formal cops) on the Canadian side. “Yes, sir! Yes, sir!” Such memorable moments.
Stories about cops on the take: Chicago was the center (at least in my extended family). Then a trip to Mexico – where it was all “different.” Or seemed different, except they were usually so helpful to us – saw very few “bad” scenes (lived always in the “right” neighborhoods?) Concentrated on helpfulness and kindness. (Have TV and movies “changed” all these perceptions: a much more “dangerous” place than when I was growing up and growing our kids up?)
During the Civil Rights days, I was very concerned with questions of fairness, democracy – and “got involved.” Worked during Summer 1968 (as the Democratic Convention was disintegrating in Chicago – as most cities in the North, at least, were being burned to different levels of crisp) – I worked for the Justice Dept in Washington – knew a lot of cops – met with them. But the FBI – and the Community Relations Service (where I was) – had very different ideas of police “work” and cop cultures.
I was the Anthropologist: given the task of “close” reading the notes of so-many cops who had gotten killed in confrontations with African-Americans. Fewer than 100, I recall, but not much less.
Most seem to have “brought it on themselves” – didn’t really study, understand, probe the cultural dynamics of “Black Folks” – “outside” gatherers in groups – cops apparently saw loud crowds more than individual people in groups.
Pulled their guns “early” in the moments of confrontation. (Pulling guns early – was a part of the ways in which most of the urban cops – interestingly, historically – mostly dominated in the Northern Cities by Irish-Americans. Still? – guns, at least handcuffs.).
The Community Relations Service – which did have a good number of African-American cops – had a very different notion of police presence. First say “hello,” reach-out, shake hands (and usually some reception or defusing), guns stay way behind the scenes, or may appear if nothing else works (but it usually “worked)!
From my study, I urged the police (everywhere) to hire African-American cops – have them out on the streets, try to befriend crowds. It could help if the cops knew some of the persons personally. And these “riots” (they were called) all stopped! Literally – after the Democratic Convention, the levels of threat, anger, and all – virtually stopped, and became history. (I was asked a few years later by a S. African official how this had happened here…Same advice.)
So: cops! I’ve had long conversations with a few of my students who were (already) cops – what it’s like – the training – the moment-to-moments of dealing with all the people in the various “hoods” – (I live in dwtn Minneapolis – where there’s lot of action!) – but it’s not a “ghettoized” scene. And there just began a program of “sort” of official workers-helpers-cleaners just to keep the scene “pleasant.” A sort of community-relations work, where their uniforms act as a kind of “official intermediate.” Very nice work.
But it’s not always “pleasant” – not always easy, or friendly. Poor people increasing (I “pass” for a nice-white guy in most current settings – I rarely get asked for I.D. with a credit card.) But I note a fair number of dwtn cops who “hold” themselves/faces very formally; appearing to be looking for the “worst” persons, cases (4 centuries of slavery in America still rise to reek and tweek our noses and fists-wrists). “Ghettos” still exist, and seem to be becoming more-so these days. (Maybe…with Obama?)
So: cultures, color (what gets cops decorations and promotions?). In 1968, a good cop from the cop’s administration, was convinced that pulling a gun really early in the scene would…work. But it didn’t – not in that Civil Rights moment. And there were others, not cops who were frightened (of a black Harvard guy?) – because…
Because history, poverty, slavery!…continue to wander still uneasily in our collective and individual minds. Change the world: make us all equal? A cop’s wish, culture, keeping the scene cool and calm. Anger? Handcuffs work? (Most African-Americans would, I’m pretty sure, keep this situation quiet, hidden: not Skip Gates!)
In such an “interesting” time we’re in, the question of the cops…police hovers always a bit nervously…especially when we’re a bit nervous about who’s trying to get (to) us. Why? Increasing fear makes it easier to keep the world in and under control – except for a few thoughtful (and brave) persons…