There’s a holdup in the Bronx,
Brooklyn’s broken out in fights.
There’s a traffic jam in Harlem
That’s backed up to Jackson Heights.
There’s a scout troop short a child,
Khrushchev’s due at Idlewild
Car 54, Where Are You? – Nat Haken
One of my favorite shows growing up was Car 54. It shaped my image of police as goofy, seven-year-old appropriate friends in a big yet friendly world. Thank you, NBC circa 1962.
Fast forward fifty years, plus a couple more. I’ve heard the term police brutality, winced at the Rodney King videos, and dismissed my children’s complaints that police harassed teens on Cambridge Common. Anything that didn’t jive with the antics of Fred Gwynne and Joe E. Ross simply didn’t stick. Like many middle-class white folks, I could count my complete interactions with police on one hand. Every one of them benign.
Four years ago, fresh home from a 20,000-mile meander on my bicycle, I was fishing around for community activities. Mary and John, a lovely couple I know, suggested I join the Cambridge Police Auxiliary. The idea appealed to my conviction that if we simply extend ourselves to one another; regardless of income, education, or politics; we can all reach accord. So, I entered the training program to become a City of Cambridge Auxiliary Police Officer.
The Cambridge Police Auxiliary doesn’t do a whole lot, mostly direct traffic for city events like marathons and parades. But they’re valuable ambassadors, the physical manifestation of community support for our officers in blue. Auxiliary police do not carry guns; they don’t even have to know how to shoot. I envisioned myself as law enforcement’s friendly face.
Training was terrific. I got a behind-the-scenes tour of Cambridge’s snazzy new police station. I learned how to respond to taunts with respect, and how to stay calm among intoxicated rowdies. (As the son of an Irish drunk, this was more of a refresher course.) I learned how to strike a stable stance: legs spread, feet angled apart, knees flexed. I felt butch, so solidly planted. I was the oldest trainee; the only one not volunteering as a stepping stone to eventually, hopefully, joining the full-time force. Still I felt welcome. I might have finished, I might have actually cordoned off streets for community races and encouraged Head of the Charles revelers to move along, if I hadn’t realized that, although owning and firing a gun was not required: that was the bond. When the trainees planned a day at a shooting range in advance of our indoctrination, I realized my connection with my fellow auxiliarians was flimsy. I dropped out.
Then Derek Chavin crushed George Floyd’s neck, and something broke in me. What manifested itself as reeducation and greater public activism was really the death of long held belief. I can no longer pretend that police are fundamentally good; that Derek Chavin was ‘one bad apple.’ After all, three of his brothers cheered him on.
On July 25, 2020, at 8:24 a.m., while in the process of committing the crime of defacing public property, Massachusetts State Police Officer Stanley stopped his vehicle and approached me. He demanded to know what I was doing (stenciling the names of Black people killed by police on the guardrail where we took a knee every evening), asked if I had permission (I had written to DPW—twice—and interpreted no reply as assent), told me my efforts were wrong since those killed weren’t from here (I remained silent per civil disobedience training), proceeded to state misleading information about jurisdiction for this property (i.e. he lied), told me to stop, clean the area, and leave. Trooper Stanley wore a badge. His gun glistened in the morning sun. My only weapon was a paintbrush. Thus, my longest interaction ever with a police officer ended with me doing exactly as he commanded.
Trooper Stanley won the Saturday morning skirmish of the guardrail. But he lost the battle: on two fronts. Within days, other folks painted all sorts of messages on the guardrail, in support of Black Lives Matter, in support of the police; a chaotic visualization of our bifurcated nation. Officer Stanley also lost the battle for my support. Quick as a flipped switch, I viewed police in a completely different light. After offering default respect to anyone in the uniform for sixty-five years, my initial response to every police officer I see today is: you have abused your power too often, for too long. Despite what’s painted on your car, you do not protect and serve. My respect is no longer granted. It must be earned.
Machiavelli’s dictum: “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely,” applies to institutions as well as men. One by one the securities of my youth have fallen. The Catholic Church is morally corrupt. Corporate America is ethically corrupt. Police are racially corrupt. There is nothing surprising about these institutional failures: anything granted outsize power breeds the cancer that fuels its own doom. The challenge of democracy is to be constantly vigilant of power abused. To curb and restrain and readjust. Which is what we need to do—now—with our police.