A Conversation with the “Good Cops”
It’s you versus us, right?
These are the words you uttered, Officer T., as we waited in line in Central Booking. You stood alongside Officer S., another arresting officer who was handed a body to take from the scene in Times Square, where the New York Police Department arrested 89 non-violent protesters on the afternoon of September 19. Hundreds of police officers surrounded a group of three hundred people listening to speakers give accounts of the realities of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers and first-hand experiences of being an immigrant in the United States. Lining the roads and blocking traffic, the police blasted an order for dispersal, leaving protesters less than a minute to move before launching an attack on them.
We watched in horror as our bikers, after protecting us at every action for the past four months, were taken from us one by one. Police officers grabbed them by their limbs, dragged them by their hair, threw them against the cement, stepped on their necks, and jammed their fingers against metal columns, with no regard for human life, treating each like a rogue animal to be subdued. It was then that the rest of us protesters watching this violation of our First Amendment rights from the sidewalk made the collective decision to link arms, step onto the street and begin a sit-in on the streets of Times Square in an act of civil disobedience against the events that had just unfolded and the actions of ICE. Within three minutes, the police surrounded us once again and blared sirens in our ears before ripping us apart one by one, slapping zip ties on our wrists, and taking us from that scene and packing us into corrections vehicles.
It was striking that we were referred to as “bodies” by police officers most of the day. It was surprising, but not unfamiliar: plenty of us have felt this type of dehumanization firsthand, whether at the hands of the NYPD, DOC, or ICE, in our over-policed and underfunded communities. It makes sense why you, Officer T., and the other officers felt a divide between us. None of us that day were a person with a soul and a name—just a body that had broken the law, was cuffed in zip ties, and had expressed disdain for the police.
Abolitionists don’t believe in this divide of person and body, whether you’re a police officer or protester. Such a division is a dehumanizing feature of abusive systems that we don’t subscribe to. We do not fight to dismantle systems of oppression like ICE, the NYPD, and the prison-industrial complex so that other abusive systems and individuals can rise and replace them in their absence. Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions, writes abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore. Abolition is about recognizing the harms we do unto each other in society, finding ways to reduce those harms both individually and collectively, and building a world in which everyone can have a chance to survive and thrive. It’s not about you versus us.
No, it’s us, you and me and all of us together.
That’s what started the dialogue. Officer T. was curious, and she listened as we expressed why we were outraged at the system but “didn’t hate her” specifically, or Officer S., A., and L. who had also begun listening to our conversation. There is a difference between an individual—a being with a soul and a name—and a profession or system. There are no “blue lives,” as Officer L.’s face mask so clearly depicted. You are not born blue; rather, you are an individual who chooses to participate in a profession that originated as a slave patrol and continues targets, arrests, and kills Black and brown people at disproportionately high rates. The system is deliberate, and your choice to participate in it is, too.
You may be a “good” individual, but you work for a system that asks you to fulfill a quota by arresting old men playing dominos in the street and kids standing on the wrong corner, despite such discriminatory practices being banned a decade ago. The system gives you less training than a plumber but still hands you a gun and allows you to act as judge, jury, and executioner without consequence. The system makes you subordinate to racist and conspiracy theorist police union leaders like Pat Lynch and affords you iron-clad police union contracts that make it almost impossible for someone in your uniform to face real consequences, despite the 17,000 civilian misconduct complaints made against you and your colleagues in the last decade.
We don’t hate you. We hate the system that you are a part of, the system that you defend each time you arrest us when we speak out against it. You say “blue lives” but don’t recognize that you are not blue - you are simply an individual with a soul and a name, afforded a choice and a gun.
So, the gun bothers you then. It’s just part of the uniform.
Well, yes, Officer L; the gun bothers me because of the power it holds. You are given responsibility for things like mental health check-ups, but you respond with your gun instead of care and compassion. You respond to the smallest of problems with the power and resources of the state in your hands. You wield this disproportionate power when you pull over a car for a broken taillight, and you have your hand on the trigger before you even reach the driver’s window; when you justify shooting young Black and brown men in the back as they run away from you by claiming fear; when you choke a man to death over loose cigarettes or a twenty dollar bill, simply because you can. You are handed a gun to protect us, but who do you serve? Our definitions of who and what should be protected are vastly different.
On the afternoon of September 19, you weren’t protecting us or other non-violent protesters when you ripped us apart for stepping into an empty street, zip-tying our wrists, and throwing us into overcrowded bus cages in the midst of a pandemic. Protesters, humanitarians, nurses, and community workers don’t serve or protect this way, so why do you?
