Policing the Present

IMG_3255This is the text of a talk I gave on a panel at Boston College entitled “Race in the USA: Expectations, Concerns, and Hopes in 2015.”


What is the nature of police work? What is it like to be an actual police officer? These are not easy questions to answer for those of us who aren’t police.  Our sense of what an officer does for a living is inevitably affected by the news, movies, television shows, novels, and maybe even the video games we have all undoubtedly consumed. For most of us, it’s probably safe to say that we are blurry about where entertainment ends and real life begins.

So let me turn to what I know from first-hand observations—an imperfect approach but one that’s readily available. The reason why I want to start here is because I want to make it clear that what I have to say is not anti-police, which I heard one pedestrian say about a group of protestors who happened to be marching down Newbury Street just before Christmas. The tone seemed to say it all. Why are they protesting? Because they hate the police. Because they hate the society the police defend. Because they do not like white people and the rich while they perversely embrace criminals and the lawless.

What I want to argue is that the current crisis surrounding policing and race is inextricably tied to larger systemic issues, and that the protests are playing an important role in exposes what these ties are. The protests are not about police officers but about what policing has become.

My direct interactions with the police have mainly been comprised of seeing officers stand at street corners directing traffic during rush hour or where road work is being done. There are a few times when I was pulled over for speeding, and a handful of other memorable incidents. I had to go to the police station a few times because I left my car parked on the street during street cleaning, and needed to pay my ticket before getting it from the lot where it had been towed. Sometimes, but not really that often, I’ll see a police car race by with its sirens on. The sirens seem to me fleeting glimpses of the harder, more challenging duties a police officer has to carry out, which I am not personally privy to.

To judge from the encounters I have experienced, police work must be pretty dull most of the time. There’s a lot of standing around. There’s a lot of waiting for time to elapse. There’s a lot of bureaucracy. And every once in a while, there’s probably some kind of action. But I imagine even this action is also mostly surrounded by a lot of standing around and waiting. A lot of boredom punctuated by emergencies and occasional danger. Being a police officer is hard work. Its largely blue-collar physical labor mixed in with white-collar filling out of forms. I feel real sympathy with a police officer in the same way I feel sympathy for a postal carrier or a sales clerk or a nurse. They all work hard for a living, and they are all probably not paid enough for their work.

The police officers I have met have been for the most part professional and courteous. Even still, there’s something I’m always aware of: when I interact with a police officer, the officer has a protective status I do not have. These interactions are always fraught with differential power structures. For one thing, they have a gun, handcuffs, maybe a Taser, maybe a baton, and training that probably makes it easy for an officer to hurt me very badly. This automatically means that any encounter with the police has an edge that encounters with a postal carrier or a sales clerk or a nurse do not have. They are also protected by their status as members of the police, which means they are officially endowed by the state with the state’s exclusive right to use force. Theoretically, this right is heavily prescribed. In practice, as we have seen repeatedly for many years, but with renewed vigor in the past half year or so, prescriptions vary and latitude is wide.

In my encounters with the police, things went best when I showed a great deal of deference. I use the word “sir” or “ma’am.” I do what they ask me to do right away. I do not to argue or disagree or point out flaws in their reasoning. I generally just stay as distant from them as much as possible, and every once in a while I will give a friendly nod on the streets if I happen to be walking by and it seems safe to do so.

On the few occasions when I was much younger and didn’t practice such deference, I found officers did not take it very well. Even now, when I’m a lot older, I find it emotionally challenging to give officers the kind of respect they uniformly demand. It’s not that I think they do not deserve respect. What’s challenging is the demand. There’s a feeling of powerlessness that comes with giving deference. There is a feeling of servility. A humbling before another.

It’s not difficult to imagine how easily an encounter with the police can go wrong. Too much pride. A felt need to stand on principle. Maybe a little back talking. Not responding quickly enough. Feeling already angry and showing that anger to an officer. Resentment if one feels repeatedly picked on. On the other side, a police officer who’s feeling tired or cross or resentful or angry or afraid. An officer who hasn’t been properly trained, or is new to the job. An officer who has perhaps been doing the same job for too long, and has lost a feel for it. An officer whose judgment is colored by prejudice. The list goes one, and the consequences, as we know too well, can be terrible. It doesn’t take much for something to go wrong and for a situation to escalate, sometimes in just a matter of seconds.

