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…

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  • Dave Oakes

    Harv,
    I would have thought you would have given credit to your only son-in-law for giving you such a catchy phrase!
    Dave

  • Dave Oakes

    Harv,
    I would have thought you would have given credit to your only son-in-law for giving you such a catchy phrase!
    Dave

  • Dave,
    Many thanks for the phrase – overheard in describing Skip Gates as an “uppity professor.”

  • Dave,
    Many thanks for the phrase – overheard in describing Skip Gates as an “uppity professor.”

  • Karl Rogers

    Harevy,

    As you requested, I’m adding a brief comment about my recent encounter with the police of Minneapolis.

    I was travelling on the (excellent) light rail when two police officers boarded the train and began checking tickets.

    Much to my surprise, they only checked the tickets of the black and arabic appearing passengers. When I offered my ticket to one of the police officers, he winked at me, and ignored my offer, clearly because I am caucasian.

    Of course we can talk about racism in the police from the point of view of it being a moral wrong, which it is. We can also talk about racism from the perspective of its victims. It is important that we do.
    We can also raise the question of how “racial profiling” of the kind exhibited by Minneapolis’ police on the light rail exhibit sloppy police work. Does “racial profiling” really work? This is an necessary question for the police to ask themselves.

    But here I would like to raise an opportunity for reflection upon its effect on the perpetrators of racism. It seems to me that racism harms its perpetrators too.

    It seems to me that these police officers are possessed by a particular theory of human nature — embodied in their racist ideologies — and also a particular theory of gender — embodied in their conception of manliness. It seems to me that these theories, rather than open the individuals in question to realising their potential as human beings, actually stunts their growth, compelling them to perform a cliche, a caracature of being human. Compelling them to play a role, a charade, of what it means to be a human being, a man. These theories not only prevent these particular human beings from discovering what it is to be human or a man, but also reduces them to a stereotype as the limit of themselves. It locks them into a series of bodily performaces, in action, posture, attitude, and speech. It distorts them — leading to self-deception and dellusionality. It controls them.

    In this sense, we can view racism as a mental illness and a growth disorder, a product of poor upbringing and education, carried over from childhood and developed in adolescence. It is necessary to understand the kind of environment that this illness and disorder thrives within and spreads.

  • Karl Rogers

    Harevy,

    As you requested, I’m adding a brief comment about my recent encounter with the police of Minneapolis.

    I was travelling on the (excellent) light rail when two police officers boarded the train and began checking tickets.

    Much to my surprise, they only checked the tickets of the black and arabic appearing passengers. When I offered my ticket to one of the police officers, he winked at me, and ignored my offer, clearly because I am caucasian.

    Of course we can talk about racism in the police from the point of view of it being a moral wrong, which it is. We can also talk about racism from the perspective of its victims. It is important that we do.
    We can also raise the question of how “racial profiling” of the kind exhibited by Minneapolis’ police on the light rail exhibit sloppy police work. Does “racial profiling” really work? This is an necessary question for the police to ask themselves.

    But here I would like to raise an opportunity for reflection upon its effect on the perpetrators of racism. It seems to me that racism harms its perpetrators too.

    It seems to me that these police officers are possessed by a particular theory of human nature — embodied in their racist ideologies — and also a particular theory of gender — embodied in their conception of manliness. It seems to me that these theories, rather than open the individuals in question to realising their potential as human beings, actually stunts their growth, compelling them to perform a cliche, a caracature of being human. Compelling them to play a role, a charade, of what it means to be a human being, a man. These theories not only prevent these particular human beings from discovering what it is to be human or a man, but also reduces them to a stereotype as the limit of themselves. It locks them into a series of bodily performaces, in action, posture, attitude, and speech. It distorts them — leading to self-deception and dellusionality. It controls them.

    In this sense, we can view racism as a mental illness and a growth disorder, a product of poor upbringing and education, carried over from childhood and developed in adolescence. It is necessary to understand the kind of environment that this illness and disorder thrives within and spreads.

  • Karl,
    Very apt observations and remarks. Note that Karl lives in Argentina and was visiting in Minneapolis, meeting me in dowtntown.

    How to “enlarge” the thinking of the police is important and challenging. Better, how to “get” them to think more inclusively is probably more to the point. Is this a “personal” thing, or something within the “culture” of cops – how to enter this discussion.

