The Posture of Police-Faatimah Knight
You know when you watch just about any movie about black people set before or around the 1950s how difficult it is to maintain your composure? And when it’s over you think: How are we even still here?
I recall the deeper parts of the trauma this year: the feeling that I was sinking. I was stuck to my computer screen in my room reading article after article, watching commentator after commentator tell me how the inexplicable could possibly happen- police officers shoot innocent black civilians with impunity. Even the sanctity of a child’s life could not move a jury to indict. Horror and dismay would turn to disgust there were those who would say anything to mar the reputation of the black unarmed dead. They would do just enough to make the listener feel like the dead had done something wrong to at least warrant cop involvement. Once they baited whoever took the bait they would find some way to say that things just got out of hand, causing the police officer to shoot the civilian in the back, slam his head into concrete or strangle him. As if to say, “Life happens” could justify this loss of life. I watched as the standard for being innocent became impossibly high. There was talk of someone “not exactly being an angel” and another person “talking back.” This was victim blaming, like blaming the rape on the short skirt of the woman instead of the man with intent to usurp what was not his.
Some spoke of the dynamic of the officer-civilian relationship. Often using phrases such as “be quiet and listen” in reference to how the civilian should act with a cop. That line of thinking assumes that it is not within a civilian’s right to talk or “talk-back” to the police, which is of course not true. There is no “shut-up and sit down” rule that is in effect every time an officer approaches a civilian. Our right to be articulate, thoughtful, autonomous human beings does not end with the presence of a police car. If that is what an officer demands every time he encounters someone then that officer is a tyrant who does not deserve the respect his illusions make him think he commands.
There is no doubt that the police officer is in a position of relative power and with that power he intimidates. He or she is an authority figure; there is a clear realm in which he promises to dominate. His props are an extension of his self. Either reinforcing the burden of his role or serving as reinforcements for his own ego- for without his weapons he is just a man, but with them he spares life or ends it. An officer need not puff his chest. His uniform, his car, his gun- all of these are props designed to inform us of his authority and his ability to wield it, even to deadly ends. This is the posture of police.
When an officer raises his voice, leans in, or peers at you, he is further weighing you down with his authoritarian presence. That is why in low-risk situations that require de-escalation officers can be game-changers because they often need not do much more than walk toward the aggressor and raise their voice in order to divert the aggressor from his victim.
That’s why we find it so repugnant and illogical when officers choose not to de-escalate tense, low-risk altercations. In other words, when they choose to not do their jobs.
We don’t call out officers enough when they fail to de-escalate low-risk situations. We often give them the pass when things turn extremely violent or even deadly because of their own misjudgment and misconduct. It’s as if we assume these officers are only capable of self-defense when they have the accessory of a taser or a gun. Why is it acceptable for them to resort to weaponry so quickly?
From my own experience growing up in Brooklyn, I am very familiar with police presence. In Flatbush, they usually roamed the more densely populated areas, particularly the intersection of Church and Nostrand avenues. This nexus of avenues was rarely much less crowded than 42nd street in Manhattan. Many shops catering to Caribbean needs- food, spices, home decor- were concentrated here. One could argue that in such a high-density area police presence was valuable.
They always stuck out like a sore thumb in their blue uniforms, but I suppose I would prefer that to plain-clothes officers. At least with uniforms on you knew whose toes not to step on. Whenever I saw them, climbing the stairs out of the subway station to home I pulsed with some combination of disdain, annoyance, and disinterest. Even though neither my immediate family nor I had ever had run-ins with the police that turned sour, somewhere in my psyche I had lodged records of people who had. The prime example, untouchable in its barbarity, had been Amadou Diallo, shot so many times one could only assume the officers thought him some ungodly monster that could not be put down by that which would normally kill a man. It was in fact in killing him that they propelled him into eternity to live on as a memory to rally around and as a reminder of how quickly, barbarically and arbitrarily our lives could be taken. There was the source of my disdain for the police. Whatever hope I had it was that if some danger did erupt they could contain it. Like most people, I believed that some officers were good and some officers are not.
I started to get more annoyed with the police when they would wander from the busy center of the neighborhood to the residential parts. It was their guns that annoyed me the most. Why was I expected to not feel slightly crippled by the visual presence of guns two blocks away from my home? Most of the time I was confident they were not going to use it on me, but I still wanted to get away from those officers as quickly as possible.
Having lived in this neighborhood most of my life I knew how unnecessary it was for those cops to be armed just a block away from my home. If they had been armed I would not have minded so much, maybe I would have even appreciated their presence. But with guns stuck to their waist belt it just reminded me of how low they thought of us.
Faatimah Knight is pursuing an MA in Religious Studies at the Chicago Theological Seminary and holds a BA in Islamic Law and Theology from Zaytuna College in Berkeley, CA. Faatimah writes on religion, current events and social commentary. She is an activist who recently spearheaded a special project-“Respond With Love: Rebuild Black Churches, Support Victims of Arson Across The South”. She serves as a member of the Lamppost Education Initiative’s Board of Directors. She lives in Chicago, IL.