Monday, July 18, 2016

Bad Policing and Me

Annamaria on Monday

Don’t worry.  I am still my optimistic self.

By the time I grew up there, Paterson, New Jersey—founded by Alexander Hamilton and the first industrial city in the United States—was moribund.

As I explained last week, my high school was very small.  My class counted fewer than forty, serious students, many of us on our way to college—even the girls.  The accommodations were Spartan.  Our yard was all stone.  We girls played softball out there in fine weather.  A high wall separated us from the exercise yard of the Passaic County Jail next door.  Our goal in girls’ gym class was to hit the ball over the wall and wait for the inmates to toss it back to us.

In this sense, we had a better relationship with the prisoners in the jail than we did with the local policemen.  Perhaps because the cops viewed us as somehow privileged (at least educationally).  Maybe that is why they harassed us.  When we were newly licensed drivers, the police waited in the parking lot across from school, and after dances, followed our cars.  They dogged the drivers, trying to intimidate them into making a mistake, so they could stop them and assert their police superiority.  That was the tip of bullying iceberg.

In August of 1964, race riots erupted all over the US.  One of the first lasted three days in Paterson.  It was the only one cited by the Justice Department as having been largely caused by the police.  I believed it.


I got my first object lesson in police racism just about that time.  My first job out of college was as a technical writer for the Equitable Life Assurance Society on Sixth Avenue in midtown Manhattan.  My colleagues were close to my age.  We worked in a vast room with lines of gray metal desks, a scene right out of the then recent movie The Apartment.

Just recently arrived from the convent school, I was an odd combination of intellectual sophistication and social naiveté.  I got an education quickly.  Viz:  a fellow employee, also a recent graduate, was a red-haired half Italian, half Irish guy, very like the boys I knew in high school.  One day he announced, with great pride, that he had been accepted to the police academy.   Our group saw him off with drinks at a local watering hole.   During the festivities, that future NYPD officer—whose name I have consigned to oblivion—announced, “I can’t wait to get on the job so I can crack niggers’ heads and get away with it.”

He said that.  I heard him say exactly that.  I slid off the barstool and headed for the F train and my hour commute home to parents’ house in New Jersey.

 On 8 May 1970, the Wall Street Hard Hat Riot radicalized me.   By then, I was working at The Bankers Trust Company at 16 Wall Street, spearheading the bank’s Affirmative Action Programs.   The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were under construction nearby.   The Kent State attack had happened four days before; in response, a large group of war protestors showed up in front of  Federal Hall across narrow Nassau Street from the bank’s headquarters.  The demonstrators were mostly young men and boys, skinny kids by comparison to the people who showed up to club them.

A mob of construction workers from the WTC marched down Wall Street, wearing hardhats and armed with construction tools.  Watching from the bank’s second floor, I saw hundreds of the burly men attack the seated protestors, who had nothing with which to defend themselves.  A few threw oranges.  There were police on the scene.  The annotated Wikipedia report says:

Onlookers reported that the police stood by and did nothing.[3][7][8]

I am here to tell you what I saw.  Many of the police joined in, attacking the protestors with their billy clubs.   Blood flowed copiously from young heads.  It was horrifying.

Hard hats on the cabinet room conference table in the Nixon Whitehouse, a
week later, when the President welcomed and praised the head of the
construction workers union.  

Meanwhile, my colleagues had opened the windows and were cheering the attackers on.  All but one other.  My friend Ted Kesselman and I walked away.  We were both in tears.  I barely made it to the women’s room before I threw up.  I knew then that I was working for the wrong side.  I was a young mother and needed my job.  But I was out of that world forever before a year was up.

Fast forward one more time, to the late 1980’s.  I was on the road a great deal those days, as a management development consultant.  I landed at the airport at Lake Charles, Louisiana late one night for an assignment early the next morning at a client’s plant along the Gulf Coast.  I picked up a rental car and got instructions on how reach my hotel, the Sheridan Chateau Charles.   No GPS in those days.  Also no lights on the roads.  And no signage.  I left the airport at 11:30 PM.  By midnight I was lost, good and proper.  I passed a roadhouse with about twenty motorcycles and a dozen pick-up trucks in the parking lot.  No way was I going in there.  Eventually, I came across a 7-11 store.  The lights were on.  I saw a man inside cleaning the floor.  I tapped on the door.  He was an elderly black man.  He signaled that they were closed.  I shouted my problem through the locked door.   That kindly gentleman told me that the way to my hotel was complicated.  He took the keys to his beat up old truck and offered to lead the way for me.

