My son was born in April—the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me in one of the most depressing news years in recent memory. This year has taught many unwelcome lessons, but perhaps the loudest and most persistent lesson, one that’s been impressed upon marginalized
populations for years is: if you think you see someone committing a crime…
Don’t call the cops.
This is a lesson that, for his safety and the safety of the other members of his community, I will be teaching my son.
I anticipate that this lesson may confuse the hell out of him, as it will run contrary to what his teachers, friends or his friends’ parents say. But, in many ways, I look forward to the questions it will provoke because these questions will give us a point of entry into larger discussions about white supremacy and the carceral state.
Look, I’m no absolutist. I recognize that, at this point in time, there exists no other mechanism that might protect him from violence. Subsequently, until the day arrives when there is another option besides arming ourselves, calling the police might be a drastic step to which we resort. Additionally, I realize that the police are merely a tool of the larger criminal justice system. But, as the most visible and imminently dangerous tool, we need to stop calling them when someone steals our iPhone.
In 2013 I started facilitating weekly writing workshops in juvenile halls for an organization called The Beat Within. This work has held many lessons; the most basic being that the more time incarcerated youth spend in these institutions, the harder it is for them to see themselves as anything other than criminals.
Once they have adopted this self-image, they are what the institutions say they are, despite the fact that the majority of them have done nothing more than participating in a ghetto economy by selling drugs or stealing property. While it’s not entirely the fault of the police that these are the people they’ve been tasked with policing, these are the people they police. Far too often the word “policing” is interchangeable with harassing, terrorizing, brutalizing, killing.
With 2.3 million people in American prisons and jails and another 5.1 million on probation or parole, it’s clear that the police, as Mumia Abu-Jamal says, “serve and protect the system, not the people.” While many of us recognize the blight on our society that is the prison industrial complex, few connect calling the cops with the perpetuation of this blight.
We acknowledge that the prison industrial complex is a destructive force that locks people in a permanent under caste. We recognize that, as Michelle Alexander points out in her groundbreaking book The New Jim Crow, it functions as “a parallel universe in which discrimination, stigma, and exclusion are perfectly legal, and privileges of citizenship such as voting and jury service are off-limits.”
We concede that the militarization of police departments has birthed permanent occupying forces of state-sanctioned terror in communities of color. Forces that, to this day, represent a clear and present danger to Black and Brown lives.
It’s time that we connect the act of calling the police to the immediacy of this danger.
Despite all we know about the systemic racism, the thin blue line, and the cooperation between district attorneys and police forces that have contributed to the shocking lack of accountability witnessed in Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, Milwaukee, San Francisco and Chicago, we still call the cops when our property is stolen. Some of us call the cops on people who haven’t done anything other than arousing our racist suspicions by looking “out of place.”
Why, when the best-case scenario is that someone is arrested and convicted of a crime (or pleads guilty to a lesser charge), goes to juvenile hall or prison, and comes out years later traumatized, disenfranchised and a greater threat to themselves and others?
Why, when the worst-case scenario is that a cop murders a 12-year-old child, who bleeds out while his older sister is tackled, handcuffed and thrown in the back of a police car for trying to help her dying brother?
In juvenile hall, incarcerated youth recite a definition of insanity that they’ve been taught by staff: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Of course, few explain or even acknowledge the ways in which trauma affects brain chemistry, or that the prefrontal cortex, the area that allows us to control impulsivity and weigh consequences, is not fully developed in males until the age of 26.
For those of us who have advanced beyond that precarious age, perhaps “insane” would be an apt description for the act of calling the police.
After all the videos of cops assaulting and murdering people of color, what evidence is there that our calling the cops will yield a different result?
It’s time for all of us to wake up and stay woke. We’ve been sold a line about law and order all our lives. We’ve been taught that it’s our civic duty to obey and make sure others obey as well. Additionally, those of us who have grown up in relative safety seek to sustain safety’s illusion. We want to feel protected, because, deep down, we still believe in the idea of “the other.” The premise that there’s an “us” and a “them.” The people who value their lives less than we value ours. It is this fiction that enables injustice.
Fellow white people: by participating in white supremacist structures we practice white supremacy. Despite this fact, we feel we deserve our status and our stuff. When we’ve accumulated a lot of things, we start to see ourselves and our stuff, some of us cease to separate the two, as targets and we look to the police for reassurance. For the feeling that a Glock-wielding system stands between us and those who might take our valuable lives.
Many of us become so consumed by this fear; we forget about the real threats. Threats such as climate change, corporate capitalism, the surveillance state, endless war, over which we should be losing sleep.
Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza has said, “This is the time for us to not just dream about what could be, but also start to build alternatives that we want to see.”
I want to help my son create an alternative value system, at the core of which will be the knowledge that every individual life in this world has as much values as his. I want him to be afraid not of what a person might take from him, but what he might lose if he doesn’t stand with that person.
I want him to belong to a community sustained by organizations that uplift as opposed to institutions that imprison. I want him to be aware of the freedom or the life that might be stolen as the result of his calling the cops.
As long as the police remain militarized, there are no civilian review boards and the war on the poor props up the prison industrial complex. I will teach my son to abdicate his privilege to be protected from the poor.
Because if we don’t recognize our connection to others immediately, we won’t recognize it until it’s too late. When, our resources having dwindled and having edged closer and closer toward social and ecological collapse, the long arm of the law encompasses an ever-widening swath of our communities and swallows us all whole.
Photo: Getty Images