Worlds Collide: White Cops on Black Streets and Challenging Curriculum
The events of the past two weeks have left many, even most of us incredibly angry, incredibly determined, and, yes, incredibly confused. But if we are educators, or if we are police officers, we do not have the luxury of either time or inaction. Sometimes the call to duty is both absolutely clear and absolutely urgent, and this is one of those times.
What is truth?
8 Minutes and 46 Seconds: How George Floyd Was Killed in Police Custody
transcript It's a Monday evening in Minneapolis. Police respond to a call about a man who allegedly used a counterfeit…
Over the past two weeks we have seen a stunning increase in the obvious lies told by people in power — and since the daily count was already very high, that’s pretty horrific. Every hour a police chief, a mayor, a governor, and of course the White House claims that something for which there is undeniable evidence, “didn’t happen.” There’s also the other lie, the “I didn’t know" that’s the stock in trade of Republican senators, cabinet secretaries, et al. “I didn’t know where I was going,” said Secretary of Defense Mark Esper after he marched across a public park seized by force by his troops to support a pathetic photo op for his boss (he made up a different story the next day, describing his job as supervisor of park restrooms).
And finally, there’s the claim that something happened when there is clear evidence that it did not. This has long been a norm in American policing (“he pulled a gun,” “he had a knife,” “he was aggressive”) and in American history (how the Mexican War began, etc). “’I saw the projectiles on Monday when I went to Lafayette Park to look at the situation," claimed Attorney General William Barr — a serial liar just like his boss (assuming he wasn’t hallucinating) — explaining the violence against peaceful protesters and church members in Lafayette Park.
As educators we must understand that it is not inappropriate for any of us to help our students process these things, in fact it is a dereliction of our duty not to. And with that in mind I put out this tweet: “If this video isn’t part of your [at least secondary] curriculum when school returns you are not doing your job. 8 Minutes and 46 Seconds: How George Floyd Was Killed in Police Custody” referring to the video above.
A Twin Cities educator challenged me immediately, asking if this wouldn’t traumatize children, and, in the way Twitter can, this has led to a wonderful conversation in both public and private, because, no, I never want to traumatize children. Children are traumatized enough in this world. But I also want to make sure that we don’t hide the world from our children. I have no problem with myths — especially childhood myths — but the American tendency to infantilize every child (at least every white middle class child) does no one any good in my thinking.
In 2012 I visited many Irish schools with Pam Moran. Somewhere in rural County Cork, just past the “Pass of the Magic Deer,” we found ourselves at a tiny primary (Pre-K-6) school. 14 students and 2 teachers and no other adults. A beautiful 8-year-old girl took us on a tour and first showed us the mosaic on the front of the school (top left in photo array above) which depicted a scene in the life of the saint the school was named for. “There was a father with three children,” she told us, “but they had no food, so the father thought the only thing he could do to stop the children from starving to death was to bring them to the river and drown them. But the saint — then a priest — came upon them and adopted the children and educated them.”
Pam and I exchanged looks, “if we were to tell that story to 8-year-olds,” she whispered to me, “I’d get fired.”
The girl led us to the back of the school and pointed through the fence (bottom left above). “Down there are the ‘hunger pits,’” she said, “where all the bodies were dumped during the famine.” We then saw the school’s potato plants (top right), “they have the blight,” she told us, a real life history lesson.
Later, inside, the kids showed us the film they had made — all 14 working together — which had just won top prize in the Irish Student Film Festival (bottom right). The film was about the Eurozone crisis and the wave of home foreclosures that was rocking Ireland and Europe. “If you’ve lost your house,” an older student tells a younger one in the film, “odds are the bank has stolen it.”
Now in the United States we would probably assume that an 8-year-old was far too young for any of this, much less the 4-year-olds in the room, but that is part of how we diminish children — diminish their intelligence, their curiosity, and their empathy. I was reminded of that when, six years later on a trip to New York City with 30 of our teachers we got on the subway early one morning and observed the crowds of kids, age 11 and up, using the subway on their own to get to school. “Our kids couldn’t do that,” one teacher said. “Of course our kids could do this,” I responded. “We just don’t expect them to.”
