Jeff Clark: To Know Again

On May 18, Ypsilanti City Council voted to go over budget and hire 3 armed YPD officers and 1 YPD records clerk. The vote was split 4-3, with those opposed expressing concerns about adding to the budget deficit and lack of time for public input, including via the council’s own Police Oversight Commission. On June 1, members of the public spoke and council members defended their votes. The council can still remove the officers from the budget through amendment and can still make time for a public dialogue. In the next few weeks, we will publish here a series of posts to encourage that dialogue.

When it comes to doing something about the overfunded, community-terrorizing body known as your local police department, liberal white America is like the clichéd ostrich with its head in the sand. Have you ever taken a minute to google why ostriches would put their heads into sand? I hadn’t until just now, and I’ll be damned if what they told us about ostriches wasn’t false.

An ostrich will dig a hole in the dirt to serve as a nest for its eggs, and several times each day, will put its head in the hole to rotate the eggs. In other words, the ostrich’s head is in the ground in order to successfully propagate another brood.

Decent whites don’t want to talk about policing in America because unconsciously they’re aware the entire foundation of their intergenerational wealth—their land, their property, their livelihoods, their progeny—depends upon the social stability and order to which they believe cops contribute, and that to shake this order up would jeopardize the continuity of their lives and the lives of their descendents.

Conservative whites, on the other hand, get off on policing because the figure of the cop is a screen onto which they can project their desires to be masters of their (racialized) worlds, rather than tools (and casualties) of the free market.

As for abolition-minded whites, we want the end of policing. Obama said that’s alienating, other folks say it’s utopian, and now we’ve got some local officials and residents expressing that they believe it’s problematic for abolition-minded whites to voice opinions on the topic of policing in Ypsilanti.

I’ve been making and trashing notes about this for a couple weeks now:

Write about paternalism (cops thrive on establishing rank and authority, being in control, having the last word, censuring rulebreakers; some elected officials, too).

Write about complicated, broken friendships, the kind forged in the street and then lost when psychic stress alchemizes with social distress (because this city feels thick with such friendships, and because sometimes these breakups seem to suggest that solidarity can’t be maintained across personal division, or that there can’t be continuity in a shared conviction unless the sharers are on good terms; but I can still have love for a neighbor even if they trouble me, and we can be together in being against police, even if our togetherness is no longer embodied, or even desired).

Write about grieving how some cherished friends and accomplices have moved away to manifest the end of police in distant cities.

Write about how transferring from grassroots activity to elected office is permanently Faustian. And write about how the American educational system drones into a kid’s ear that if you want to change your world, you should vote or run for office. No one we’ve ever read about has returned from elected office to the grassroots a more potent organizer.

Write about early summer flowers as metaphor for how organizing is cyclical.

Find out why so many white people on social media will post joke photos that are difficult to interpret but feel it’s gauche/woke/unseemly to make “political” expressions.

Write about being a white person who’s not trying to “unlearn” whiteness but instead to attack it, to destroy it, and how that sometimes gets confusing, schizoid, lonely, repetitious, annoying, messy.

I jotted notes about how disciplinarian dads produce kids who fall in line, which is what white (and non-white) liberals do when the topic is the abolition of police. I threw those notes out when I realized that even sweet dads raise kids who never grow up to do anything about police terror in their cities.

I wrote the names Clifton Lee (one of his killers was until recently a “school resource” officer in the local school district), David Ware (it turns out his killer, though long transferred out, was kept on Ypsi payroll til recently), Aura Rosser (her killer was promoted to sergeant, teaches at WCC now, and is still breaking down doors with his gun drawn).

I made notes about community policing and how research suggests it doesn’t work, and instead only increases police budgets, which are already bloated.

I noted to myself that I should reach out to white friends with abolitionist leanings about why it is they think they tend to keep those feelings to themselves.

I wrote, “Is it only white guys who use the term ‘woke’ disparagingly.”

I told myself I’d write about Nextdoor, CoPAC, and the other vehicles for snitches and racist do-gooders to participate in the dangerous charade of law and order.

Also: “Ask Peter about being white and against the police for half a century.”

