“Most cops are punks. They ain’t going to say shit. But I don’t care. I always say what I want.”
I sat a minute with that statement and not only because it was coming from a friend. I sat with it because my friend is a retired NYPD cop who spent 22 years on the force. David Wright, 69, was talking to me from the comforts of quarantine. I was asking Wright why no Black or brown cop I emailed and called was willing to go on record? I asked him why no Black police organization was willing to reply to my requests? “Punk” was about as succinct an answer as you can get.
Last month, the New York City Police Benevolent Association endorsed President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. It was the first time the police union has endorsed a presidential candidate in over 38 years.
“Many times, people say that a union like ours, law enforcement groups, give endorsements,” PBA president Patrick Lynch said to Trump. “Not in the New York City PBA, sir. In the New York City PBA, sir, you earn the endorsement and you’ve earned this endorsement. I’m proud to give it.”
In the midst of civil unrest, active corruption investigations, ratfucking an election by jamming the federal post office, voter suppression efforts, and the GOP’s drive to cheat at every turn, the police take a stand … in favor of Trump. Right-wing Trump teenager Kyle Rittenhouse traveled to Kenosha, Wisconsin to brandish an AR-15 rifle and open fire on anti-brutality protesters, allegedly killing two. He has become a homicidal celebutante of the GOP, receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in grassroots support from fans and the subtle, non-condemning wink from the White House. Last Tuesday, FBI agents stopped two right-wing terrorists with a large cache of weapons who they said planned to “pick off protestors” in Kenosha before driving to Portland to kill more. Terrorist acts are being committed in the open by supporters of the President who declaim “law & order” while spreading panic, murder, and hate. The President doesn’t denounce it; he revels in the chaos.
And the PBA, apparently, stands in full support of this platform.
But the PBA doesn’t represent all police officers in New York, and not all officers can be expected to share their union’s perspective on the protests. According to the latest studies NYPD’s police force is 29 percent Latino/Hispanic, 15 percent Black, and 7 percent Asian. It should be easy to get a wide scope of opinions from officers of color, right? Well not so much.
A few weeks prior, I sent out emails to Black and Latino cops to get their opinions about recent protests against the police and got the reply of … crickets. Nothing. None of my usual police contacts were willing to go on record, including a few cops who had been outspoken in the past about changes that needed to be made during the Ferguson protests. I was coming up empty. But David was willing to talk. David is always willing.
I met David 10 years ago at a Writers Guild of America workshop in Columbia University’s Dodge Hall. The writers’ group was focused on emerging POC talent of all races and regions. When I joined the group, David was already in the writers’ group OG who knew everyone, ran his own theatre company, dressed in colorful sartorial display of his Yoruba faith. Where others might look like piss elegant poseurs in kente cloth and carved walking sticks, David pulled it off in a regal fashion. In the group we brought in scripts, traded personal stories, gossiped, and shared home cooked food. In a raspy bullfrog voice, David would occasionally share about his trials and tribulations as a police officer but, at the time, I didn’t really pay any attention to that. A decade later I found myself probing his history and the psychology of his brethren in blue.
“If people really started to talk you’ll find out that there are many more George Floyds [that] have been murdered. That’s why I’m fine with the protests,” he told me. “I grew up in the 1960s. I’ve been a Black Panther. I have a different mindset. But most cops are mental midgets.”
But there had to be more nuance here — more to it than simply dismissing hundreds of thousands of cops as punks and midgets, right? After many more inquiring emails, I did start to get a few replies from black cops, but all off the record. Every single one said that they weren’t scared, but also weren’t willing to talk on record. When I asked them if they feel intimidated or threatened, I got a vociferous no from one, a noncommittal sigh from another, and silence from a third. But if they’re not threatened and they think the cops are right, why wouldn’t they be willing to express that opinion in public? I was facing a stunning contradiction: officers who didn’t feel comfortable in exercising their constitutional rights of free speech out of fear of retribution who — at the same time — professed there was no problem and everything was fine with how cops operate behind a blue wall of silence. Nothing to see here, move along! This struck me as indicative of a group trained to hold two diametrically opposed thoughts at the same time, without noticing it. George Orwell coined a term for this: doublethink.
