I can’t do this anymore.
I can’t live my life trying to ignore this glaring problem, just because processing it would mean facing the pain.
Mindlessly scrolling through Tik Tok last night I stumbled upon a video of a man in the passenger’s seat of a car, a female companion recording him from the driver’s seat. A few seconds in, he is calmly asking the camera “Is it lawful for police to ask for ID of the person in the passenger seat?” or something along those lines. He barely gets out the point he is making when suddenly the two burly officers start violently yanking his body from the car. He was resisting them when I scrolled quickly past, and I don’t know what happened in the end, but I can imagine.
Those few seconds weaved into all the police related trauma I’ve witnessed, specifically over the past several months. It was exacerbated by George Floyd’s murder, though it certainly didn’t start there. I didn’t need to watch the infamous video of Floyd’s 8 minute execution. I couldn’t trust that I would be sane afterward. Watching the pictures and reading about it disturbed and traumatized me sufficiently. I was even a little suspicious of those who have actually watched the video.
I guess part of me couldn’t watch the video and carry on with life as usual, and I didn’t understand what that meant. I have to walk past cops every single day, watch them terrorize my current neighborhood and patrol the subways. I have to stay calm and pretend not to hate their guts in every future interaction. I have to stop my fearless friend from cussing them out sometimes, I have to walk on by when they are ganging up on somebody. I have to act like all of this is normal, and I couldn’t live with myself if I watched that video and kept up the act.
But apparently it’s not something I can run from — reading all the articles about all the new incidents, being bombarded by footage on social media, hearing news reports about it as though this normalized barbarism is simply fodder for political banter, working in criminal justice reform and knowing people personally impacted by it.
I try to educate myself further. Only made it through about a third of The New Jim Crow, keep telling myself I’ll finish it because I need to be informed. But the truth is that all of the information is mind-boggling and it hurts. Reading through it, I almost feel this urge to grieve every statistic, every revelation, every case, and there are so many. I look up from the pages to face the world again and I think about how there’s at least a million people who know this and yet the injustice persists, it thrives. And we all go around cautiously respecting police as though it is a given, as though it is the most rational choice.
I’m new to the concept that the North American police system is fundamentally racist. My awakening began just before I migrated to the US, when I watched The 13th Amendment on Netflix with my grandfather one day in 2016. I thought of the show I used to love, Beyond Scared Straight, where mostly black and brown delinquents would be escorted to prison in an assumed last-ditch effort to pressure them into acting right. I used to find it entertaining watching them be roughed up by prison guards or yelled at and berated by wild, animated prisoners. Many of them would cave, bursting into tears, but some would stand defiant and smug, seemingly a testament to their true toughness.
I had no idea that it is so typical for black and brown children, with or without behavioral issues, to be treated in this manner. My pro-police Caribbean mentality exposed to this curated North American programming, had assumed that what the show portrayed was only contextual, one, and two, that the borderline torture of “bad” kids was actually productive. It seemed to be a logical albeit heavy handed approach to saving them from a life of crime, but if that’s what it took, I believed it was the right choice.
It was such a culture shock to learn the truth about North American policing. As a teenager in Trinidad, I once posted as a status on Facebook :
“Why do y’all say Free Weezy? I’m sure if he got locked up, he did something to deserve it!” — Me, circa 2009
In contrast, now I can barely bring myself to watch any show or movie about cops. You’d be surprised by how many there are, quite a number of them well-loved. I’ve realized that police is a part of North American culture itself, and it makes sense. They are the violent domestic soldiers enforcing the status quo. Since their inception as Slave Catching patrols in the 1800s, they have been a respected feature of society. But there was also a very intentional concerted effort in the mid-1900s to mold them into an object of public adoration, mostly through media and entertainment. I discovered that on a visit to the Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement in Las Vegas. In that era, Italian gangs were the definition of organized crime, selling illegal alcohol to people and whatnot, so the police had to sway public perception in their own favor. Along came a slew of books and newspaper articles and movies with a fixed good cop vs. bad gang member narrative.
Of course, this binary melted easily into good cop vs. bad criminal (black person) that we have all been conditioned to believe. It is constantly and viciously reinforced, by trumpers, politicians, police unions, policemen, the media and the general tendency of society at large to abide by police control.
Bad Boys is a hilarious franchise, but it subconsciously normalizes the idea that police can be as violent and rogue as necessary as long as the “bad guys” get caught. It is also strategic that the cops portrayed are black; the films may not even have been as widely popular if the main characters were white. They serve a dual purpose, to skew public perception in favor of cops in general, and to support the idea that black cops patrolling black neighborhoods is a viable solution to racist policing. There is no better way to achieve those purposes than through humor.
Am I saying people who believe in racial justice should boycott all cop-related propaganda?
Well, maybe that is an idea worth considering. But I am saying that dealing with the problem of police will take more than street protest. It requires an active disruption of all the ways we are educated to believe that police are untouchable and that they are our best response to crime. It requires a sustained effort to dismantle the network of systems and laws protecting them and allowing them to brutalize us freely.
It means no longer being a bystander to the insanity.
The latest season of the unscripted show Cops was pulled from Paramount Networks in the wake of protests against police brutality after the cop killing of George Floyd, but quietly resumed filming in September. While the series will no longer be aired in the US, it is still being filmed in order to “fulfil commitments internationally.” Global audiences must be exposed to the hypocritical, false narratives of police, so they can view the injustices happening in the US through the lens of white supremacy.
The American Dream is a fantasy. It is a belief that white picket fences are possible, that anyone can attain them, and that police are there to protect people. The reality is much more sinister than society would ever admit.
Here I exist in the difficulty of knowing the truth, but not knowing what to do about it. I’ve avoided thinking about it, I’ve processed bits and pieces, I’ve cried, I’ve lived in fear. I can no longer keep these thoughts to myself. This is the first of what I hope will be a number of articles and projects addressing the police specifically.
I cannot wait until it is my parent, brother, lover, friend in the new trending hashtag. They have all — we have all — already been targeted and deeply traumatized by racist policing.
Part of me believes the end goal is impossible. But abolition of slavery must have also seemed impossible. I must work towards the impossible, and let the words of the distinguished Stacey Abrams be my guide:
“I learned long ago that winning doesn’t always mean you get the prize. Sometimes you get progress, and that counts.”