Of all the cases of black men being killed by the police, the behavior of the police in the killing of Freddie Gray seems to me most inhuman. Arrested for no good reason, harmless, handcuffed, his well being meant so little to the men who had detained him, that they made no effort to see that he was safe in the van, no effort to respond to his cries of pain, and even prolonged his suffering by taking him with them to another police call rather than to the police station or a hospital. The perpetrators will be charged with a crime, and perhaps even convicted, but the question remains, “How could they be so indifferent to the suffering of another human being to allow him to die slowly by battering in the back of a van they were driving?”.
That they were racist, with the dehumanization of the target of racism that is implied, is an insufficient explanation. Some of the police were black, and presumably did not grow up being told that blacks were inferior beings, and hence, not deserving of being treated with respect.
The question seems pressing to me, as my father was a NY policeman and detective, and a very kind man. He loved and cared for his family, people liked him and would spend hours in conversation with him, he was respected in the police department and sought out for his advice by those he worked with. I cannot imagine him treating Freddie Gray as he was treated, but I also assume that the police who did that were equally good men, as we all are, responding as best they could to the circumstances they found themselves in, as we all do. So, I need to ask, what is it about those circumstances that leads some on the police force to be so indifferent to the lives of the people they are supposedly serving.
My father’s circumstances led him to apply for, take the tests for, and become, a detective. He had previously worked as a patrolman in the neighborhood we were living in, a heavily Jewish working class neighborhood of Brooklyn. But he had four children, and a patrolmen’s salary then didn’t go very far. When he became a detective, he was reassigned to Bedford-Stuyvesant, an overwhelmingly black neighborhood of Brooklyn, with high crime rates and much poorer people, living in a crumbling environment. After he had been there a few years, being involved in breaking up gangs, intervening in domestic quarrels, and arresting a lot of people, I overheard him talking with my older brothers and my mother about the people he was policing. He referred to them with a racial slur, and spoke of them as one might members of foreign country, whose customs one didn’t quite understand. There was empathy in his speaking, though, even as he described the violence he had seen, as he tried to understand how these strange people could treat each other so badly.
My father did not want me to follow him and be a policeman. I got sense of why when I asked him to approve my becoming a crossing guard in the 5th grade. You got to wear a marshal’s belt with a badge on it, come a little early, and have some power over the other children, who were supposed to follow your directions when crossing the streets. You were sometimes also called out to monitor lines in the hallways for special occasions, and didn’t have to be in the lines. And beside, my best friend was a lieutenant in the crossing guards, and could assure me a place. I was sold, and bitterly disappointed when he wouldn’t allow it. At the time, I rued my bad luck in having a policemen as a father, but his words now seem wise. He said he didn’t want me to do it because taking such a position created a separation between yourself and other people, and he didn’t want that for me. Even at the time, I sensed he felt that separation, painfully and sadly, himself.
There is some degree of separation from others inherent in the position of authority, the ability to use legally sanctioned force, and the power over others it gives you even when not used, that is inherent in the role of policeman. But there is a further element of that due to the dual role of the police. On the one hand, they are supposed to be protecting a community from the dangers posed by others, and respond in circumstances that require assistance for individuals in it, and on the other hand, the chain of command you are part of is responsive to a power structure that may be quite alien to that community, that requires that they protect them and their interests if there is a conflict. We see that dramatically in Baltimore, Ferguson, Bedford Stuyvesant, and Houston, where poor black communities are policed by a police force that is unaccountable to these communities and whose direction is determined by the wealthy and powerful in their cities, whether the police chief is black or not. When push comes to shove, and the deep seated conflict between the interests of the poor and the wealthy breaks into the open, when people whose lives have been hemmed in and limited by lack of resources and racism, express their frustration in burning police cars and looting buildings, the police will stand between the rioters and “the good folks”.
Having such a dual role, it is a rare policeman who will be able to retain empathy for the people in poor communities. Our society is primarily organized to transfer wealth from the poorest people to the richest. That imperative is present at every level of administration, and has laid waste to much of Baltimore. The police must, in the end defend that imperative, and be part of a system oppressive to the people they come from and whom they are supposedly serving. It is a working class job, but the nature of the job implies an antagonism with the working class. The need to separate yourself from the people you are policing , to decide that some of them at least, are not worthy of empathy or respect, in order to protect yourself from the pain of knowing the damage you do in your role as an enforcer, can easily lead to seeing Freddie Gray as less than human, even if you are black yourself.
We should by all means have people as closely connected with the communities they are policing as possible, and a civilian review board, with real power to investigate and hold police accountable for acting with respect for all human beings. We should select people for the role of the police who seem best able to handle it, not lose sight of the humanity of individual policemen or policewomen, and find ways to support them in making humane decisions, but I suspect that all of that will not be enough to prevent the alienation of the police from the working people as long as capitalism remains the organizing principle of our society.