As a kid, I sometimes hated hanging out in public with my father because we couldn’t go anywhere without people stopping to greet him.
“Hey, Brother David, how you been?” He’d respond: “I’m good, how are you?”
I’d usually be able to guess how they knew each other from the response; if they talked about the state of the community, they were probably connected somehow through my dad’s time as a member of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. Work talk meant that they were colleagues. But when someone started along the lines of “I got my stuff together, Brother David,” I knew that this was someone who he’d arrested—or made the decision not to arrest—during his time with the Chicago Police Department.
“My father joined the police force with the same spirit with which he joined the Black Panthers.” I’ve given this speech more times in my life than I can count. There are some who will never be convinced that there is such a thing as a “good cop.” I understand this logic better at 31 than I did at 21. Though I do disagree with it, I understand that the uniform of any American police officer signifies membership in an all-too-often dangerous fraternity that is emboldened by a racist, destructive system of law and order. I also have accepted that until we completely upend what law enforcement means in this country, we are in terrible danger if the only officers that encounter us are the ones that have the same anti-Black bias that both molds structural racism and pulls a trigger on a stranger who fits the so-called profile.
We were accosted by people who knew my dad as Officer or Detective Lemieux because the community respected him and that’s because he respected the community. They wanted him to know when they were doing better, or had gotten out of “the life” that had brought them in contact in the first place. There were times where he (unknowingly) took friends of mine home after curfew violations or other small infractions that may have resulted in fines, imprisonment or even violence had they encountered another cop, with fatherly instructions to stop doing whatever he’d caught them doing wrong.
He walked to work. He was one of the people, not some violent bully, nor a detached empty shirt waiting for his paycheck to become a pension.
This is not a defense of “good cops.” This is context.
The man who was my living example of what law enforcement should be is the one who taught me to have a great distrust of the police (and has spoken about the need to do so publicly on many occasions.) My sisters and I were not instructed to blindly admire all officers because of their jobs, but rather to avoid them whenever possible and to be deferential when we couldn’t–not because they deserved it, but in order to save our lives.
Dad spoke to us about the racism our people face at the hands of the police, and how even Black cops can be infected with the same loathing of our people that we associate with other officers. He described officers who abused the power of their badge in order to soothe whatever personal inadequacies they felt. He also complained that “Black folks call the cops for everything,” wishing over and over again that we were less inclined to dial 911 for a misbehaving child or neighborly dispute. (We have seen these perhaps unnecessary calls end in tragedy time and time again.) Now retired, he does workshops for parents and children on how to avoid and navigate the “justUS system,” as he calls it.
The instructions my family got about policing (and the ones he shared on getting pulled over by police and when they knock on your door for a 2012 EBONY.com series) are similar to the “wisdom” dispensed to women and girls about sexual assault: be careful when doing things you have every right to do, in hopes that someone does not decide to harm you. Like victims of rape, we find that justice is elusive when an officer runs afoul of his sworn duty to protect and serve. Worse yet, federal and local laws have upheld abusive officers, and the use of their badges to perpetuate institutional racism and disenfranchisement.
My own experiences with and first person observations of police would confirm all that my father told me. I have observed, more times than I can count, cops speaking to Black people In ways that remind me of overseers from slave narratives—and I’m not talking about suspects or criminals, I’m referring to interactions with people performing mundane acts of citizenry. I’ve watched people be taken into custody for no reason other than ‘mouthing off.’ As a victim of a violent crime, I was interrogated like a criminal. I’ve watched Ferguson protestors get treated with less dignity than what most would afford to animals and Black men in Brooklyn get hauled off to the precinct for failing to speak to cops like they report to them. I’ve watched people submit to arrest as the officer yells, “Stop resisting.”
“For Black people to survive the police, we have to be the police,” I’ve heard my father say, over and over again. He understands that this isn’t a solution to mass incarceration or arrest quotas but something that can, at the very least, lessen the abuse we face in our communities at the hands of people we’ve been told are there to protect us.
Progress this country for Black folks comes in measures of “at the very least” more often than not, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get people on board with what seems like more of the same. I understand the reasons why many of my people say they could never join a police force, and I understand those who feel like they absolutely must.
The greatest lesson, perhaps, I’ve taken away from being raised by someone who has lived such dual lives as my dad is the need to be totally honest about what policing looks and feels like in Black communities. One hundred slain officers could not match the impact that decades of unchecked police abuse has had on Black people, via racial profiling, ’ dubious arrests that sometimes lead to unnecessary convictions, sexual harassment/assault, evidence planting, theft, violence, and the list goes on. Yet, that doesn’t mean I want to see those officers fall.
News of a cop murdered in the line of duty will always make my heart stop. But my father’s work is not enough for me to pretend that the majority of police officers approach Black communities in the same spirit, or that the average cop is just a really great person with a deep abiding love for humanity, suffering for the misdeeds of a few ‘bad apples.’ Again, I urge to you to mourn without losing the ability to speak clearly and plainly about the real problem with Blacks and law enforcement.
Jamilah Lemieux is EBONY Magazine’s senior editor.