But you can’t be free while biting your tongue out of fear. The problem is that we don’t even know what freedom is to the everyday person. In politics the word is tossed around — like “God” and “patriotism.: But freedom is definable in the context of a republic. Freedom means financial recompense and legal restitution for damages, slander, injury, and death. Freedom means having a clear corrective course when you are wronged because we all will be wronged at some point. For Black Americans, recompense, restitution, and reparations are at the heart of true freedom because our history is steeped in kidnapping, murder, lynching and state-sponsored murder with no consequence. But when you stop believing that there is a course of corrective actions to restore one’s freedom, you stop believing in the system. You clam up, shut down, protect your job. Even if your job is being a cop protecting freedom, you work in a very un-free way. You become a walking contradiction swearing to uphold the constitution by unconstitutional means. Once again, doublethink.
I think it’s a skill that serves many POC cops well during these times. It is the kind of mindset you also need to be a soldier, or a surgeon. As a writer, I am the complete opposite. I can’t shut up, I dig for answers and — if I find them — I ask more questions and keep digging. I aggravate friend and foe, and don’t really care if I stand alone or outside the ranks of my social group. That’s why I would make a terrible cop, soldier or man of action.
One time in high school, our football coach wanted to test our loyalty and asked each player if we would run through a brick wall for the team. He went down the line screaming this question and each player shouted back an enthusiastic affirmation, until he got to me. When the coach asked me if I would run through a brick wall, a wry smile came over my face.
“Are you serious? You can’t be serious right now,” I recall saying. “An actual brick wall … yeah, you first coach. I can’t believe that you would even ask me that. Think about what you’re saying.”
I knew the question was hypothetical and the easiest answer would have been to scream, “Yes coach, that’s right, I’d run through that wall for my team,” but there is something inside me that resists even the symbolic gesture of thoughtless solidarity.
Needless to say, that instinctive solidarity is necessary for groups of people to work seamlessly in high-pressure situations. You probably don’t want someone like me showing up to a burning building, bank robbery, or battlefield. You want a hero who reacts without asking too many questions and who falls in line with other uniformed brothers. But that kind of solidarity isn’t natural. It’s nurtured by society and subcultures, which ask the individual to subsume their needs for the greater good. Some of us are indoctrinated into these groups. And then we get used to doublethink.
When I look for answers about the strange phenomena of human group behavior I take out an old blue textbook.
In college I took a course titled “Bargaining and Negotiations.” The professor promised us that if we mastered the tools in this class we would be able to make shrewd deals on everything from cars to salary raises to relationships. If we knew how other people thought, we would always have an advantage in any argument or negotiations. Over the course of 20 years this class served me well. I am writing in a Brooklyn apartment where I pay $500/month less than the market price because I bargained. There have been several jobs in which I turned down multiple offers because I knew what the other side was thinking. I wasn’t a brilliant risk-taker in asking for more; I was just aware of someone’s decision-making process. One of the course’s reading materials was a blue textbook blandly titled, “The Dynamics of Persuasion: Communication and Attitudes in the 21st century.”
I go back to the books regularly because they show how marketing and PR sway public opinion. I opened the book while writing this to the section on ELM: the “elaboration likelihood model.” I was trying to figure out why POC cops were so silent. Traditionally, Americans value independence, openness, individuality, freedom of expression. How have American cops — and POC cops in particular — been so staunch in displaying values which contradict everything considered “American?”
In the blue “Dynamics” book, author Richard Perloff wrote about centralized processing and peripheral processing. We either make decisions based on the actual facts (centralized processing) or on peripheral processing: tone, style, appearance. Peripheral processing is style over substance. It’s why Mormons wear clean white shirts and ties when they do missionary work. They know that their appearance will convert people more than their beliefs about Jesus and aliens and golden tablets buried in America. The average person looks at an orthodox Mormon and thinks, “Oh they look clean-cut, honest, direct” even if what they’re saying is a bit out of left field.
Most people — regardless of race, class, or education — make decisions based on peripheral processing (unless it’s an emergency life-or-death situation — then central processing kicks in). The truth of police brutality that Black Lives Matter draws attention to, and the demands to “Defund the Police,” prompt outrage from cops because of peripheral processing of the protestors: their clothes, their youth, their appearances. It short-circuits basic facts about what the protesters are actually saying that are obvious to everyone, including the cops themselves. Cops, it turns out, are not well trained enough to get past peripheral processing in these situations. In fact, they are not equipped to handle a wide variety of situations in which they are nonetheless called on to get involved. They should be re-trained, or the responsibility should be given to someone else.
