The Name is Power
by Edmund Korley
Brooklyn was warm and overcast on the Saturday that I took the train there for a talk by a radical Black community organizer. I was taking time off from school during a spring that continued a polarizing yet fatiguing conversation on race and policing. I was tired of a narrative excluding people like me who are explicitly targeted by the police to be docile and peaceful when we were getting killed. I was tired of not hearing voices like mine. I wanted to hear from angry Black folks. I wanted to know that having a gun pointed at me as a 5th grader by cops in an unmarked car was not normal. I was angry and I needed to know that was okay.
Dr. Umar Johnson spoke to a middle school full of students and their parents who took time out their Saturday. I had come to know about Dr. Johnson from watching him featured multiple times in the Hidden Colors series. He has definitely said some problematic and out-there things but I liked how he spoke and wrote like he was not looking for friends. He was not talking to the mainstream population or trying to justify why indifferent folks should think #BlackLivesMatter. He was talking to Black mothers, fathers, and young people about what things we can do now to help protect ourselves when interacting with police.
There were a lot of gems in his talk about specific things we could to protect ourselves, but I want to dive into one that stuck out to me: names. To set the context, a common detail of neighborhoods with a relatively high police presence (some would describe these areas as targeted) is that residents often do not know the police officers outside their uniforms. It is usually the case that police officers who live outside of a given city and lack a context of ongoing issues in these cities sign up to patrol them. Some come into the work with an obtuse hero complex that sees the residents as inherently bad and themselves as the good guys. When interacting with residents, these police don’t introduce themselves to the civilian. They don’t feel like a member of the community. They feel more like a strange figure of power who knows a lot about you than you know about them. As you can tell, this situation can make you feel powerless and without agency.
So then, what can we do about it? Well most police departments across the nation require their officers to wear some kind of badge with their name or ID on it. Dr. Johnson talked about how you can set up the incident such that you will be able to see their name and number and also how to better remember it. If possible, try to have this be the first thing you say to the officer — ”Hello, Officer … Kelly”. The effect of this is almost subconscious. You have just reclaimed some agency just with calling out his or her name. You may not know them personally but at some level they know you know them. Often when you say someone’s name, they will reciprocate in some way. There are brownie points if you get them to say your name — which they know if they ran your plates. Having them call you by your name is also an opportunity for them to recognize you as a person.
Now you have said their name in an amicable way and maybe they have said yours. Maybe the situation still goes south and you don’t feel safe. There are levels to this idea of using names. You can very explicitly show the power of knowing their name — by simply repeating it many times. Starting every sentence with “Officer Kelly, …” is a good way to help remember their name. It also reinforces in them that you know who you they are. If you feel really unsafe you should switch to the badge number if possible. “Officer 98900- “ is a very different way of addressing that officer. It is odd because nobody else may refer to them by their badge number (except perhaps their training officer as many officer training programs are influenced by military training programs). It is also the most useful number for you in filing a complaint with the city. The officer would likely also know this. Now you have some agency in that they know you know means to follow up about their behavior in the moment.
In short, even when you do everything here — it does not necessarily equate to a positive outcome. Even still, it is nice to know there are specific psychological tools you can use to help deescalate the situation and give yourself agency.