Well, I want to do this work and help my community. It’s all part of the job. I’m just following the rules of the system.
And there it is again, Officer T.: the “system” that you are a part of. The system that sees bodies rather than people, a non-violent protest as a threat to its power and a movement to squash; the system that you defend each time we are arrested for chanting money for schools, not police; money for healthcare, not police; money for food, not police; the system that claims to serve and protect communities when, in reality, it steals more than $10 billion from those very communities. Each and every time you hear and agree with us in conversation about this system but turn around and choose to work within it, you continue to be a part of it.
It is ironic that you stood there that day making comments on the system, complaining that it was a waste of time and energy to arrest non-violent protesters for charges that will likely be dropped, confused as to why your superiors were making you write us three charges for an action that could have resulted in a ticket, all while warning us that the system will “trap you in a cycle of warrants and further arrests if you forget that date on your summons or can’t pay the fine they give you.” This is the system that you continue to be a part of but refuse to speak out against, despite what you are forced to undertake in the name of protecting the system.
We spoke for a while about how we were arrested for “dipping our toes in the street.” It was breaking the law...a crime, as Officer A. called it. Crime is a construct, we explain, a construct that the system redefines every decade for the benefit of white people and to the detriment of Black and brown people. We discuss the historical criminality of runaway slaves, and those who disobeyed Jim Crow, but what finally becomes clear to you in this dialogue is that the existence of the type of “crime” we committed that day is the reason that any four of you officers wear your uniforms today. The system works to suppress us and our voices in the name of maintaining power. That power was given to you to wield that day, and you used it to squash our First Amendment rights. The system does not care about justice; the system cares about power and what it perceives to be crime. What society determines as crime and punishment is not an exercise of justice, but power.
Okay, okay. Then what about real criminals? What about safety?
You say this like you’ve stumped us, as if we haven’t thought about this very question for years, and our ancestors for centuries before us, on how to reimagine our society into something safer for all. You, Officer T., are not preventing crime; you are simply responding to it. Crime is prevented when people have enough resources to survive. That is, unless, you subscribe to the notion that people who commit crimes are inherently bad people and simply want chaos and harm. When we march through a community that has been forgotten by the state and we hear the pots clinking, people clapping, and children cheering, we see what these communities want. They don’t want chaos and crime; they want the resources you have taken. They want schools and teachers and healthcare and jobs. They want to survive in a world without crime where their lives matter, and we will fight to dismantle your system because their lives do matter.
What’s your name? Where are you from? Are your zip ties too tight?
Now hours after the arrest, we are no longer bodies. We are referred to as people. Officer L. and Officer T. chime in, claiming that “we talked and now we know you.” They say our names out loud proudly. You know us, but you must also know their names, along with the names of the children that are ripped away from their mothers at six days old at the border, the four-year-olds that face deportation proceedings alone, the husbands and fathers that languish in cells after being dragged from their homes, and the women that are forcibly sterilized and sexually assaulted in ICE detention centers. ICE and local law enforcement are wrapped up in the same system that targets and abuses the most vulnerable. You are a part of that system and refuse to speak out.
Our conversation was made easier because we got handed to the “good cops,” while other protesters in line were told to shut up, laughed at or mocked, and told things like, Forced sterilizations are fine. I’m the winner here. All this overtime is gonna pay for my boat. We had it easier because many of the officers responsible for us were also people of color and from communities that want change. Yet, we know these four officers will likely stay in this unjust system and continue to arrest people trying to end it, for no reason but to intimidate all over again.
Appealing to a person’s morality has never been the successful approach to combating racial justice in this nation’s history. But these officers and others who speak and act against us must get to know us. They must hear our struggles and our demands, and they must understand that their complicity in the system is detrimental. It’s crucial to correct the misconceptions people have about interconnected movements for racial justice, abolition, and what else we seek to change. This is the first step that we must take, especially for white and non-Black people of color. Without it, nothing will change.
Just after our arrests, one of us saw a person wearing a t-shirt reading FAITH > FEAR. While many claim this sentiment, few truly live by it: fear is to continue living life in a system that doles out incredible harms against subsets of people but choosing to remain complacent because the status quo is more comfortable for oneself; fear is refusing to learn what a new system based on the radical love of all peoples could mean. Faith, on the other hand, is knowing that we can and should do better, both as individuals and as a society, for the people that the “justice” system, elected officials, and tax dollars have failed to serve and protect. Believing in faith over fear is having dialogue, challenging each other, and pushing each other to do better.