Conversations with Black Folks About Cops

Black perspectives from outside the woke bubble.

(this article was originally published on Medium June 7th, 2020 during the initial surge of the George Floyd protests)

I don’t know about you, but my media feed is slam full of white people talking about systemic racism and white fragility in the wake of the George Floyd murder. This thing is bigger and more complicated and has more moving parts than ten articles could fully capture, but there’s one piece — that of police brutality — that should be extracted from the whole thing and looked at individually. And when looking at that, the voice of one project kid should count more than the combined voices of a hundred critical theory academics or political pundits. Nobody seems to be taking that first, easy step, of talking to a black man who lived in the hood. So last night I hung out for about three hours with my buddy Sean and his brother J.

J is a truck driver. He recently moved from long haul trucking to local Atlanta trucking because it’s better for his family. He lives his life to make the lives of those around him better. He’s a straight up, productive, responsible member of society, but he used to make all his money slinging weed and such. He’s been in more fist fights than anyone could possibly count. He’s been in multiple gun fights with other armed opponents. I travel a lot in pro-gun media spaces, know a lot of very talented shooters, and J is the only person I know who has literally shot someone outside of a government sanctioned war. More than once. He’s done time. One of his friends is serving life in a supermax down in central Georgia — got recently transferred there after being stabbed thirteen times in an incident. J has had innumerable encounters with police. Cobb County PD footage made it in to one of his hip-hop videos.

I’ve known J since I was 15, and he was around 8.

J is not his real name.

J is an incredibly intelligent dude, and incredibly wise. I always listen when he talks. He’s a good father. He practices conflict avoidance — a significant departure from his formative years. He’s rational and logical to a fault. He’s an individualist. He follows the practice of being blind to race, and evaluating people based on their character instead of their skin color, which is how many people were raised before the Intersectionality Indoctrination Path took over academia. Not that he would have ever had any exposure to that, because college was never on the table for him anyway. I say all this stuff about J because he is one person, and his experiences and opinions should not be extrapolated to all black people. But I don’t think voices like his are being heard at all right now, and perspectives from people like him are important.

I wanted to record the whole night and turn it into a podcast, but we never got the equipment set up, and we were pretty inebriated, and I was tired from a long drive, so it didn’t happen. Maybe another day. My best attempt at paraphrasing one of his dozen stories follows:

One day J was waiting at the bus stop to pick up his son. When his son got off with all the other kids, he started into a father-son discussion about some incident, and the rest of the black kids listened in, at it became a sort of a conversational lecture in the parking lot — a latter 30s age black man talking to a ring of black boys, about the topic of racism and reality in the urban black community. This is what J said to the kids:

“Stop thinking about things being fair. Life has never been fair and it never will be, to anyone. What’s important is understanding the world you live in and figuring out how to do the best in the world you’re in. I’m a black man talking to a bunch of black boys on the street, and that alone is going to make other people afraid of us, and that’s something you need to understand as you grow up.”

And as if on cue, the property manager for the apartment complex, who knows J on a first name basis, drove up in a golf cart. She told J that she’d had several calls from neighbors worried that someone was stirring up trouble. He told the property manager that they were simply having a conversation. She said ok, but told them that one of the other residents had called the police. J said ‘okay’ and kept talking to the kids. The property manager drove off. The entire scenario could not have been more topical to the conversation he and the kids were having.

Police came. Two squad cars. The first car was who we’ll call Officer K, who J also knew. There are some teenagers in his building, who get in fights on occasion when other teens come around looking for trouble. Police get called, and this is Officer K’s beat. K had, on prior occasions threatened to shoot one of the teens in J’s building. J defended the teen verbally and vociferously during one such time. J and K do not like each other.

Officer K pulls up, rolls his window down, asks what’s going on. J tells him nothing, they’re just talking in the parking lot. The kids are watching. K presses him, J deflects, and eventually J simply says:

J: “You can leave now. You’re not needed.”

K: “You hate cops don’t you?

J: “I don’t dislike cops. I dislike you. There are two kinds of cops. There’s one kind, who grew up in the hood, probably saw some bad stuff happen, and joined the police force to try and make their communities better. I like those. Then there’s the second kind, who got picked on in school and are using the badge as a shield, so they can get back at people. You’re the second kind. I’m right aren’t I? You got picked on in school, didn’t you?”

K rolled his window up and drove away.

The second squad car pulled up, and that officer struck a similar conversation up with J. J told him the same thing, about why he dislikes K. The second officer told J “You’re right, and it’s worse than you think.”

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J shared a lot of stories last night with Sean and I, but that was the one that stood out the most to me. Not because it was the best one, or the most entertaining, or the most cinematic or crazy or fun, but because it seems to me it’s the most applicable to what’s going on with the riots in the streets of cities in America, France, Australia, and elsewhere. There are a lot of people in the media right now trying to play this thing into a story of systematic subconscious white racism, and white fragility, and are throwing highly academic highly conceptual frameworks at explaining something that probably has a much simpler explanation. It could just be that a lot of cops suck.

I realize this analysis of “good cop bad cop” is a trope, and is trotted out to handwave away the actions of bad cops as being isolated, and defend the general institution of policing in the United States. After J left, Sean and I talked about exactly how many of the two “kinds of cops” there probably were in the United States. How many are good and how many are bad? There’s no good way to know, and it probably varies quite a bit by agency and locality. But it seems reasonable to me, on analysis, that in some areas of the country most of them might be bad, as viewed through J’s lens.

Being a cop is a shit job. It’s dangerous, unfun, and pays terribly. The only people attracted to it are going to have ulterior motivations. That ulterior motivation may be, as J says, a genuine commitment to making the community a better place, driven by some formative experience that makes the applicant want to pursue a shit career to enhance the lives of those around them. Or, the ulterior motivation might be J’s other hypothesis — someone was beat up and picked on as a kid and wants a badge as a shield. I can’t really think of a third ulterior motive to join the police force. I know I would never do it. The pay isn’t good enough.

What are the ratios of people in the country who have those motives? How many job applicants are reacting to bad experiences in their community and wanting to dedicate their lives to making the community better? Probably less than the number of people in the country who were picked on in school. Just by ratio, I would expect the bad cops to outnumber the good cops.

And if you put a large number of people together who were picked on in school, give them all a gun and a badge, and ask them to police violent crime, we should expect these people to band together socially within a police force. They are going to be very likely to stand together, to cover for the bad behavior of their peers, and to resist reform. They became cops to use the badge as a shield, and external pressures to apply accountability to their actions erode the value of that shield. Accountability would undo the reason they became cops.

And this seems, by the nature of the riots, to be a global problem. I find it very unlikely that protesters in Paris were burning things and clashing with Parisian cops to protest what some cops in Minneapolis did. It seems far more likely they’re protesting the behavior of cops there, which implies that same hiring dynamic might exist everywhere.

This all is not to say that racism isn’t a problem. It clearly is. But there’s another problem, the problem of cops, which acts in parallel and would still produce bad outcomes even if racism evaporated tomorrow.

And that is a very, very difficult problem to fix.

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