- Steve Neavling
- Policing is an act of government power — the same power that officers are now rejecting.
Right now, thousands of police officers are threatening resignation across the country because they are being required to get vaccinated against COVID-19. The hypocrisy is galling. They’re bristling at the exercise of the government power that they wield onto others, onto them. It got me thinking about my first real experience with the police. I was 16 years old, a brown kid out past midnight trying to play basketball in a posh neighborhood. I wrote about the experience in Healing Politics.
We were walking down the street on our way to the court, well past a curfew we didn’t even know existed, when a cop car rolled by. My friends, suitably anxious, suggested we should run if the car came by again. Thinking, Running from the cops is the universal sign of guilt, I argued we should stay put and just tell the cops what we were up to.
We hadn’t achieved any consensus when the car rolled by again. My friends booked it. Before I realized what had happened, the Crown Vic had come to a screeching halt about twenty-five feet away. Adrenaline flooding my brain, I booked it, too. Two dogs bolted out of the car. I was deathly afraid of angry dogs, having been chased by one when I was younger. So I put my hands up and turned around, not wanting to know what would happen if those dogs caught me out of view of their masters.
The next thing I knew, I was being thrown to the ground by two cops, both white. I was a wrestler in high school, and the instinct for any wrestler who gets taken down is to get right back up. I did — and that’s when I caught one of the cop’s eyes, cold and dead. Then one of the officers struck me over the head with a pepper spray bottle, knocking me right back down on the lawn of some poor family whom I’m sure we had awakened at that point.
“What are you doing in this part of town?” yelled the cop who had hit me, now cuffing me as I lay face down in that front yard.
“I live in this part of town,” I said.
“What are you doing in this part of town?” he screamed again, clearly imply- ing that I was lying.
“I was playing basketball with my friends—”
“I’m going to ask you one more time: What are you doing outside of Mexicantown?”
“Sir, I’m Egyptian. I live a mile away, and I was going to play basketball with my friends.” Although I was trying to maintain whatever shreds of dignity I had left, tears started flowing down my face. At sixteen, I wasn’t a boy anymore— not to these cops, at least. But I wasn’t a man, either; they had made sure I understood that.
They took me home. I was still in cuffs, flanked by both cops, when my dad opened the door. He was wearing his galabia. His eyes widened when they caught the flashing lights silhouetting me.
“Sir, is this boy your son?”
“Yes, sir. I’m sorry for whatever he did. Thank you for bringing him home.” At that point the cop who had rapped me with the pepper spray began to uncuff me. I couldn’t look up at first. I didn’t want to look my dad in the eye, but I wanted to be loved—even if it was the love of disappointment— so I raised my head to face him. His eyes were brown and warm and sad. After the door closed, I tried to explain, but Baba was already halfway up the stairs.
Policing is the bluntest form of government power. As I teach my students at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy, what makes government unique in the pantheon of civic life is that it has a monopoly on the legitimate use of power. It can shut down our businesses (public health orders), move us out of our communities (eminent domain), force us to give it money (taxes or penalties), arrest our bodies (incarceration), and even put us to death (the death penalty). As noxious as our government can be today (particularly if you’re poor or Black), imagine living long ago under a monarch whose caprice could have you arbitrarily taxed … or jailed or hanged.
But you don’t even have to go back in time. Go to Egypt, where the personal whims of a dictator may mean you’ll find yourself in the bowels of an Egyptian prison, as happened to my friend Mohamed Soltan, an American citizen.
At its best, the United States government is “for the People, by the People.” The notion of representation, a social contract, the rule of law, the will of the People — these protect us, or at least ought to protect us, from the misuse and abuse of state power. And American history is in some ways a story of aspiring to these ideals while failing them for swathes of American society … Black folks, women, LGBTQ people, faith minorities, and others. Slavery, Jim Crow, COINTELPRO, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and hundreds of other Black folks at the hands of police, all of them testify to how unequal protection under the law has been in this country.
Following the murder of George Floyd, movements have pushed beyond the old ideas of “police reform” for a vast rethink of the use of state power to police in general. Rather than choke a man out for selling loose cigarettes as happened to Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD, why not solve the failures in our economics that force a grown man to sell them to feed his family? If a budget is a statement of our moral values, then growing a police budget while starving a social service budget means admitting that we’d rather punish poverty than solve it. At the very least, police should be held accountable for the abuses of their power while wearing the badge. After all, qualified immunity laws have allowed those who purport to enforce the law to escape it.
In response to these movements, there’s been a profound backlash from police around the country. They are the “thin blue line” protecting us from descending into violent chaos, they tell us. To be sure, law enforcement is a dangerous profession. And while I’ve had many negative experiences with law enforcement, I’ve also met women and men who make this choice for honorable reasons. It's not the individuals as much as it is the system of law enforcement and the culture that has grown underneath it that I want to focus on here.
And right now, that culture is pushing back on vaccine requirements for police officers. Never mind the obvious importance of vaccine requirements that I’ve written to previously. It’s that thousands of officers are threatening resignation in protest of these requirements.
What hypocrisy. The power to police, itself, emerges from the government's monopoly on the use of force. Police are an embodiment of that force. But police officers, who are deputized by the government to wield force in society are now contesting the government’s right to force them to get vaccinated?!
How do they justify it? The culture in too many police departments has internalized government force as being their power. It’s why so many abuse it. It’s also why they both push back on any form of accountability for what they do with government power and are now reacting so violently to having government power turned on them.
But here’s the irony. Police pushing back on government requirements to be vaccinated has the same roots as activists pushing to rethink policing entirely: a disagreement with how the government is using its power. The brutal difference is illuminating — police derive their very existence as police officers from the government power they are now protesting, which is, I guess, why they are now rethinking themselves.