Police unions and the challenge of solidarity

That could have been any of us!

As someone who lived in New York for 35 years and as the former president of one of its larger unions, the Transport Workers Union, Local 100 (2001-2009), and thus quite familiar with the fabric and terrain, I write to address the challenges facing the protest movement in the aftermath of the tragic murder of the two NYPD officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu.

This is clearly not what either the family of Eric Garner or the tens of thousands involved in recent protests wished or wanted. Indeed, the vast majority of voices raised and feet marching in protest called for change and not for violence. Nor was this criminally demented young man, who shot his girlfriend just before getting on a bus and traveling to New York where he launched his deadly attack on these unsuspecting officers, part of any protest movement.

We all extend deepest condolences to the families and colleagues of these fallen officers.

There is neither justification, good sense nor purpose to attacks and violence against individual police officers who have little or nothing to do with the policies and leadership that have created, promoted and defended the dehumanizing of the lives of black people and other people of color. The target of the protests has been and is indeed institutional racism, not the police in and of themselves.

The acquittals in Florida (Trayvon Martin), Missouri and New York are the doing of the guardians of the system of institutional racism. In each case, the governors, mayors and district attorneys hid their own refusal and failure to take action to defend the victims behind grand juries, whom they spoon-fed and steered to deliver the message that Black Lives Still Do Not Matter!-today, and certainly tomorrow!

While this experience, in terms of heinous acts and attitudes, is part of an unbroken American legacy, the recent spate of unpunished, sanctioned attacks are also intended to deliver the message: Even with Obama in the White House, don’t think things have changed or forget who’s in charge!

It is the city and state fathers and district attorneys and other top policy-makers who have for decades sustained the dehumanizing of communities of color in New York and around the country. Across-the-board inferior and unequal housing, education, employment, medical care, protection and other services, access to culture and to opportunities in general, translate directly and precisely into disrespected and devalued lives. The only preference allowed is for punishment and prisons.

But, in this way, people focus on each other, either as competing victims or to protect their own measly privilege, while the fat cats make out like bandits and control everything. Institutional racism serves systems of inequality and each will be defended with might and fright, as with words and prose.

The recent protest movement is the first breath of fresh air in a long while and represents the only hope that this generation and the next might move America closer to a more-just society where our teenagers, our sons, uncles and grandparents can leave their homes and walk the streets of America without fear from those sworn to protect and serve.

Today’s movement might just accomplish what my own generation has obviously failed so miserably to do.

Changes are indeed needed. Police cannot be allowed to act without accountability or to operate as an occupying army. Governors, mayors, district attorneys and top policy-makers must be held chiefly accountable for the realization of actual equal treatment under the law and not just at election time when promises abound.

It would be pure folly to rely upon promises or on goodwill to move America closer to this elusive reality, just as it would be a profound loss and mistake to abandon the best mechanisms of pressure to bring these about-the protest movement. There is not even a whimper of hope for change without such a movement. For power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

In one sense, George Zimmerman in Florida and the police officers involved in the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner are mere tools and pawns in an American story that is much bigger than them. Tomorrow they too and their families can be discarded, if it suits that machine. The same forces that today sing praises to the cops underpay them and are working desperately and openly to strip them and their families of their pensions; that is more easily done if the public and communities view the work they do in an unsympathetic light. All communities should matter, not just some. This calls into question the very public actions of the leadership of so many of these police unions, which deserves to be addressed.

As a former union president, I must say that the leadership of New York’s PBA and other police unions across the country has been utterly insensitive and worse with regards to the passionate feelings and concerns recently being expressed by the very communities which the police are sworn to protect, especially when those communities happen to be communities of color.

I know the leadership of New York’s PBA fairly well and have personally valued the solidarity they showed for transit workers in past struggles. I was hopeful that they would demonstrate the ability to navigate the changes needed in policing and in their relationship with the communities.

Sadly, the leadership of these unions seems to ignore or forget that so many of their members/officers themselves today have sons and nephews who look exactly like Michael Brown and brothers and uncles who look like Eric Garner and moreover, could just as easily have been them!

Notwithstanding the positions being taken by the leadership of these unions, I am certain that this fact is not lost on many NYPD officers who go home to these very communities. Moreover, many if not most of the other members/officers do truly see their work as protecting the communities and as jobs-to feed, house and raise their families-NOT as a means to act out some “chip on their shoulders” or to feed their personal sick insecurities and need to “put people in their place,” or as a badge to bully and kill for no good reason. So who speaks for that majority?

The challenge facing the PBA is to represent the interests of the majority of its members who are decent, and not the sickos and bullies, any more than I would glorify a station agent or bus driver who is truly abusive to the passengers they are supposed to serve and who pay their wages-even without the power to use deadly force, such as NYPD officers do.

When unions serve the interests of the few, they lose their way and their ability to be forward-looking. But one of the better-kept secrets is that invariably, they also quietly become alienated from their own members. Inevitably, if the leadership of the PBA continues to ignore and fail on this challenge, new leadership will be destined to take it up.

Meanwhile, the reality is that unless and until the doors of justice are equally open and guaranteed to all, we will be visited with unspeakable tragedies on all sides.

This article is reposted from The Chief‘s letter to the editor column.

Photo: American Federation of Teachers Union President Randi Weingarten gets arrested during peaceful civil disobedience protests in the aftermath of the announcement that the grand jury cleared police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the killing of Eric Garner. (via Twitter


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