When we arrived at the hotel parking lot, I got out of my car and went to his window to offer him my thanks.  A cop in a patrol car parked nearby came over and chased the man away with the nastiest possible epithets and threats.  I objected.  I told the cop how wrong he was.  The policeman turned on me, shouting that I was a fool.  That I had invited rape.   That I was a stupid nigger-loving Yankee.  That…

I can’t go on.  You get the picture.

These stories are typical of attitudes during my lifetime.

In war protests I took to after I left the bank, many of my fellow marchers called the police pigs and MANY cops lived up to that epithet.

Policemen in many cities, during five decades, before my eyes, have used their power to act out their own prejudices and hatreds.  And that is still happening, as is patently obvious from the headlines. 

I have also always known that the police are the people who must run toward what everyone else runs away from—raging maniacs, ticking bombs,  crumpled automobiles where people are bleeding and dying, decomposing bodies.  We need the police.

But we need them to behave like heroes, not bullies.  Many of them do.  Too many are out of control.

I promised to be optimistic.

I am.  Here is why. 

In the past few years, there is a difference—a BIG DIFFERENCE.  Bad police behavior used to be kept completely hidden.  We heard nothing in public but blue silence.  NOT ANY MORE.  These days, police transgressions are making headlines.  The populace is rising up against police brutality. 

Five years ago, things like these were happening.  And no one said anything.

Nowadays, the President speaks out against it.  Mayors and governors are standing up and calling for change.  Silence no longer gives consent.  The truth is out.  This is the first, critical step to solving the problem.  We are having trouble figuring out how to deal with it.  But deal with it we will.  The same way we stopped the Vietnam War.  And won battles against Jim Crow.  Many ways to improve matters will emerge.  Some will fail.  Many will make large and small differences.  Things WILL change.

I am sure of this.  We are reminded daily of the problem.  Black lives matter.  ALL lives matter.   That, my friends, means we are on the path to progress.

I love progress.



  1. Well said. If you look much at history (and I know YOU do, AmA :-), there ARE ups and downs, but overall, it's a long march of progress, with life improving for more and more people. It IS a long march, but a march that keeps on kickin'.

    1. Thank you, EvKa. It's so good to have a friend that gets it. When I say that this is the time for Hope, people give me that look that says, "This dame needs high dosage prescription drugs." We must work for the future we want. It won't happen without striving and strife. But we will progress.

  2. I can agree with your conclusions and appreciate your explaining your own political history and evolution on this blog.
    As someone who went to anti-war protests starting in high school, I've seen police attack demonstrators near the U.N. And in 1967, during a week of anti-draft protests near Wall Street, I saw police carry young men into the lobby of an office building and beat them up.
    Your post reminds me of the horrific murders of James Cheney, Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman in June, 1964 in Mississippi. Civil Rights workers, they had gone there to help with the voter registration campaign for African Americans.
    We all know what happened. They were arrested on a traffic violation, then let go, then kidnapped and killed.
    Even Wikipedia says that the Klan and Philadelphia, Miss. police were involved.
    That said, as today's activists and community members say, there has always been police brutality. We're just seeing it more due to cell phone videos and social media. So there is more awareness and outrage -- and action.
    Young people are demonstrating all over the country -- in multinational groups, together, even holding sit-ins, which the Civil Rights Movement did, too.
    That's what gives me hope -- the unity out there on the streets of people of all ages and communities, but especially youth.
    Young people organized a sit-in on a Chicago bridge (my childhood home) and shut it down. You couldn't see the end of the people sitting down.
    Nothing will change without people shaking things up, as has been the case in the past with the Civil Rights Movement, women's movement, even the suffragists, gay people organizing, etc.
    So, cheers to youth (and people of all ages) striving for change. It's going to take a lot to get it, but many people seemed determined to get it.
    Meanwhile, the brutality still goes on and there still isn't justice -- but families and friends of victims say keep protesting.

    1. Kathy, thanks so much for adding your experiences to mine. Evidently, we were part of the same movement in our youth. One of my biggest sources of hope is that the young form the nucleus of today's efforts. And I think it was ever thus. The young lead the way. It is their own future they are creating. But you are so right: Too many are dying. The they seem always to be the young, as well.

  3. Thank you for this. It is changing slowly, but it is changing. I have had good luck with cops, but being white and not in a crappy neighborhood helps. The badge and gun gives them a lot of power, but that needs to be tempered. Most do well, but too many do not.

  4. Yes, we come from the same activist generation.
    I had a headstart as my parents were activists, took us to her Dr. King in 1963 in D.C. And more, including influencing my reading.