Many Americans process the protesters just as the cops do. If you have a choice between a clean-cut police chief and strong, military-looking officers standing at attention over a rag-tag group of protestors, most citizens will align themselves with the police just based on the appearance of order, strength and law, even if they know that the officers with whom they’ve aligned themselves may be a threat to them, may even be, statistically, fatal for them. The peripheral processing is so strong that it will even override the most direct, brutal truths.
But it’s not like the left-wing side has been doing a good job of convincing the public to pay attention to the reality of police brutality. Activists have run afoul of a technique the right-wing media uses again and again.
It’s called the Inoculation Theory Model. Inoculation Theory is how you vaccinate a listener against a particular quality. You inoculate against the idea that “cops oppose American values” by attaching freedom from those cops to something perceived as dirty and unsavory, like hippies, Black radicals, the Black Panthers, women district attorneys, unrealistic liberals, snowflakes, college academic eggheads. FEMINISTS!! Hillary Clinton. (The mistrust of women in power is a very helpful trope in vaccinating men of all colors.) These are all strong images that police unions and their allies have worked hard to attach to today’s protests and obscure the truth of the situation — police brutality — and the freedom protesters demand from it. They have inoculated the public against the idea of cops trampling values that — in any other circumstance — Americans would cherish.
This is what undoes neoliberalism in every culture: through inoculation, freedom becomes female, liberal, weak, soft, for snowflakes, the nanny state. Freedom is the thing we run to and then want to crush in our children and our neighbors. It’s the concept of, “I should have freedom because I’m strong enough to handle it, but not you. You should be under my boot.”
Neoliberal societies always slip toward fascism because so many of the people who enjoy the immense benefits of liberal values detest the mental picture attached to them: women, LGBT folks, people of color, immigrants, the “otherness” of inclusion that comes with giving freedom to all. Novelist Charles Willeford wrote in his autobiography about a period of his life during which he was homeless and riding the railroads. Many homeless people he encountered emphasized the need for stronger police to protect the country’s borders. And this was in the 1930s. Many of these men who professed these values were Black and Latino. These same men had countless awful run-ins with cops. This opinion was crafted after being jailed, beaten and abused by the very police forces they advocated for strengthening. The men in Willeford’s autobiography ran right back into the arms of the abusive father of law because they would rather be abused than be “feminine” or open-minded. Right-wing values often embody this exact, strong, clear, masculine, daddy energy.
Cops are at the crux of this cultural war of neoliberalism vs. fascism. They are sworn to uphold the constitution and laws of freedom while also operating legal torture chambers and killing people of color. And they are able to hold these two completely contradictory values at the same time, as long as they don’t speak or think about it. It’s an ongoing and historically successful state of cognitive dissonance. As long as they stand behind the blue wall of silence and strength they are then also able to profess an allegiance to freedom while bashing people exercising their First Amendment rights. And if you’re more offended by David Wright saying “officers ain’t shit” than police unions supporting a platform of right-wing militia terror and murder … then you may have bought into the “law & order” hypocrisy that is rotting this nation at its core.
“The police job has not changed in 6,000 years. It hasn’t been redesigned. It’s been tweaked,” David told me. “But the job is you have to maintain law and order. You keep citizens who are supposedly good … out of their shit. But it’s really based on who is in charge. You protect the people in charge.”
And that is why so many cops have to inoculate themselves against freedom and justice — because the people they answer to are unjust, corrupt and immoral. They are the attorney general, the President, the corrupt court systems; all deeply flawed individuals and systems straining under the weight of a society in the early stages of its collapse. And the only thing police have to fight all this is a gun and a badge.
As our freedoms shrink and our rights get battered in court and on the street, we are slowly slipping toward technocratic fascism. Cops will be at the heart of whether we abandon all pretense of American values and embrace our inner Nazis, or actually turn the tide against a frightening decline into the immoral horrors of our worst instincts.
Aurin Squire is an award-winning playwright, reporter, and multimedia artist. He is a two-time recipient of the Lecomte du Nouy Prize from Lincoln Center and has received residencies at the Royal Court Theatre in London, Ars Nova, Lincoln Center Lab, National Black Theatre, the Dramatists Guild of America, and Brooklyn Arts Exchange.
This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.