American life feels like a fable sometimes.
One day you see armed protesters slowing the gears of governance through the threat of violence, occupying a state capitol with rifles and belligerent words while police peacefully stand nearby.
And then another day you see a peaceful man get taken down to his stomach, with a knee on his neck choking a little life away with every exhale, over eight excruciating minutes. The phrase “I can’t breathe” has looped from a real tragedy to protest cry and now, with the police killing of a black man named George Floyd, back to real tragedy. Fables are supposed to reflect morality through narrative — and it feels like the American story of policing keeps getting darker under the specter of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Floyd’s killer, Derek Chauvin, and three other officers at the scene have been fired. But how fitting is it that Chauvin was “praised for valor” but also had a dozen police conduct complaints on his record? We already knew that mediocrity and malice can turn into fatal evil when it’s backed by the force of state-sanctioned law and order. But the pandemic was supposed to change some things. It was supposed to be a time to reconsider how we police communities — and how not policing and jailing so much may lead to better results. Criminal justice reform experts urged police agencies to take a less-is-more approach when possible, rather than pursuing prosecution, with the aim of keeping more people safe from virus and crime alike.
Instead, we got tear gas lobbed at peaceful protests.
Things have warped into the same old chaos of the status quo, just with a more… contagious fervor. Early on, some cops chose to use the pandemic as a scare tactic, mocking passersby with fake coughs and otherwise forcing their way into confrontations under the guise of distancing. (Naturally, cops actually got coughed on, too.) Others said that they couldn’t really break up gatherings that violated social-distancing laws. Yet a few broke up gatherings a little too forcefully.
But hell, merely staying safe on the job for cops is chaotic, too. Responses to the pandemic have differed wildly between agencies, largely hinging on funding and leadership culture. One LAPD officer, who asked to remain anonymous because he isn’t allowed to comment publicly, noted that any department’s approach really comes down to the individual officer and what they can get. “Some don’t bother with masks unless they’re in front of a superior. Meanwhile, suspects are behaving more erratically. Domestic violence is up, and we’re entering a lot of tense situations. Add illness, and nobody is in a good mood,” he writes over text.
So much for learning new lessons — we’re just stuck watching all those claims about police bias play out in more explicit fashion. The vibe that led a bunch of San Antonio cops to pose with MAGA hats in 2016 is, in my mind, the same inspiring a sheriff in conservative Orange County, home of more than a few boisterous reopen-the-economy rallies, to refuse to actually enforce mask laws. Seeing police apparently powerless to disrupt white nationalist rallies, but ready to kick teeth against a Black Lives Matter rally, seems like proof of something. We even have Amy Cooper to thank for calling into question the veracity of every haggard, panicked 9-1-1 call we’ve listened to on the nightly news.
I wondered what the point of all this policing was over the weekend, when I heard a young woman screaming nonsense into the void right outside of my bedroom window. She was screaming to a “Shaun” about “his weapons,” and how “they” broke into a truck and “got the weapons.” It didn’t take long for someone to call the police, and as the sirens wailed closer, I ran downstairs to document what unfolded — given L.A.’s history of shooting mentally ill people for no real reason, I was terrified of what could unfold.
What unfolded was a dumbfounding tableau: a dozen cops, some in masks and many without, all chasing after a woman who looked about 100 pounds. I sprinted and caught them on camera tackling her onto a lawn. She was screaming at anyone who made eye contact; a spit hood quickly went over her face. It was a classic “5150” call — involuntary psychiatric hold at a nearby hospital for someone who is a danger to themselves or others. The woman didn’t want to go: “I don’t want to go back to the hospital,” she cried while being restrained in a stretcher. The entire block wandered out of their homes to observe. The cops all milled around, unsure of what to do. The odds of her getting proper help were next to none, despite being manhandled for 25 minutes.
The pandemic didn’t give us an opportunity to evolve policing. It just reinforced the same old shitty fables.
What happened in Minneapolis isn’t a case of a unique bad apple, as the counter-narrative goes. Those who study the flaws in American policing, like lawyer and criminal justice expert Jody Armour, see a “soldier and enemy” relationship that’s been growing worse despite claims of reform. The fault of “implicit bias” in policing has become an excuse for immoral behavior, Armour told me last year when we discussed the harms of spit hoods.
“You often hear in self-defense cases about how unconscious bias makes you respond unconsciously, you know, in a more aggressive way to an ambiguous black person than someone who’s ambiguously white,” Armour explained at the time. “That’s not what’s happening in a lot of these cases. We have officers who have time to consider what they’re doing, to weigh pros and cons, and making decisions that are showing callous indifference to the suffering and trauma of some of the people that they are arresting.”
That certainly is what happened in Minneapolis, and it’s obvious by now that the firings won’t do much to prevent this from happening in another zip code sometime soon. The voices of police abolitionists are rising. Meanwhile, some police budgets just keep growing, even as many public agencies are slashed. More riots will unfold, as they are in L.A. right now as I write this. Somewhere, someone will make another joke about how anti-police-brutality protesters should just tote a tactical vest and an AR-15 in order to make peace with cops. And somewhere else, a real-world cop will decide to mow people over with his patrol car, just because he can.