When I was 19, I disarmed a schizophrenic woman with a knife. I’m a small person, about 5’4” at that time, with no special training. If I had been trained as an officer of the law I would have shot her.
It seems to me that our police departments do not require a wide vocabulary of their new recruits. The would-be officer must learn only a few stock phrases and be prepared to repeat them as needed. Otherwise, why is it that whenever and wherever the police bust the heads of demonstrators—or striking workers— they say that the demonstrators were “throwing rocks and bottles?” Somehow, no matter what the cause that brings people into the street, no matter what city, anywhere in the United States, those malcontents always seem to fill their pockets with rocks and bottles before heading out to confront a phalanx of gun-toting, baton-wielding bluecoats.
And when a cop kills a civilian, he knows to parrot the standard line, “I feared for my life.” This used to be a 100% guaranteed get-away-with-murder card. Now, with the advent of cell phones and surveillance cameras, it works only about 90% of the time. To be fair, it’s not just vocabulary that’s at issue here. The well trained officer is taught to respond violently at the slightest sign of disobedience, whether real or imagined. 12-year-old Tamir Rice, armed with a toy pistol in a playground. Amadou Diallo, pulling out his wallet to show his I.D. And one mentally ill person after another—walking into traffic with a knife in his hand, walking out of a shed carrying a shovel, getting into an altercation while on line in a Costco. (In the last situation, the cop shot the young man’s parents as well.) Mentally ill people are particularly likely to be shot and killed by the police, and if the person is a Black male, the proverbial snowball in hell has a better chance.
Another major topic in police training must be how to cover each other’s crimes, including cold-blooded murder. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 40 years, you don’t need examples.
In April 1963, I had recently left home and was living in the cheapest quarters I could find, a single room on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, $13.95 a week. A lesbian couple (I’ll call them Doris and Rita here) shared a one-bedroom upstairs, and I’d just gotten to know them. Rita was a nurse aide. One evening she asked me to come to their apartment. Doris apparently had been hallucinating the Virgin Mary and perhaps some intruder devils as well, because she was pacing their living room, looking furious, a knife in her hand.
I’d studied judo during the past two years, but it didn’t even occur to me to get physical that night. A different instinct took over. I stood facing her, palms open and at my sides, and said, “It’s okay. Nobody is going to hurt you. Nobody is going to hurt you.” She grimaced—and then she put the knife down. Moments later help arrived in the form of a gay male couple from the hospital where Rita worked. One of them was a doctor who injected Doris with a sedative and put her to bed.
A few years later I was living in a slum apartment on the Lower East Side. I was walking home late one night when a man began to follow me. Soon he was at my side, importuning me for sex. I considered my options. If I kept walking along 11th Street, I would get into an even dicier neighborhood, with him by my side. Instead I walked into the hallway of my building, stuck my key in the mailbox, and looked up at the guy. “Y’know, you’re a really gorgeous man. There must be a million women in New York City who’d want to go to bed with you. Why are you following the one woman who isn’t interested?”
Another late night, I was walking home on East 14th Street, a wide thoroughfare lined with shops and large plate glass windows. A tall man followed a few yards behind me, with a German shepherd on a long chain. He would throw a stick, loosen the chain, and the dog would fetch it. I kept an eye on his reflection in the storefront windows. Then he threw the stick against the back of my legs.
Thinking, I’m going to die on East 14th Street tonight, I turned to face him. I’d taken one karate lesson and all I knew was to take the fighting stance, so I did.
“Oh!” he said. “You know karate!” And he too turned and fled.
Alex Feng, my judo and kung fu instructor, tells a similar story. One night he encountered two men assaulting a woman in the street. Despite the risk, he felt obliged to help. I can only imagine that they took one look at this Chinese man approaching in martial arts stance and decided that Bruce Lee had come to the rescue. They ran away.
I don’t mean to instill overconfidence in the reader. Boldness helps, but luck plays a very large factor. Another story Sifu Feng tells is of a judo competitor, a 5th-degree black belt at the top of his form. He was visiting San Francisco and walking through the Tenderloin district. A schizophrenic man stepped out of the shadows, and without warning plunged a knife into the visitor’s heart, killing him instantly.
You can improve your odds, but life is uncertain—for you, me, cops, everyone.
So why was I was able to disarm the woman with the knife, while cops need to shoot first and not even ask questions later, covering the murder with one trumped-up story or another? Training is a factor but it’s not the only one. After the cops murdered George Floyd, and as a result of ongoing nationwide and international demonstrations, pundits and politicians have talked endlessly about reforming police departments. The more modest proposals include better training, especially with regard to handling the mentally ill, regulations against chokeholds, and diverting some funding from the police to social services. The more radical ones, mostly coming from activists, are to defund or eliminate the force entirely.
I don’t think any of these will work. They don’t attack the root of the problem, and that is not the police force. Cops have gotten away with murder for generations. This is no unfortunate accident involving bad apples. From slave patrollers, through enforcers of Jim Crow laws, through uniformed strikebreakers, to the murderers in blue who keep people of color terrified for their lives, the police do exactly what they were created to do.
As Todd May and George Yancy have said in the New York Times, “[The police] succeed in keeping people in their place. They succeed in keeping middle-class and especially upper-class white people safe, so long as they don’t get out of line. They succeed in keeping people of color in their place so that they don’t challenge the social order that privileges middle- and upper-class white people. And, as we have recently witnessed in many violent police responses at protests, they succeed in suppressing those who would question the social order.”
If we continue to support a social order where three individuals own as much as half the rest of the population, where the wealthy control the media, starve the educational system, and convince working people to fear and hate each other, we will fail to prevent police brutality. Those in power intend to keep that power, and will find ways to subvert or undermine any reforms.
Just this past weekend, demonstrators in Aurora, Colorado protested the recent police murder of young Elijah McClain. The protesters had gathered on a lawn to hear a violin concert when cops in riot gear moved in and pepper-sprayed them. The chief, of course, told the media that “officers had been struck by rocks and bottles.”