March 2, 2021
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The Myth of Protection

by Jonathan Wallace

Reading popular fiction and later histories of the American frontier, I was always fascinated and frightened by the perpetual insecurity of homesteaders in remote areas, miles from the nearest neighbor. The movie scene in which a woman working in the front yard spots a horseman at a great distance, and stands staring to determine if he is friend or foe--the moment of stillness which sets in at that moment, which radiates passivity and even helplessness, yet may be replaced a moment later by a burst of frenetic action--created an anxiety in me, the viewer, which made me question whether I would have been fit for the frontier. And of course, the cowboy-infused culture we swam in as children made us judge ourselves by that putative fitness: What good was an American for anything if not fit for the frontier?

Growing up in a sedate, quiet neighborhood in Brooklyn, I all unknowingly imbibed what I now deem the Myth of Protection. All of my rare encounters with cops until 1968 or so involved the Friendly Neighborhood Policeman, the figure of reassurance, who passed by in his black-and-white sedan. The closest I ever remember seeing one--except perhaps in an arranged visit to the classroom-- was on the corner of East 21st Street, where a hysterically weeping boy about my age was in trouble for pulling a fire alarm when there was no fire. The two cops who responded stood a few feet away from him, entirely still and probably somewhat sympathetic. They were not beating him or berating him, nor looking at him in a way which proclaimed him less than human. He had white skin, as I do.

In 1971, I had a paradigm shift in my thinking about cops. I was standing outside the Fillmore East on its last night of existence, part of a disorderly crowd of white people disappointed by their inability to get inside to see the Allman Brothers. A biker began punching a hippie, so hard that the glass flower he was holding shattered. I will never forget the pacific way the hippie stood there and calmly received three hard punches to the chin, brave and resolute, when I would have screamed and run away. I naively turned to a cop standing still next to me and asked why he did not intervene-- it never occurred to me then that even asking the question might earn me a beating too. I will so long as I live never forget the answer: "We don't care what you do to each other, so long as you leave us alone".

A few minutes later, the cops rioted and I witnessed something else which has determined my entire world view since. A young white man driving a car stopped at a red light adjoining the street corner on which the cops were now attacking the crowd. An officer ordered him to leave the area and the man said, "Its a red light". The officer reached in, turned off the vehicle, took the key and left. Another officer surged up and ordered him to leave. The man tried to explain that he no longer had the key, and the cop pulled him out through the window of the vehicle, beating his head bloody with a nightstick. I believe, and am not sure, that I called an ambulance for this young man, from a pay phone nearby.

Digression Alert: a young woman came out of the crowd, a stranger, and cradled the bleeding driver, and climbed into the ambulance with him. I have always hoped they married, and lived long and happily together, and had beautiful children, and told everyone the story of how they "met cute".

In June 2020, a sometime client of mine, a white Catholic Worker in his seventies, approached cops policing a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Buffalo, and started gently speaking to them from a few feet away. Captured on someone's cell phone video, you can see them gratuitously push him so violently that he cracks his head on the pavement and blood starts to pool. President Trump meta-gratuitously then Tweeted that he had fallen harder than the push justified, breaking his own skull to embarrass the police.

After I was arrested at Zuccotti Park in November 2011, for standing perfectly still on a sidewalk, when a cop struck me hard enough with his shield, three times, that my glasses flew away and broke, I Legal Observed hundreds of other demonstrations as a National Lawyers Guild member. At a number of these I witnessed many other instances of cops beating young, middle class white people. The cops particularly had it in for a group of young self-proclaimed anarchists who wore black bandannas; I saw a group of these slammed to the asphalt seemingly only for attempting to cross Houston Street on a green light. On a May Day some years after my own arrest, I was calling out to a young woman handcuffed and sitting in the street fifteen feet away, to get her name, and another cop slammed me in the chest with his hand, knocking me back a few feet. I am not proud that after this I have not again Legal Observed at any large, chaotic demonstrations, as it seems to confirm a lack of courage, an Unfitness for the Frontier.

I understand that African Americans are in danger every day, almost everywhere they go, in the neighborhoods in which they live and in any other neighborhood where a racist cop thinks they don't belong. By concentrating on cops beating white people, I am saying that the cops, though not equally so, are a danger to most people, a Wicked Problem, a predatory group of intruders, not doing the job of protection claimed by the myth.