So, just as I watched rural Virginia kindergartners in 2010 discussing whose electricity had been shut off over the weekend, I know that our kids know more than we want to pretend, and can handle a lot of information we pretend that they cannot.
Why are police racists?
Why are police racists? No, that’s the wrong question because many police, perhaps most in my experience, aren’t really racists and some are engaged anti-racists. Why do police act in racist ways? is the right question here, and I believe that even young children can begin to engage with these conversations. “Police” — that generic force — act in racist ways, in my opinion, because they work for those with power — both political power and economic power, and the power structure in America has been racist for at least 401 years.
Eight or nine years ago, with a group of “academically at-risk” sixth graders, I shared a video — part of a 1970 television adaptation of the play The Andersonville Trial (it stars Captain Kirk for a bit of trivia). The Andersonville Trial tells the story of a key moment in American military history, the moment when the United States declared that any soldier (sailor, etc) must refuse to follow illegal and/or immoral orders. That was a radical theory in the 1860s, but without that neither the Nuremberg Trials nor the prosecution of the officers for the Mỹ Lai massacre in Vietnam would have occurred.
I played a moment (seemingly no longer available on YouTube) when the defense attorney asks the JAG prosecutor a question: “If,” he asks, “at the outset of the war the North had stood for slavery and the South for freedom, would it have been necessary for Union troops to take up arms against their government?” That’s a real moment from the trial of Confederate Prison Commandant Henry Wirz. There’s a long pause, but in the end the prosecutor answers, “yes.”
“Would it have been necessary for Union troops to take up arms against their government?” Our laws say, “yes.”
The sixth graders understood this immediately. “It’s like when everybody is doing something,” one boy said, “like bullying someone, and it’s your job to stop it.” “Like if a teacher is picking on a kid,” a girl said, “and the kid didn’t do anything, you have to stand up even if you get in trouble.”
If only all police officers, all members of the President’s cabinet, all Senators, the Mayor of New York, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had the wisdom and moral courage of those 11-year-olds.
If only our educational systems helped all kids understand these truths and supported them in holding onto their innate morality.
Police forces behave in racist ways because too often — maybe much of the time — their work culture is ignorant, closed off, and trained more deeply by bad movies than by sociologists, psychologists, and law professors.
They are ignorant because the culture and leadership of their departments are so disconnected from the reality of the streets — the African American streets — they usually work in that they understand nothing and lack all empathy. This isn’t true of the vast majority of police officers individually — I have watched cops do extraordinary things that could only come from true empathy — but it is true of the culture.
Back in the late 1980s we lamented the arrival of rookie cops suffering from what we called ‘Starsky and Hutch Syndrome.’ Kids from exurban all white communities — often children, nieces, nephews of police officers — whose only knowledge of urban streets or minority populations were from television shows and the storytelling of the older generation of cops.
Those kind of cops put us all at risk by destroying the trust we’d worked so hard to develop between our communities and ourselves. But those rookies were not the issue. The issue was a willingness to exploit that ‘TV-violent’ behavior to the advantage of politicians and their wealthy benefactors— Mayors Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg, Police Commissioners Bernie Kerik and Ray Kelly — by pushing those young and ignorant officers into “anti-crime” units whose only function was to harass Black and LatinX communities.
Policing in a democratic society is an enormously complex task. Policing in a brutally divided and unequal semi-democratic society is even harder. Police began from a very different place than the military, with very different purposes, and the conceptual merging of our ideas of military and police — through language, through military hardware (why would any police officer need a grenade launcher?), through the image presented by uniforms, through tactics, is one of the greatest threats to American democracy we have ever faced.