I stopped writing notes June 15 when I figured out that I’d been writing notes to put off writing what I really needed to grapple with, which is how I came to be against policing, especially in the aftermath of having been told by Black peers in a city council meeting that it was problematic to be white and talking about defunding cops. I respected their feelings and wanted to make sense of them.

I learned about police brutality in the abstract, as a young teen in the 1980s, from punk rock records. A critique of abusive authority remained alive inside me, inchoate but glowing, until a decade later, driving late one night from Oakland to a friend’s place in Berkeley, when I drove up on a bunch of police cruisers, on Adeline or maybe MLK, the trees and house facades strobed by blue and red. When I’d come to a stop directly across the street from the cops, I could see they all had their guns drawn and aimed at a young Black man, who was on his knees with his hands clasped behind his head. He looked terrorized. I put my car in park, opened my door, stood up, closed the door, and one of the cops looked over at me and shouted, “Get the fuck out of here, now.” I stood there for a moment. “Now!” I got back in my car and drove away.

It takes a while to make something of the shame that lingers from an encounter like that, and it has to be disentangled from other internalized traces of having been dominated by abusive fathers, mentors, bullies. That “shame” must be registered as momentary, individual powerlessness, because once one has begun to be knit together with loved ones and comrades and neighbors who are against police (or judges, fathers, landlords, vigilantes), one understands how, at long last, to externalize, specify, and make productive a longtime internal abhorrence for policing: by devoting oneself to the care and uplift and defense of the historical subjects (which eventually can include oneself) of those agents of dominance. There’s a planetwide network of others who understand policing to be destructive, violent, segregating, and that something constructive can take its place. Something will take its place—maybe not soon, but eventually. It’s counterproductive to dwell on the feeling of individual powerlessness in the face of the (hyperfunded, militarized, court-backed) institution of policing, because individuality is by definition impotent and meaningless, like Clint Eastwood.

Nevertheless, that feeling of shame at having abandoned a kid in danger eventually became a revelation: I’d been doing it my whole life. My elders and all the half-empty history textbooks had encouraged me to.

The only note I jotted down and didn’t throw out was this, verbatim:

“Theme from council: problematic to be white in Ypsi and call for less cops.” I won’t try to rebut this, because Fred Moten already has:

The coalition emerges out of your recognition that it’s fucked up for you, in the same way that we’ve already recognized that it’s fucked up for us. I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?

That’s an astounding statement on solidarity. To “recognize” is to “to know again / recall to mind” (recognoscere), as if we’d already known that policing was anti-Black. In fact, we did already know: we see it every day of our lives on the streets and in the news; some of us just choose to dissociate what we witness from our naive hopes that one day, with enough funding and training, American police will be reformed. Or maybe we just hope that if we ever need to call them, because our loved one is having a mental health crisis, an officer will arrive who’s got a less itchy trigger finger than the others. (In use of force, though, they’re all trained the same: if you feel any fear, shoot at the torso.)

It feels truthful that Moten’s coalition emerges, rather than it has emerged. It feels truthful, to my experience, that our ad-hoc togetherness gets renewed regularly, isn’t ever complete. There’s too much to learn, and too much to undo, to ever have finished forming this coalition. Maybe that’s why friendship in coalition is so tenuous—we’re having to learn to care for others at breakneck speed, because so much time has been lost believing that cops and councils and foundations and representatives will care for them. By and large, that’s never been the case, but I understand why our teachers wanted us to believe it was. The smart kids will figure it out before long. Teenagers get abolition.

As for recognition—

If police are agents of terror in your neighborhood (and I know they are, because I’ve interviewed too many survivors of policing to forget), I need to recall that they’re a terror in mine as well. To be in coalition, maybe all that’s needed is that each new day we take a moment to recall to mind that every city is filled primarily with strangers, and that every one of them is worthy of our care and solidarity, and policing doesn’t need to be any part of that reciprocal devotion.

In spite of miles, in spite of avenues, in spite of schooling and gossip and political tendency, our coalition is vast. Its desire is for the sovereignty, the dignity, the autonomy of every historical target of policing, and, eventually, for a complete absence of targets.

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