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America’s good cop, bad cop routine has to change

Hackney Stand Up To Racism and Facism (SUTR) organised a demonstration outside Hackney Town Hall on June 3 for Black Lives Matter. Picture: Dean Ryan - Credit: Archant

If there were good cops in America, there were not enough of them, says BONNIE GREER. But here is what the police have learned in their turbulent history.

I am a member of what has been called the ‘Burn baby burn’ generation who came of age in the mid to late 1960s – even if I was not a participant in the events that gave us that name. Here is a brief resume of the some of those events:

• July 1964, Harlem, New York City; an urban uprising exploded because of the shooting of an African American teen by a member of the New York Police Department.

• August 1964, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (the City of Brotherly Love); another uprising, following allegations of general police brutality.

• August 1965, Watts, Los Angeles; an uprising prompted by general inequality, police discrimination and Proposition 14 on the California ballot overturning the Rumford Fair Housing Act, which established equality of opportunity for African American home buyers. (This event was the one that caught me and my friends off guard because we were all raised on Hollywood films and we thought that LA was cool. In August 1965 we saw that it was not.)

• July 1966, Omaha, Nebraska; young African Americans protested the absence of recreation programs and blamed Jewish businesses. This was among the first manifestations of the tragic rift between the African American and Jewish communities. One that has not been completely healed to this day. The National Guard was called in.

• July 1967, Newark, New Jersey; unrest caused by police brutality; political exclusion; unemployment; poverty and rapid ghettoisation.

• July 1967, Detroit, Michigan; this urban uprising was rooted in a smorgasbord of racial abuse including police brutality, lack of housing, the rise of African American revolutionary groups like the Black Panthers and rapid demographic change – ‘white flight’. White Americans fled to the suburbs, locking them down, while African Americans stayed in the crumbling inner city. (By the way, this has been reversed. As black people moved to the suburbs, white people moved back into the gentrified city.)

• Autumn 1967, the twin cities of Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota; general tensions, as white people fled the crumbling inner city, leaving the rubble to black people.

• April 1968, Chicago, Illinois. My hometown. Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated at tea time on April 4. That night the ghetto erupted. It was one of about 100 cities that more or less went up in flames after the murder of the father of my generation.

• June 1969, Stonewall Bar, New York; Greenwich Village exploded. The LGBTQ community had had enough of the constant raids on their venues and police collusion with the Mafia. Legend has it that either an African American drag queen or an African American lesbian informed the police that this time they were not going quietly.

Millennials often say to me that nobody learned anything from the 1960s. They’re wrong. Somebody did learn. It was the police. They were a common factor behind all those events. We called the police ‘the pigs’ and chanted ‘Off the pigs!’ and worse.

If there were good cops, there were not enough of them. So among my generation the general tenor was that being a cop was very bad.

Of course, this attitude did not give the decent police people any space. And it did not help that Richard Nixon was elected as the ‘Law and Order’ president in the 1968 election. Even our parents began to dislike cops.

Then the tide turned. Clint Eastwood was a big star for us Baby Boomers. We had grown up watching him play a surly cowboy in Rawhide. And then we flocked to see him in Sergio Leone’s Dollar movies. Clint was cool, and could do no wrong as far as TV and movies were concerned. So we all stood in line to get in to see his latest: something called Dirty Harry. I went to movies a lot as a teen and young adult, but there are very few that I can recall when, in a moment, the film signalled that something had changed.

One of those films is Dirty Harry, set in San Francisco and about a rogue cop on the trail of a psychopathic killer. Now we could all buy ‘rogue’ because we thought that this was what we were, too.

And then Clint pulls out that Smith & Wesson Model 29 revolver chambered with a super-powerful .44 Magnum cartridge. And the great director Don Siegel has his equally great cinematographer Bruce Surtees film it along its entire length. Like an erect phallus.

This was coupled with the soon-to-be immortal lines:

You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do you, punk?

Let us just say that its opening, one day before Christmas Eve, 1971, gave white cops, and white males in general, an early Christmas present. Some took the gift. Some did not.

Because it was then OK to see the inner city and everyone in it as alien elements. It was OK to use the Second Amendment as your personal licence to kill.

US police services have not looked back since.

A few months after Dirty Harry came another cop movie, The New Centurions.

It told the saga of a trio of beleaguered rookie officers, including one who cannot explain to his wife what his life is about. This thread ran throughout the film and is the one that engages us.

One of our cops meets an African American nurse who patches him up after a shooting. They fall in love and we come to see that maybe this centurion of the streets has a chance.

But this love story could not end well. He is shot investigating a routine domestic abuse situation. As he crumples on the stairs, dying, he says to his friend: ‘Not now. Not now.’

Watching it, there was not a dry eye in the house.

These films took the police away from being the ‘enemy’ into heroes and complex human beings with flaws. We focussed on them, while the people they fought became ciphers; or unhuman. The man Dirty Harry fights is someone anybody would oppose. The New Centurions face a host of problems in the shape of their fellow human beings. But it is the police who are the real people. Complex humans.

Keith Ellison, African American, Muslim, and the current Minnesota attorney general – the lead prosecutor against the men accused of killing African American George Floyd last month – has issued a warning: He will do his very best, but if he gets a conviction for murder in the second degree – which is the charge against the four cops involved – it will be a miracle. This will be an uphill battle and a legal fight to the finish, no matter what we can see in that footage.

The accused are ‘lawyered up’ and clued up with a barrage of legal precedent and historic public opinion on their side. After all, it has been baked into the American psyche that they are the guardians of law and order. Not its wreckers.

I am not anti-police. You can see some white policemen ‘taking the knee’, walking and singing with protesters, laying down their helmets and batons, standing back. Those decent policemen are out there and more and more are making themselves known. But the thin blue line protects its own. It takes a
brave man to stand up and go against it. And it is Bill de Blasio, the mayor of
New York City. He has delivered a political earthquake, vowing to cut a portion of funding from the massively influential NYPD. His aim is to divert those funds to youth and other social services, and bring in more community involvement.

Another movie that came out in the Dirty Harry era, Serpico, shows the consequences of being a good cop; of fighting the thin blue line. Serpico wears a wire in order to expose police corruption. The cops set him up, and he is shot. He begs his fellow officers to help him. They stand back. He testifies against them anyway. But it is all over for him. His reward is being forced out of the job he loved. The demand now is for police change and accountability across the US.

Let’s see how many Serpicos there are out there.

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