    My experience with the Community Relations Service years ago – advising the hiring of African-American cops – and members of other ethnic groups: reaching out to the community more than reacting to their “stereotypes” – not underestimating the possible dangers and complications of dealing with all of us…but not coming to policing as if “others” are “always” on the edge of breaking the law.

    Law, education, always attempting to be friendly and inclusive, rather than in reactive modes.

    Harvey

  • Karl,
    Very apt observations and remarks. Note that Karl lives in Argentina and was visiting in Minneapolis, meeting me in dowtntown.

    How to “enlarge” the thinking of the police is important and challenging. Better, how to “get” them to think more inclusively is probably more to the point. Is this a “personal” thing, or something within the “culture” of cops – how to enter this discussion.

    My experience with the Community Relations Service years ago – advising the hiring of African-American cops – and members of other ethnic groups: reaching out to the community more than reacting to their “stereotypes” – not underestimating the possible dangers and complications of dealing with all of us…but not coming to policing as if “others” are “always” on the edge of breaking the law.

    Law, education, always attempting to be friendly and inclusive, rather than in reactive modes.

    Harvey

  • Karl Rogers

    Harvey,

    I agree with you that it is important that the police themselves attempt to broaden their thinking about the nature of good policing, which, of course, involves improving community relations, adopting more friendly and inclusive practices, as well as incorporating the public, through dialogue, forums, elections, etc., in the ongoing inquiry into how to improve policing. This crucially involves widening the ethnic diversity of the police force to reflect the ethnic diversity of the community, as well as also reaching out ot more women to join the police. Obvious the democratisation of the police is the way forward here.

    However, I think that there is a deeper problem with racism and sexism: how they presuppose theories (ideologies) of human nature and gender. These presuppositions both enframe and structure the potential for human development — indivdually and culturally — both distorting and stunting that development if enframed and structured by poorly developed theories (ideologies).

    This links nicely with the points you have made about how a great deal of our understanding of how to approach the question of human nature already presupposes theories of human nature. I think that has considerable importance for how we understand how to improve social institutions, such as law, education, or police, and how we understand the nature of good laws, good education, or good policing.

    As you have pointed out yourself, all of this related inextricably to how we envision our future, which, in turn, shapes how we understand and represent our present and past. My concern is really with the problems we face trying to understand how this vision is itself already distorted by poorly understood (subconscious, contradictory) represntations and theories of human nature and our future possibilities. Are we trying to pull ourselves out of the swamp by our own hair?

    How do we understand how to approach the question of understanding how we understand?

    It all comes back to the deeply philosophical and practical question of the nature of intellectual inquiry and how it relates to our inquiry into the question of how to live life well.

    Karl.

  • Karl Rogers

    Harvey,

    I agree with you that it is important that the police themselves attempt to broaden their thinking about the nature of good policing, which, of course, involves improving community relations, adopting more friendly and inclusive practices, as well as incorporating the public, through dialogue, forums, elections, etc., in the ongoing inquiry into how to improve policing. This crucially involves widening the ethnic diversity of the police force to reflect the ethnic diversity of the community, as well as also reaching out ot more women to join the police. Obvious the democratisation of the police is the way forward here.

    However, I think that there is a deeper problem with racism and sexism: how they presuppose theories (ideologies) of human nature and gender. These presuppositions both enframe and structure the potential for human development — indivdually and culturally — both distorting and stunting that development if enframed and structured by poorly developed theories (ideologies).

    This links nicely with the points you have made about how a great deal of our understanding of how to approach the question of human nature already presupposes theories of human nature. I think that has considerable importance for how we understand how to improve social institutions, such as law, education, or police, and how we understand the nature of good laws, good education, or good policing.

    As you have pointed out yourself, all of this related inextricably to how we envision our future, which, in turn, shapes how we understand and represent our present and past. My concern is really with the problems we face trying to understand how this vision is itself already distorted by poorly understood (subconscious, contradictory) represntations and theories of human nature and our future possibilities. Are we trying to pull ourselves out of the swamp by our own hair?

    How do we understand how to approach the question of understanding how we understand?

    It all comes back to the deeply philosophical and practical question of the nature of intellectual inquiry and how it relates to our inquiry into the question of how to live life well.

    Karl.