I was taught, like all other little upper middle class white suburban children, to respect authority. Authority = parents (obv), the headmaster (I went to a private school) and teachers, police, firefighters, the president of the united states, the military…all the big obvious authorities. God, sort of (my dad is an atheist, my mom is not, I went to church). I went to Fourth of July parades and cheered the cops and the firefighters while waiving my American flag with the best of ’em.
Then high school rolled around and I rebelled a little more than most kids, I was a really angry kid, and got collared several times by the cops for truancy, smoking while truant, driving while truant, drinking while truant, running around the local college campuses while truant, you get the picture. But even then, even while wondering what the fuck I was doing to hurt the world by ditching school, smoking weed, and being angry (nothing), and even while wondering why the cops weren’t off harassing other people (my small socal college town police force stopped harassing high school kids and started harassing black people later), I still had respect for authority ingrained enough into my teenage psyche to “understand” that the cops were the good guys, so the cops were probably right, and that the good guys were saving the world from me, the bad kid.
“These People”: Incident #1
Fast forward to a night during my stint in junior college, when I was at the little apartment in Pico Rivera where my boyfriend at the time, his mother, his younger brother, and his little cousin sent from Mexico to get away from some unnamed bad influence, lived. The building they lived in was a small 50s California ranch style house, split into three tiny apartments. In one other apartment lived an old retired couple, and in the third apartment lived a family with three small boys, ages ranging from around 2 to 6. It was a weeknight in summer, probably around 11:30 pm, when the mother of the three boys next door started screaming. We all rushed outside to find her standing in the driveway screaming and crying and yelling and brandishing a broom as a weapon. A drunk naked man had crawled in the open window of the three boys’ room, she cried, but luckily he made enough noise climbing in that she found him immediately and flipped the fuck out like only a protective mother could, scaring him off. Against my boyfriend’s wishes, his mother called the cops. So, we waited.
And waited. And waited. And waited. And the entire time I kept thinking to myself, if this were Claremont, they cops would have showed up immediately. And the entire time I kept thinking to myself, why was my boyfriend so against calling the cops?
It took the cops a good 45 minutes to show up. Although I was bothered by how long it took, I justified it to myself by saying it’s not the cops’ fault, Pico Rivera is a lot bigger than Claremont, Pico Rivera has gang problems, the cops are probably over burdened. When they finally arrived, there was one big white cop and one smaller Hispanic cop, who translated for the big white cop…and it took about 2.5 seconds for me to figure out why my boyfriend didn’t want his mother to call the cops. First, the big white cop berated the boys’ mother for having the window open. Next, he proceeded to joke to the Hispanic cop (who didn’t translate this particular bit) about how “these people” do stupid things like leave their windows open and wonder why bad things happen to them. And finally, when he saw that my boyfriend – a very tall, very broad Mexican-American in his early 20s, with baggy jeans, a baggy white t-shirt, and a Dodgers cap over his long indigenous-style braids – was holding a baseball bat (which he had grabbed immediately upon hearing the mother’s screams), he slammed my boyfriend up against the wall of the house and frisked him, violently and for no reason.
And so began the cracks in my faith.
“These People”: Incident #2
Fast forward to a weekend day in Venice, California. I was in law school. I had written an article that got me onto the UCLA Law Review about 4th Amendment searches and seizures, and the erosion of the level of suspicion of law-breaking cops must have in order to “legitimately” stop and frisk someone, from probable cause to articulable suspicion. I hated living in Venice, and moved away not too long after, because I was directly involved in the gentrification of the only community in California where low income people lived near the beach. I watched black-owned businesses on Abbot Kinney close and white-owned businesses selling stupidly overpriced olive oil open. I watched the blatantly clear delineation between wealthy whites and poor blacks march further east, along with the obviously militarized LAPD, who protected the gentrifiers from the gentrified, and I watched as the Mexican street vendors completely left the neighborhood. But most importantly, I watched the cops treat two teenage black boys that lived next door to me like subhumans.
I don’t mean to imply that nothing happened to shake my faith in police between the above incident and the one I’m about to recount, which happened while I was in law school. My undergrad education did a great job of helping me question much of what I was taught growing up, including power in its many manifestations. (Side note: It was at UCLA that I figured out how to put my anger into words, thanks to my various feminist theory classes.) I was highly skeptical of the police, but I still believed the police force was a legitimate institution that was unfortunate but necessary, and that people needed to help weed out bad cops so the good cops could do their jobs.
I didn’t know my neighbors. Because of my extreme liberal guilt, I thought that my neighbors – blacks that had lived in the neighborhood for a long, long time – probably disliked me because I was a gentrifying white chick, and frankly, I wouldn’t have blamed them. I knew that the building next door was owned by an older black gentleman, and that he had a number of family members that lived in the building. I knew that some of the teenagers’ friends liked my Chevrolet Monte Carlo and that they hit on me occasionally. I suspected that a couple of the guys that lived there were Shoreline Crips, and I knew that there was a drive through drug business next door, and that there tended to be a lot of empty crack and/or cocaine baggies in the street, especially on the weekends.
