It is time the general population in America faced an unpleasant truth. It is a truth disenfranchised communities across the country, from black, to brown, and to trans* are too familiar with: the police in this country act like a gang. Unfortunately half of you just closed the tab. So steeped are we in mindless devotion to those in uniform, especially those wearing blue, that any suggestion that the institutions they are part of be examined tweaks the gag reflex of the collaborator class in our country. Some of you may keep reading though, and I hope you do, because this is not about me, or even the broader police accountability movement, “winning” the argument, but about us all winning a society we deserve, one in which our black brothers and sisters are not twenty plus times as likely to be shot by cops as our white ones, or have their lives turned upside down because they “fit the description.” I am far from the first to suggest this connection, but let us break it down a bit.
Many organizations, from businesses to non profits, use the language of family to create bonds between peers and between workers and management (the ways this is abused in places like Wal-Mart and other large corporations, and even non profits, is worthy of its own article) but no one does this quite like an old school gang… except the cops.
Just as the Casa Nostra, Crips, Bloods and the Tongs, the individual police forces in this country and the larger institution literally view themselves as a family of sorts. This even receives media reinforcement in the form of the execrable bit of propaganda that is the TV show Blue Bloods, a series that portrays a family full of cops and the metaphors between their real family and their larger law enforcement one. The show lauds the tribalist behavior of both the Reagan Clan and their NYPD brethren.
Being in the family has its advantages too. Cops do not just cover for each other, but ticket fixing for family members of cops is wide spread and even publicly defended by mouth pieces for police unions. If you are a cop you likely don’t have to worry about your kid being bullied and have less to worry about if your kid is the bully.
The language of family is used to tie police together in ways far beyond is done in other organizations (again, besides a gang,or maybe a cult) and explains and amplifies what is known around America as the Blue Wall of Silence.
You’re Either With Us, or Against Us
A gang brooks no argument. It is their neighborhood. You pay the protection, you pay the 40 percent a day on your “loan”, or you keep your yap shut about what is happening on the porch of that run down house on the corner. Anyone who interferes with their business is an enemy. Everyone is a potential narc, everyone a potential mark, and everyone needs to be guarded against. If you speak ill of Marco, the guy who drunkenly abuses the cocktail waitresses at your favorite watering hole, you can expect a “conversation” with Marco’s friends, even if they don’t like his behavior.
Such is true for the cops in America. We are told over and again that it is is a matter of a few bad apples. We are asked to believe there are good cops. You know what? I want to believe that. I have known cops, and I have known their wives, brothers, children and clergy, and I have known these cops to be decent people… outside their work. They may even behave like we expect them to, but a good cop that does not call out the bad cops, that instead finger wags at the public when we ask that cops be held accountable is indeed a bad cop. Sorry that is the truth of it, and too many cops cave and do not merely remain silent in the face of the obvious need for reform but will denounce reform outright. Saying your group can do no wrong, especially when you know this is not true, is the behavior of a gang.
Especially When You are One of Us
Maybe you still want to believe there are good cops. I get that, as I said, I want to believe that too. Want to find some, or figure out which ones are not? I have an easy test for you. It is a great litmus test and the easiest in the world to perform. It requires four, simple syllables. In the presence of a cop you are unsure of simply utter the name “Frank Serpico” and see how they react. Odds are good you will see at best a wrinkled nose and at worst a grandiose expression of outrage. Frank Serpico is hated to this day, forty years after the movie made about him, by cops across the country.
He is hated because he committed the unforgivable sin of breaking the Blue Wall of Silence down, if only for a little while. He is hated despite the fact that what he exposed was not simply police out of control letting their badges go to their heads and using excessive force, but rather overt criminal activity by the cops. It is one thing, bad as it is, to turn a blind eye to the faults in your institution, but to hold anger in your heart over a man who protected his community from his brothers in blue who were acting outright contrary to law enforcement’s alleged purpose because dammit you’re not supposed to rat your brothers out no matter what, well, that behavior looks awful familiar.
It is the behavior of organized crime. It is the behavior of men who literally bury both their competition and those within their organization who betray them. Before you accuse me of hyperbole in this matter, remember, Frank Serpico was led into an ambush and left for dead by his fellow cops. They wanted him silenced forever and nearly got their wish. I fear for the safety of the brave officer who refused to turn his back on Mayor DeBlasio at the funeral of Officer Ramos, if only because his “brothers” will be slower to come if he needs them.
What’re You Lookin’ At?
“If you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about.” This is what the cops tell us all the time.Why worry about a search? Why worry about our surveillance state? If you are not engaged in criminal activity, why then do you care if there is a camera at every third stop light, if not ever one, in your city. It is funny, then, that they have such a problem being recorded. Even after it has been established that barring legitimate safety concerns, and the narrowing of what defines that, it is perfectly legal and acceptable to record police activities cops still turn around and threaten those taking their picture with arrest, or worse.
Just as the mob learned to hate FBI wiretapping, just as they hate the presence of reporters snooping around (though the media hasn’t bird dogged organized crime in any meaningful way in over a generation) cops do not like evidence that they might be screwing up or worse. They may not have to resort to a goon pushing a cameraman to the ground, though that happens, but the implicit violence in comments made to both activists, and with increasing bravo the MSM, has a chilling effect.
The veneer of respectability is important to gangs. Even the so-called “thug” culture of street gangs will hide behind a “community” spirit once a gang has been in a neighborhood long enough and has established itself. Criminals hide behind legitimate fronts all the time, whether a restaurant, bar, laundry service or waste management company. The only difference for cops is their “day job” is also their gang job.
Cops don’t just enjoy respect, they demand it. Like the well-coiffed mob “gentleman” of yesteryear they expect a certain deference and wear their uniforms the way a capo would wear a well tailored suit. Their badges glitter like the “bling” associated (right or wrong) with black gangs. They hide behind the a public trust they fail with alarming regularity just as the mob bosses hide behind their used car lots.
The Final Obvious Comparison
Of course no use of the gang analogy would be complete without discussing violence. The only recourse a gang has to resolve disputes is violence.They cannot take a debtor to court. There is no FDA making sure the heroine they received is of approved quality. If the boss is screwing you, you have to get to him before he gets to you. There is no excuse for this behavior, but it can be explained.
A cop firing at least six times at an unarmed kid, though, or firing as soon as the car stopped at a 12 year old child leaving exactly no time to give the warning you obviously lied about, or gunning down a man with a packaged air soft gun who is telling you it is not real, or putting a bullet in the back of a handcuffed suspects head, those cannot be explained. They can only be explained by a love of violence, a love shared by many who adopt the criminal lifestyle.
So What Can We Do?
I don’t know. I know what we can stop doing. We can stop letting police, and the uncritical authority worshipers in our midst, derail the conversation. We can stop avoiding discussions about the institutional problems in a police force that has been allowed, and maybe even saddled with, the terrible responsibility of having the power of life and death over their fellow citizens. We can stop treating cops like they are automatically better people than the rest of us. This alone has horrible repercussions. Acton said power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I can think of no power more absolute than the blind, unquestioning trust of millions of people.
Are the cops a gang? I don’t know. I am not inclined to say definitely yes, but likewise I am very inclined to not say no. I do know if your behavior elicits legitimate comparisons to gang behavior, then maybe you have to take a step back and examine what you are doing. If you are so intent on not letting others question you, and mind you that is a really messed up position to hold no matter who you are, then you need to start questioning yourself. Which is it going to be you who would defend cops? Are you going to demand the public’s trust, or are you going to demand law enforcement work to earn it?