In the sixties, the police were the enemy not just of people of color but of many young Americans overall. The police riots in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the “field day for the heat” in 1966 on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip memorialized by Stephen Stills in his “For What’s It’s Worth,” Canned Heat’s 1969 “Sic ‘Em, Pigs” and many other songs (Frank Zappa, Phil Ochs) made this clear. The police hated us long-haired young people and showed it.
We hated them right back—for a time. But many of us could shed the signs that made the police zero in on us—and did so. By the end of the 1980s, we young white rebels of the sixties had melded back into the mass of American society. No longer did we look different; no longer did we do the drugs that that had made us easy targets for the cops.
We had changed, but the cops had not. They no longer focused on us because, quite frankly, they had defeated us.
We saw them, that is, but we no longer tried to do anything about their attitudes, though we knew that the cop culture of disliking those who areg different from them remained, that the cops had not also changed. After all, the real focus of their violence was no longer on any large swath of white Americans as it had been in the sixties. We white folk were feeling safe.
The African Americans weren’t, but we ignored that–a huge mistake.
Some of the habits of early years remained, a desire to avoid the police, for example, and an unwillingness to confront them. When I was involved in a minor auto accident a number of years ago, a cop had seen it and was by the car in seconds. I waited with my hand on the steering wheel and said nothing until spoken to. When asked for ID, I said my car papers were in the glove compartment and asked if I could get them out, moving not a bit until given a verbal OK. I didn’t think about it at the time, but I had enough run-ins with police in the sixties to know how to avoid conflict. No matter that, now, an older white man, I still knew that cops are prone to violence.
As much so now as they were when I first encountered their belligerence as a hitchhiker fifty years ago. They have not changed.
The American culture around them has changed since then, especially white attitudes toward the police, taking off any pressure for the police to change. From their nadir about the time when their surrogate National Guardsmen killed four students at Kent State, most of us white people have backed away from admitting our dislike of the police. After all, the police rarely attack white folk as they once did. There is no longer a white counterculture in need of keeping in its place.
A lot of the change in attitude toward police also came through a conflation of the military and the police. Many Americans, over the past fifty years, have come to see policework as “service” to the country and the police as heroes.
They aren’t, though. No more than they were in the sixties when, with bully clubs swinging, they waded into groups of people, both white and black, who were gathering where politicians didn’t want them. What changed was the white population who, getting older and richer, no longer saw the cops as their enemies, who no longer called them “thugs” (to borrow from Donald Trump’s description not of the police but of demonstrators in Minneapolis).
The police, in the sixties, could help make an angry crowd into a riotous one. I remember watching cops in Washington, DC block off all exits to an intersection and then tell people to disperse. Yet there was no place for anyone to go. So, seeing people disobeying them, the cops started lobbing in tear gas. Is it any wonder that the crowd started throwing things back and lighting fires? Is there any doubt things are different today?
Having lived in a cop-heavy neighborhood in Brooklyn, I have seen their attitudes toward the rest of the population. They don’t like them—us. In particular, they detest liberals and they don’t like African Americans or other people of color. They feel laws are for them to enforce and not to obey; they ignore traffic laws when behind the wheel, making driving n their neighborhoods extra dangerous. They are clannish, often polite enough to outsiders but rarely willing to fraternize with people outside their community. They are belligerent: the ‘blue lives matter’ as a response to ‘black lives matter’ is a statement of power, saying ‘don’t mess with us.’ Nonetheless, some of the cops are quite polite–but you can tell that they see you as something other than one of theirs. They are conservative, seeing only those politicians who are willing to give them a free hand as worthy of their support.
Cops were like this fifty years ago. They believe in the order that they enforce and feel that any attempt to control how they define order is that of an enemy. They believe that they know things the rest of us don’t, especially the rest of us who don’t see the management of society as best done by threat.
Oh, yes, my vision of the cops here is narrow and incomplete—but it is much like theirs of African Americans or liberals. I am no longer willing to provide more largess in my attitude toward them while they demonstrate, through the more than fifty years of my dealing with cops, that they have not changed their own attitudes in all that time. There are too many of them who are mean, hateful and unwilling to see those different from them as worthy of respect. I can even imagine they and their supporters attacking me for being willing to point this out–it happens every day on the web.
Yes, we need to start directing attention to American police culture, recognizing that there is a corruption there that goes back to the sixties and earlier and realizing that many of us have been too scared to point it out. If we want police who do not strike out at citizens, we need to say, as a nation, that their current vision of the rest of us is no longer acceptable. We cannot let them stare the rest of us down any longer.
We obviously need to start with the way they treat African Americans, but that’s only the beginning. We need to insist that our police treat all people with respect and see themselves as part of the American population, not as a special subset keeping a lid on the rest of us.
The rest of us will then be willing to respect the police.