I remember a picture in a book from early childhood, probably one of the Golden Books, of smiling children gathered round a smiling plump happy cop in his blue uniform. He had a nightstick, but not a gun. He was White and the children, if I remember right, were the usual mixture of White children with one Black and one Asian child.
The policeman is your friend. Even in my liberal college town, that was the lesson. And the cops we knew were our friends. You had to do a lot to get in trouble. One Saturday evening, at a friend’s house, he and I were pretending to unwind a cable across the street. Cars would hit their brakes and we would laugh, until one hit its brakes hard and then hit its lights and siren.
We ran to the back of his yard and hid under the shrubs. We could hear the cop telling his dad in a genial way to tell us to cut it out, that we could cause an accident and might get hurt ourselves if a car swerved. Not pleased, but not angry either. It was not one of my better teenage moments, but my friend was the head of his youth group, to which I’d been invited, so I like to think I’d been led astray by spiritual authority. His dad, by the way, was not as genial as the cop.
The policeman is your friend. Even in my liberal college town, that was the lesson. And the cops we knew were our friends. You had to do a lot to get in trouble.
That was in a liberal community. Police brutality might have become a national issue now and then, and we were duly upset when it did, but the upset never lasted. People who saw the racial difference didn’t always feel it. For us, as for so many Americans, the image from the Golden Book and our own experiences biased our thinking. It was a comforting story and basically true — as far as we could see.
Not so much anymore. Even political conservatives, the great defenders of the Golden Book image of the police, have begun to lose that comforting idea of the friendly neighborhood cop. That’s a significant cultural marker.
They have to. The evidence mounts that a disturbing number of cops — small but significant beyond their numbers — are thugs and brutes. Not just racists, but people who abuse their power with anyone when they can. Cellphones, surveillance cameras, and body-cams provide more and more evidence. The police don’t well police themselves.
See this new report from the conservative Public Discourse, which claims: “Police violence in America is extraordinary in its intensity. It is disproportionate to the actual threats facing police officers, and it has risen significantly in recent years without apparent justification. Its effects are felt across all racial groups, with non-Hispanic whites making up half of all people killed by police officers, even as African Americans are killed at disproportionately high rates compared to any reasonable baseline.”
Conservatives had denied police were racist and they denied almost every story about police brutality. They conceded that some police were bad apples. They just didn’t see many bad apples and forgot the old saying that one bad apple spoils the whole barrel. That is what I saw, for example, in a rough survey of old issues of National Review.
I first noticed this change in attitude when a young conservative friend shared with anger a video of police in Mesa, Arizona, beating up an innocent man, who’d been waiting for an elevator and looking at his phone. The skinhead cop hits him several times, then pauses as the man starts sliding down the wall and hits him again, hard. The city charged the victim with disorderly conduct (a standard form of police intimidation which also makes outsiders think “faults on both sides”).
[I]f you had been on the sidewalk that day, watching the officer with his knee on George Floyd’s neck, and hearing George Floyd’s pleas, would you have tried to rescue him?
An older friend from New York City, a patrician sort of conservative, as Park Avenue establishmentarian as anyone could wish, once remarked that he’d seen the city’s police do some extraordinary things, but also many “terrible” things. He was not inclined to give them any benefit of the doubt when he read stories about police misconduct. He’s not a fluke or an outlier, certainly not these days.
Yes, we have many good cops and heroic cops, doing a dangerous and difficult job, often misjudged by the public, usually considered to be guilty until proven innocent. Yes, many of their radical critics don’t understand the work they do and offer criticisms driven less by the realities and more by their politics and their own prejudices. Some of them even mean to abolish the police.
Good luck with that.
Still, if you had been on the sidewalk that day, watching the officer with his knee on George Floyd’s neck, and hearing George Floyd’s pleas, would you have tried to rescue him? If you had enough friends with you to overwhelm the police? Don’t you wish now that someone had done it? That justice demands it?
Once, not so many years ago, almost everyone outside minority communities would have said no. The police knew what they’re doing and must have a reason for restraining the man like that. They represent public order and justice. To interfere would not be just offend against the law, but offend against its guardians. No, we don’t do that. Now many of those people would say yes, we do.
When so many people — increasing numbers of people, from more and more backgrounds — don’t trust the guardians of public order, and with reason, what do we do? We have no one else to be the police, but the police.
David Mills is editor of Hour of Our Death and is finishing a book for Sophia Press titled When Catholics Die.
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