Race compounds the complexity of such encounters. I often wonder what might have happened to me as a young adult if I were black. There were a few incidents when I was a teenager that could have easily turned tragic if the officer involved had thought of me as a threat or a criminal. While there are disadvantages to being Asian American, the perception that one is somehow more prone to violence and criminality is not one of them. So I can only relate sympathetically to what young African Americans, both male and female, say about their experiences with the police.  I give the benefit of the doubt to what they say.

What I am certain of. If a civilian might have all sorts of fantastic ideas about what the life of a police officer is from watching TV and movies and reading books, so too will an officer harbor fantastic ideas about civilians from the same sources, especially if those civilians are black. No one’s sense of reality is unmediated or perfect. Everyone lives in a blur of fantasy and reality.

Also, when we add racial difference into an encounter with the police, we cannot avoid bringing along the even greater complexity of history and the inequalities that history has put into motion. I obviously can’t go into detail about these larger and extremely important contexts with the limited time I have, but I want at least to gesture toward some of them because they are crucial to understanding the importance of the protest movements against police brutality.

We are living in a time of incredible income and wealth inequality. This is a fact that no credible person will disagree with. Simultaneously, public support for important civic institutions have been on the wane for several decades. There has been a steady withdrawal of funding for welfare programs, mental and public health institutions, and education. What was once pervasive has now been shut down or shrunk. What the combination of these two phenomena means, in terms of actual lived lives, is that there’s a substantial and growing population of people, many of whom are people of color, who have fallen into poverty and who have much fewer resources to turn to when they are in need. The stress of these circumstances on such people are terrible, and manifests in all sorts of predictably unhealthy ways. Even for members of a professional and managerial class, like myself, our lives have become more precarious, and risks are harder to take because there are now so few social safety nets.

One consequence of this evolving dynamic (this claims seems right to me, but again there’s always that blurriness) has been that the police have been asked to carry out duties they are not primarily trained for. They must act as social worker, staff psychologist, educator, and conflict resolvers. They must negotiate a wide-range of complex interpersonal problems. We should not be surprised if they are not always good at performing these jobs since they are not trained to perform them. And certainly in many such cases the expectation officers have that they will be treated with constant deference often fails to be met. They often, no doubt, have to endure a lot of verbal abuse. We compound such problems with the demand for more intensive policing. Preemptive stop and frisk. No broken windows. Expectations about the number of tickets issued and arrests made to demonstrate effectiveness. The police are being asked to enforce theories that are at best not thought through very carefully and proving in practice hard to support. What results is a low-intensity, ever-pervasive pressure on people of color, especially the young and the poor, who are overtly told they are viewed as potential criminals.

We’re also living in a time when demographics are in flux in all sorts of destabilizing ways. By the middle of this century, the US will no longer be majority white. In many places, especially in cities and especially on the west and east coasts this is already true. Cities are also changing in character. Gentrification has driven former residents, many of whom were poor people of color, out of city centers and into an inner ring of older suburbs. It’s no mistake that Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, was where the recent unrest has begun. Once majority white it is now majority African American. This means that, while its government and its police force remain largely white, who is governed and policed are not. Populations who have been defined by their social distance from one another are now being thrown into haphazard intimacy. Those in positions of power in these communities are not nearly as diverse as the residents now are, and it would be easy for them to equate a declining tax base and weakening property values to the diversification of their population, a prejudicial attitude that can easily exacerbate an already combustible situation.

It seems to me that #blacklivesmatter is an important social and political movement that is not only about police brutality and a lack of accountability, as important as these issue are. It is also a movement that seeks to shed light on how we have reached our current impasse, in terms of race and class. It questions business as usual, which increasingly appears unsustainable to more and more people in all sorts of troubling ways, shedding light in the process not on immediate causes but on structural issues that are often too easily unseen. It is finally a movement that is not isolated, but part of a larger dissatisfaction with the present that keeps finding expression in all sorts of unexpected ways. While it’s possible to imagine that some reforms will be instituted in terms of how the police interact with the public and that these reforms will lessen the current tensions, such reforms are unlikely to shore up an edifice that is spouting more and more leaks.

© 2015 Min Hyoung Song