Why Black Lives Matter, Police Lives Matter, and good cops should have no problem with the legacy of the Black Panthers

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I’m old. Maybe that allows a little perspective. Maybe.

But I was a believer in the Black Panthers before I ever imagined becoming a cop, and I believe in the legacy of those Panthers today. If I hadn’t been just a little kid in 1968 I would have voted for Eldridge Cleaver for President. Yet my heart is crushed every time I hear of a cop being killed or attacked.

I think the Black Lives Matter movement is essential to America, yet I am angry that current and former police officers are not given the respect and honor of current military and veterans.

None of this is contradictory. At least it should not be in the United States.

If you think Black Lives Matter is somehow in opposition to Police Lives Matter you have accepted the idea that police are an occupying force in minority communities…

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Let me step back. At Grand Valley State University I used to occasionally speak with students in a Police Ethics course. And speaking there is would ask them questions:

Why shouldn’t a young black male run from the police even if totally innocent?

Which is going faster? A minivan driven by a white woman at 85 or a Mustang driven by a Latino teenager at 75?

Have you ever avoided walking past a group of black teens?

I remember one of these classes, all 19 and 20 year old kids, almost all white, all insisting on a v lack of personal racism, when one man, a black police officer from Grand Rapids (MI) who was returning for his degree, stood up and said, “I cannot believe how much you guys can bullshit yourselves.” And then he described, in very clear detail, very graphic detail, why a young black male should run from the police even if totally innocent. Why that kid in the Mustang was 100 times more likely to be stopped and harassed. And why that internalized fear of “the other” made you a million times more likely to hurt a black kid than a white kid.

See, American policing is supposed to be of and by the community. We have never embraced the national police force concept because in this amazingly diverse nation we expect cops to be — at least sort of — our neighbors. Neighbors who will enforce our community standards more than simply a set of laws. Neighbors our kids can go to for help. Neighbors we trust.

That concept has led enlightened police forces to actively recruit minorities. Teddy Roosevelt, as NYPD Commissioner, heavily recruited young Jews so the ghetto of the Lower East Side would be policed by members of that community. The NYPD seeks all kinds of minorities now for the same reason. This is not “affirmative action” for job seekers, rather, it is how a community survives. I am not much of a “what if” kind of guy, but I do wonder if ‘9/11' would have happened if Rudy Giuliani’s anti-minority police tactics had not crushed the flow of neighborhood information to the Intelligence Division. Or if there had been a large cohort of cops from Middle Eastern communities.

But in most US cities, minority communities cannot possibly see themselves as being policed by neighbors. Not only are most police forces still overwhelmingly white, but in this century of the militarization of American police, far too many police forces are willing to be seen as heavily armed robocops, with helmets and masks and military vehicles.

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Bloody Sunday (top), British Paratroopers controlling colonial subjects in Derry, Northern Ireland. And (above) Ferguson, Missouri

Just this fall, I watched local cops patrolling a street fair. They were mostly quite young and the faces were friendly, but they were far more heavily armed and armored than Marines would have been going into combat just a generation ago. The gear made them absolutely unapproachable.

And in this way police make themselves far more vulnerable and far more disliked and distrusted. The advice I got as a rookie, “you never want to make enemies unless you have to,” I was told, “you always want the people watching to call for help if you’re in trouble, you always want people to tell you what’s going on.”

The advice got more specific from there. Don’t give good people tickets in 99% of situations, and never give a driver a ticket in front of their kids (you make two generations of enemies). Don’t talk to people wearing a hat and sunglasses, make yourself human. Never mistreat anyone even in an arrest. An arrest that goes well can turn someone around. And most importantly — enforce the community’s standards, not your own.

So many cops have forgotten these basic ideas, so many police commanders and politicians have never understood them.

And so if you think Black Lives Matter is somehow in opposition to Police Lives Matter you have accepted the idea that police are an occupying force in minority communities — and you can say hello to the Royal Ulster Constabulary of 1980s Northern Ireland.

You have become that dreaded invading army, and invading armies are hated and attacked. Think about those Hessians of the American Revolution — imported hired guns.

And you do not want to be that. Because if you are an invading/occupying force, Police Lives Won’t Matter. Only if you, as a police officer, truly understand that Black Lives Matter every bit as much as white lives in the suburbs matter, will police work begin to become safer.

Black Lives Matter, as a movement, is crucial because it challenges the underlying racism of colonialism. The Black Panthers, as a legacy, matter because despite all the anti-police rhetoric (“off the pigs”) their goal was an African American community that cared for itself first, and thus was truly part of the American idea. The Panthers arose because of vicious racism and abuses of police force. They were a reaction, not a provocation.

Sadly, the reasons for reaction remain.

"We send our police out to fight a war on drugs and a war on crime. We send them far away from our comfortable neighborhoods, to places we don’t understand to preserve our lives and our lifestyles. We send them out with no political support for efforts to win the hearts and minds of the inner-city population. We send these cops out without caring at all about the people of the areas we send them to. We want the threat to disappear." I wrote that in May 1992, when the cops in the Rodney King beating were initially acquitted. The New York Times headline on my Op-Ed was “Trained to do our dirty work,” and I was attempting to explain that for the suburban jury who acquitted the cops, beating Rodney King — making urban blacks afraid of the police — was what they were paying those cops to do.

And that’s what so many Americans still pay cops to do. To make sure the next Michael Brown or Eric Garner are sufficiently terrified. But history is clear, occupied populations rebel — from Ireland 1916 to the Warsaw Ghetto. Compared to the original IRA of Michael Collins or the Palestinian Jews who blew up the British Headquarters in Jerusalem, the Panthers were kittens.

So our police officers should be smarter. Actually, I’m sure most are smarter but their leadership, whether the police unions in New York, St. Louis, or Miami, or the Chiefs who love the hardware of war, is often dumb.

Police may get the honors they deserve when police officers decide that they are everyone’s protectors.

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Sharing joy on the streets. 1982 and 2015. Be everyone’s protectors, be the person kids trust.

So I think cops should be wearing Black Lives Matter shirts, and should have embraced the Beyoncé Super Bowl halftime show. Cops in and out of minority communities should believe absolutely — that their job is to protect and raise up those truly most vulnerable in our society.

That is true policing, instead of military occupation, and it is one of our grandest traditions…

On Christmas Eve 1806, two decades after [St. Peter’s Catolic Church in New York] was built, the building was surrounded by Protestants incensed at a celebration going on inside — a religious observance then viewed by some in the United States as an exercise in “popish superstition,” more commonly referred to as Christmas. Protesters tried to disrupt the service. In the melee that ensued, dozens were injured, and a policeman was killed.”

We, Police — and no matter how long it’s been since those days in Brooklyn and The Bronx, I think of myself as a cop — are the guardians. Of all, but most importantly, of those who need us most.

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The Law Enforcement Memorial, Washington DC.

  • Ira Socol

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