Among the things adults need to talk to kids about is, for better or worse, how to interact with police. Kids, teens, adolescents often experiment with authority, challenging it, rejecting it, respecting it.
I’m white. My son is white. That makes this conversation somewhat less complicated, at least as regards him, but it’s important nonetheless. The other day, a white busker was arrested in New York. This video, taken by a bystander, captures almost eight minutes of an interaction that provided tremendous fodder for conversation in our house.
The audio is frustrating at he beginning, but it improves as the video progresses. Here are some of the things I did, questions I asked, both as we watched the video and after having watched it. (We’ve watched it twice from start to finish. I suspect we aren’t done.)
I pressed pause, repeatedly, asking, “What do you think the busker is feeling now?” “What do you think the cop is feeling?” “What are you feeling?” “Who has more power now?” “Who is more scared now?” “Who’s afraid of what now?” “What’s the worst thing that could happen right now?” “What’s the best?” “If you were the busker, what would you do right now?” “If you were the cop, what would you do right now?” “Why do you think he did that?”
At the end of the video, I asked, “What do you think the busker’s next ten minutes looked like?” “His next hour?” “His next 24 hours?” “What do you think his next two weeks will look like?” “What about the cop’s?” “What are the worst possible answers to those questions?” “What are the best possible answers?”
I think it says something about the circumstance depicted, as well, perhaps, about our parenting to date, that it was very hard to get my son to imagine the cop’s perspective, to travel any significant distance from his visceral sense of right (busker) and wrong (cop).
But here’s the speech I gave at the end of it all. As with this entire series, I don’t believe there’s a “right” or “wrong” – this shit is complex – but I present my approach both because many readers have expressed interest in how I think and because I find hearing how others think endlessly interesting. Particularly when those others find how I think interesting.
Cops have a tough job. They sign up for it generally believing they’re joining the team of “good guys” in a battle between “good” and “evil.” They put their lives at risk regularly for the benefit of what they believe to be good. Often, they feel unappreciated, underpaid, overworked, exposed. And they’re not wrong. Very few cops wake up wondering how they can abuse their power that day. Most of them wake up feeling happy, or frustrated, or sad, or scared about the day that awaits them as they go to work to protect and serve me and you. We could talk about the role of police in a capitalist economy, about the culture of police forces and the problems they present, but for the purposes of this conversation, none of that matters.
In addition, and importantly, cops have two things most other people don’t have: guns, and a nearly infinite supply of friends with guns. And the nature of the job they do, and the culture of police departments, is that cops almost always believe other cops over civilians reflexively. And they rarely spend time questioning that trust. The truth is, they can’t: their lives often depend on that trust.
Next, people in general, and men in particular, don’t like to feel disrespected. When we do, it tends to make us either run and hide or stand and fight.
For all these reasons, when a cop asks me to do something, I almost always do it. Because if s/he feels disrespected, it’s very likely that I will feel her or his wrath. One way or another.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t, or wrong be, justice for you in the long run if a cop misbehaves. It means that if a cop’s misbehaving, the best, safest, and most effective way to counter that in the long run usually doesn’t involve challenging the cop, defying the cop, in the moment.
And, if I’m not going to do as a cop asks, the mere fact that I’m right and s/he’s wrong isn’t reason enough. I also have to believe that whatever risks I’m assuming in defying the cop are worth the benefit – for me, for society – that awaits me and/or us of my defiance.
Civil disobedience – breaking an unjust law, or a just one in protest of an injustice – in anticipation of being arrested and punished – is honorable and courageous, and, in the U.S., generally safe. In part, this is because cops, and their authority, isn’t the target, is being respected throughout.
Challenging the authority of cops head-on, though, is rarely something I would do. Because guns.
As I watched this video, as I imagined the adrenaline coursing through both men’s veins, I found myself terrified of what the cop might do. An adrenaline-fueled, disrespected man with a gun is not a pretty thing. As a father, I’ve lost my temper, yelled, said things I later regretted. I even hit you, whom I love, when you were far too young to be hit, even if I believed in hitting (which I don’t any more and for which I have apologized, and do again apologize). This is a guy interacting with a stranger, in a setting in which he feels radically threatened (I imagine) and disrespected (I’m certain).
And he has a gun. And a bunch of friends with guns on their way.
The busker was enormously lucky. This all played out well for him, as well as it possibly could have. But it wouldn’t have surprised me if it hadn’t.