One day, I was puttering in the kitchen of my second floor apartment, with all of my windows wide open. I saw two cops walking down the street, and as I watched them pass my neighbors’ building, I saw them run onto the property, down the side of the house. I heard a scuffle, and I heard yelling, and I heard a loud yelp, and I watched them dragging two fighting, struggling teenage boys to the front lawn. One boy dropped to his knees, obviously having a hard time breathing. The people in the building all ran out to the lawn yelling trying to figure out what was happening. I ran downstairs too, because – speaking of the 4th Amendment – I didn’t like the idea of the cops charging onto private property. It turns out that the cops saw the two boys sitting on a stoop toward the back of the building, smoking. The cops said that they could smell marijuana smoke, so they decided to arrest the boys, which they did violently. One of the cops pepper sprayed the boys, causing one to have an asthma attack, and I watched as the cops refused to do anything about the asthma attack and instead threw the suffering kid in the back of a recently-arrived police car amid the protests of friends and family.
I was pissed, and I said so. I told one of the cops that I didn’t believe they could smell marijuana smoke from the street because it was too far away. I told one of the cops that their actions were unconstitutional, and that the fact that they found a small amount of weed on one of the boys does not mean they can justify their unconstitutional actions after the fact. I told one of the cops that their actions smacked of racism. And as I was telling one of the cops what I thought, the LAPD community relations officer approached me and said he would be happy to hear my complaints. He asked if we could speak inside the gate of my apartment building – the kind of tall wooden gate rich white people live behind when gentrifying neighborhoods due to fear of the gentrified – and by doing so, the community relations officer completely separated me from the situation, completely removed me as a cop watcher. But I agreed, because again, deep down, he was still an authority figure to me. He then proceeded to tell me that “these people” are bad people. “These people” would sell their grandmothers for drugs, and that “these people” are a threat to the neighborhood.
And frankly, I completely deflated. I didn’t know what to do in the face of his very calm, very fake friendly description of “these people”. It was horrifying and depressing and at the time, I didn’t have a response. I didn’t have a response because even by that time in my life, I still hadn’t articulated to myself exactly what I thought was wrong with the police, I was unused to this kind of blatant prejudice, I shut down. I went back inside and felt powerless. (And if I was feeling powerless, can you imagine what the kid having the asthma attack felt??)
This was the nail in the coffin as far as how I felt about cops. But I still couldn’t imagine a world without them, I still felt like they were a necessary evil, and that there must be a way to police a community fairly.
The Anarchy of Me: Fuck the Police
I have a problem with authority, always have. I had a child phsychologist explain to me as a teenager that it was due to a particular experience I had as a child, and essentially that it was fixable – implying, obviously, that my problem with authority is itself a problem. Well, fuck that – my sensitivity to issues of authority and domination make me a more empathetic, thoughtful, and aware human being, and that thoughtfulness has led me to the conclusions that most authority is, in fact, bullshit. And when that authority comes at me with unclear and irrational rules, with clear prejudices, with hubris, with violence, with militarized weaponry, and with the unwavering legal, financial and philosophical support of the state, something just feels fucking wrong. Is it the individuals who join the police force? Yes, it’s definitely the individuals. Is it the system within which these individuals operate and flourish, with their monopoly on “legal” violence? FUCK. YES.
People much smarter than me have written about this. My favorite quote about challenging authority is by (of course) Noam Chomsky:
Anarchism, in my view, is an expression of the idea that the burden of proof is always on those who argue that authority and domination are necessary. They have to demonstrate, with powerful argument, that that conclusion is correct. If they cannot, then the institutions they defend should be considered illegitimate. How one should react to illegitimate authority depends on circumstances and conditions: there are no formulas.
In the present period, the issues arise across the board, as they commonly do: from personal relations in the family and elsewhere, to the international political/economic order. And anarchist ideas — challenging authority and insisting that it justify itself — are appropriate at all levels.
My favorite step-by-step take down of the police as an unjustifiable authority is by (of course) Crimethinc., which you will find HERE – SERIOUSLY PLEASE READ THIS IF YOU HAVEN’T, IT’S FANTASTIC.
And, if you’re still thinking, “but what do we do about all of this CRIME,” please spend some time thinking about what crime is, who defines it, and potential reasons it exists. So many people have written about this, including (of course) Emma Goldman whose Chapter called “Prisons: A Social Crime and Failure” in her book Anarchism and Other Essays can be found HERE.
Once you start questioning the validity of police power, it becomes possible to imagine practical, realistic alternatives.
But basically, it comes down to this: The police are here to protect the status quo, and they have the right to protect the status quo violently. And our status quo is a society in which there is an ever-widening income gap, in which cronie capitalism is leading to giant businesses controlling public policy as important as immigration policy, prison policy, food safety policy, and on and on. It’s a society in which public space is disappearing, money constitutes protected political speech but the act of occupying public space does not, and the U.S. government is collecting massive amounts of our personal data, likely unconstitutionally. It’s a society in which dairy farms torture cows so that people can eat their cheese and the people who shed light on this torture are put in jail. It’s a society in which prejudices still run rampant.
In short, it’s a society where a power elite rule, and that power elite keeps taking more. The police protect the status quo, they protect that power elite. And our society that needs to be shaken the fuck up, that power elite needs to be taken the fuck down, and the police will be there to try and stop us at every step.
And that, my friends, is why I say with eagerness, sincerity, and joy: FUCK THE POLICE.