I learned in 1970 and 1971 that the NYPD is the largest, most violent and dangerous street gang in our city. That insight has stayed good these fifty years. When I worked on ambulances, I witnessed cops beating handcuffed prisoners lying supine, and helpless crazy people. I lived five years in Astoria, where my Greek neighbors inhabited a universe which overlapped mine geographically but about which they kept entirely stum culturally, in which I lived as a complete outsider. I bonded slightly with a Greek neighbor, an older woman whom I would greet but with whom I never had a substantive conversation. Once we both came out of our houses at 2:30 am to try to rescue a young woman being menaced by patrons of a bar on the corner, and we stood together on the steps and called 911 on our cell phones. In the heat of the moment, my neighbor exclaimed to me, "The cops won't come-- the bar pays them"--an admission she would never normally have made about the way her Astoria-Universe Really Worked. And she was absolutely right. The situation de-escalated on its own, and the menaced woman left safely, but the cops never came.

That created a fascinating Epistemic Problem for me. I knew from my own ambulance experience the power of a 911 call. Everything is taped, and the dispatchers do not have a right to disregard what they hear. A record existed, which I could obtain via a Freedom of Information Law request, of my call, and the dispatcher assigning it to the unit which never showed up. I could theoretically then play detective. My supposition was that the cops called the bartender who paid them; he told them the situation was dealt with; they filed a false report that they had gone to the scene and found nothing. The bar's and the cop's phone records would also show that phone call. I could likely prove that the officer had committed a crime, filing a false report. I could contact Internal Affairs, now or after I had obtained the FOIL information.

I did none of this, of course. In those years, I began spending fifty percent of my time doing pro bono work-- among a thousand other arrested protesters, I have twice represented the young woman I was trying to reach on May Day. I have defended an Indian tribe and the National Lawyers Guild itself. Why didn't I make Astoria police corruption a project? I had so many excuses--a truism that you have to pick your battles; a selfish determination that no one's ox had been gored that night, since I and my neighbor and the threatened young woman were all fine. But behind all this, there also hovers a fear of the police. At the thought of contacting Internal Affairs, the question immediately arose: how do you know they are not corrupt too? What do armed, lawless cops do when they know a quixotic private citizen is investigating them, whom almost nobody, outside of a small circle of friends, would actually miss if he was found in the Hudson, or never found? One of the stories I am familiar with, the detritus of the actually nightmarish New York in which I have always lived, was that of a Chinese immigrant who began investigating the judge in his foreclosure case, starting from the data point that the judge owned a Long Island home far more expensive than he could have purchased on his salary. This individual was found dead of head trauma on a sidewalk, and his killers never identified. It is interesting that the judge resigned from the bench not long after.

When I sat down to write this, I thought for a moment this essay might be on "White Privilege"-- and I still hope to write that one, maybe next month. It will overlap this, certainly. I have a perception that I am one of the most privileged people who has ever lived on this earth--I am not a billionaire and can't afford my own space program, certainly, nor could I buy my way out of any legal imbroglio. But compared to most of the people who have ever lived, I am comfortable, safe most of the time, and well fed. When cops pull me over when I am driving--it has happened possibly fifteen times in my life-- I have never worried they will shoot me as I reach for my wallet. Driving a beat up Town Car we inherited from my wife's father, I used to get pulled over surprisingly often, and I have seen the change of expression on an officer's face upon perceiving that I am an Old White Guy.

The danger I have been in at many demonstrations, from 1970 through today, is different. It is danger I chose to put myself into, and I can also choose to stop going. On January 6, 2021, our Senators and representatives, as a mob (which consisted partly of cops from various jurisdictions) invaded the Capitol and beat some police, experienced, the white people among them almost certainly for the first time in their lives, the Epistemic Nightmare of the privilege being withdrawn for a few hours, of having to run and hide from what was essentially a lynch mob, carrying nooses and shouting for Nancy Pelosi's and Mike Pence's blood.

I am particularly fascinated by the Republicans who experienced this without manifesting any Epiphany about Donald Trump, who sent the mob and exulted as they did their work. Your President tried to kill you and you are still defending him? Is this psychological-pathological, a sort of Stockholm Syndrome? Is it a refusal to change course based on personal greed and ambition (Trump is a horse you still plan to ride to victory)? Did some of those people privately believe that, had the mob trapped them, it would have spared their lives, murdering only Democrats (and Mike Pence)?

I suspect most middle class New Yorkers are secretly afraid of NYPD. The awareness we have whenever there is a newspaper scandal, or a commission is appointed, of how many storekeepers, bar owners, etc. bribe the cops, makes us uncomfortably aware that certainly many of those would, in a perfect world, rather not, but are frightened to refuse, when solicited. On May 8, 1970, when construction workers poured down from buildings and beat antiwar protesters, while NYPD stood by--a violent action we now know President Nixon solicited from the hardhat union, via his goon Charles Colson-- we also had an object lesson in two closely related Rules of Our Political Universe: 1. Privilege and protection can be withdrawn at any time. 2. The "Law and Order" trumpeted then by Nixon, most recently by Trump, is in reality based on perfect lawlessness and violence.