Police began as community watchmen, as small town sheriffs, as local symbols of societal laws who would call on the community when problems arose. Police were never assault troops, they were never intended to protect leaders from their communities, they were never expected to enforce things that were not community standards. In the 1880s Tombstone, AZ had an absolute ban on anyone carrying guns, but many other similar communities did not. Some wore uniforms, others didn’t. Andy of Mayberry probably only had a gun in a half dozen episodes, Joe Friday was never without one.
But something happened. As police were “professionalized” they often became separated from their communities. At the worst, the Philadelphia Police dropped an incendiary bomb on a home while trying to make an arrest — the fire burned multiple blocks (again, ask why a police department would have incendiary bombs). Or Rudy Giuliani’s “One City” policing concept that asked cops in The Bronx to function in the exact same way as cops did among the wealth of the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Note: Giuliani did not ask cops on the Upper East Side to behave as cops did in The Bronx. The standard was the behavior of the wealthy and white and the goal was to criminalize any other behavior.
“Giuliani’s approach to policing created “an environment of terror for communities of color”, said Lumumba Bandele, a lifelong New Yorker and police reform advocate. If he takes on a national role, “We should all be preparing for worst-case scenarios,” he said.
“His record on police abuses and freedom of expression is “frightening”, said Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter.”
Now, OK. I must add a few comments. I may have contributed in a significant way to the advent of ‘data-based policing.’ It seemed to make sense at the start but we all know how the use of data so often becomes abuse of data. And, long before robocop-looking “body armor,” my life was saved by a 1980s bulletproof vest. I understand that the fear of dying is a significant motivator, often for the wrong things. When some yahoo outside of Home Depot took it upon himself to call me, “a scared little boy,” for wearing a mask, I replied that if I wore a bulletproof every day for years — the least comfortable garment I can imagine — wearing a mask seemed like a trivial thing.
But let me be clear: cops are scared. Cops get shot. Cops get wounded. Cops get hurt. As I write this I’m recovering from another surgery related to injuries decades ago. And in exchange for that, cops don’t get lifetime health care like soldiers, nor do they get special thanks on certain holidays, or priority airline boarding, or special parking spaces at Lowe’s. So, fear and resentment build, and that adds to a dangerous cocktail. The more impressive the body armor the further police are from their community (a Madison, Wisconsin sergeant told me that all vests had to be inside uniform shirts for that very reason). The bigger the weapons the more the community becomes afraid of the police. Feeling unsafe — from the rich who choose to feel unsafe around the poor to the generations of Black males given every reason to fear the police, to the police who feel both unsafe and unappreciated by everyone (Black kids called us, “welfare in a uniform.” White kids said, “my father pays your salary.”) — lies at the heart of the problem, and at the heart of that heart is the racism that the rich and powerful have used for four centuries to keep the less rich whites scared, and keep themselves in power.
So, what makes the truth of these videos so important?
If you watch these videos carefully and focus — not on the main actor like Derek Chauvin — but on the ‘onlooker cops,' you’ll see an essential bit of data. Watch what happens immediately after an NYPD Captain in Queens kneels, joining the protesters. And watch that repeated in numerous other videos. Then watch what happens after two Buffalo, NY officers shove a 75-year-old man to the ground, causing very serious injuries. One cop tries to stop to help, but here another cop, instead of joining in the obviously required first aid, immediately pulls the responsive cop away.
It is essential that we see these cultural moments for what they are — demonstrations that indicate the existence/or not of empathy, of connection to the community, of humanity within a department’s or command’s DNA. Because it is those moments of understanding that all of us, kids included, need if we are going to take back our police forces and rebuild our society.
Think of it this way. Every 10-year-old, every 11-year-old, will be a 12-year-old soon. Tamir Rice was 12 when he was shot by police in Cleveland, Ohio. (my similar experience with a better ending)
“’Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection,” said Phillip Atiba Goff, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles. “Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”’
So maybe, just maybe we need to involve our middle school kids in reforming our world.
- Ira Socol