D’Angelo, Bobby Seale, and Me—and the Police

D’Angelo and Bobby Seale on the Past and Future of Political Protest

Please do not read my story of one white man’s experience with the police living in the suburbs almost all of his life without also reading the story linked above about D’Angelo and Bobby Seale first. My story is just honest as I can be but very short of any facts backing it upit’s an extended anecdote. I’m not going to comment on the NYT story here, but just post my own story as a counterpoint which might show you something by comparison and contrast.

I originally wrote this in response to the article linked below, which puts forth a history of policing starting with the need for protection of a “ruling class” both in the North, where new immigrants were a threat to “order” and the South to repress the Negro. This history makes sense to me. So could I ask that you read this too?

The Police Were Created to Control Working Class and Poor People, Not ‘Serve and Protect’

Sorry if I’m making you work to get to read my simple story! First, my background:

My father was a cop from the early fifties till about 1970. He worked for a very corrupt forceall promotions required a bribe, and I never learned the extent of other corruption, but if that existed, I’m sure more did. They did have one black cop, their token. He and my Dad were friendly because they were, to my knowledge, the only two out of 70 who refused to pay for promotions and never got any.

It was a Park Police forceEssex County NJ, and my Dad patrolled the county parks of Newark and East Orange. They were all called in during the Newark riots in 1967, in an unusual use of their department.

My father was stubborn, hard to discipline, probably learning-disabled and when motivated, he could be scary at 6’9 and 300 pounds.  He refused his sergeant’s direct order to stay under cover and went onto the street at least several times to recover wounded people. He told me afterwards that he could actually feel the wind of bullets passing by his headthere were no helmets back in the day. I didn’t learn the circumstances of his being exposed that way until his sergeant told me at his funeral—that it had only been against orders that he put himself in that danger. 

In the immediate aftermath, he was demoralized; he could not understand (literally, unable to) how the same black people (to his simple mind) whom he used to hang out with on street corners and play with on the football and basketball teamswould actually shoot at him. In his sometimes simple mind, they were the same people twenty years later. He was crushed by this and wanted out of the department. He stopped arresting people unless it was something very serious or dangerous and was very lucky to be injured badly enough on a pursuit so that he could retire on disability.

He was a bigot but could be friendly with “the good ones” among “the colored.” I often asked him about the strange coincidence that the only black people he ever met were of “the good ones” and he was literally unable to understand this question, but with his racist friends he would laugh along at their jokes and be racist. He actually thought Archie Bunker was a real personnot kidding here, he refused to believe Carroll O’Connor was a Liberal.

I grew up in that 99.99% white suburb Chris Christie grew up inmy old gym was on television for his announcement. I didn’t know that realtors had been keeping black people out, though they probably hadhow else could Livingston remained so white? It was also every bit the most wonderful place to be raised that a white person could possibly imagine very much the paradise Governor Christie describes. We had wonderful teachersa really amazing group, many of whom were very smart Liberals. Having one black family in a town growing to 40,000 people ten miles from Newark just seemed to be “the way it was.” I assumed that for one reason or another they just didn’t want to live there.

I have friends who joke around now about their high school escapades with the Livingston police, but in general the police were very nice, trustworthy people, not in any way like an army of oppressionthere was no need for that in Livingston! My Dad told me if I ever had any problem whatsoever in my wanderings around town to find a policeman. That was our family’s version of “the conversation.”

I know now that some of the cops were friends of the Mafia Don Richie “The Boot” Boiardo, who controlled most of NJ and Staten Island and part of New York, and who lived very quietly in a mansion on the biggest hill in my town. Richie was actually the model for the main character in The SopranosTony Soprano.

(If you are interested, this book is a really fascinating and exciting true story of the life and times of Richie "The Boot" Boiardo. Due to his long life, he was in the Mafia from its start all the way through it's peak of power in urban America to the beginning of its decline. In the Godfather Garden.)

I was a high school politician (like Christie) and was friendly with Richie’s grandson and the whole “gang” of what we called “hoods” who were mostly Italian, dressed a certain way following Frank Sinatra’s rat pack styles, and my friendship with them won me elections, since the other candidates ignored them. However, I knew little about that subculture. I now know that some of the “hoods” were Mafia in training, but other than rebellious acts in school and some drunken tussles with the police now and then, they were fairly quiet.

Anyway, my point is that the mid-20th Century was a time, I think, when if you were white and living in de facto segregation (and not even knowing it) it is very likely that you had a good, fair, professional police force that had high standards. I think this period of good policing, for many Americans, went on for decades.

We were shocked at things like the police actions against the demonstrators in Chicago at the Democratic Conventionthat didn’t fit our concept or our experience. The fact that Mayor Daley had a sort of “private” goon squad didn’t fit how we knew the police in the suburbs.

By the time I had moved to Apex NC in 1988 there was a change going on. These “good” suburban police forces (racially fully integrated) were developing an attitude that they were under attack and their own safety had become the main priority. They became very retaliatory. I did something to piss one of them off once and started being followed around town. When I was outraged and took a questionable traffic violation to court, the judge, who was black, would not let me speak.

I was threatened all the way out by a white lieutenanthe kept yelling at me even outside, saying they knew who I was and would “get me.” My son and friends had the experience of being followed too, though they were “good” kids who had maybe once done something that looked suspicious so maybe a cop thought they were into drugs or something, which they were not.

It hit a point in the “good” town of Apex where a cop merely hid behind his patrol car door, in view of witnesses, while a bad guy (who for the record was white) kidnapped a woman at a gas station (a domestic violence “beef”), drove off unobstructed and wound up fatally shooting her three miles down the road. People began to talk about the general attitude of our police.

There was a major outcry by the citizens, eventually leading to the realization that the police had become something that they should not be, and the chief was purged and maybe the problem was solved. I had moved to Raleigh before I got to know the ending of the story.

My point here is that there has been a major change in attitude by police at the end of last century, and in places where that hasn’t changed, like Baltimore or Ferguson, atrocities happen. In those inner cities the police are indeed like an occupying force.

I think if the federal investigation started by the Department of Justice in response to Ferguson were to expand to thousands of suburban and also urban police departments a very corrupt subculture, among officers of every race, creed, and color, would be found.

I’m not sure that this subculture of policing to “protect and serve the police” is a simple continuation of the history described in the In These Times article, though. I think there might, in many cities and towns, have been a sort of break from that: the root of the policing problem changed from something coming down from the top of society to something arising within the police culture itself, and finding support in city and town leaders, and then even participation by elected leaders in the corruption.

When we saw the attitude of the president of the smaller of the two police unions in New Yorkmilitant and racistit was clear that he did not have the support of the management of the police force all the way up to the Mayor. And the suspected job action “slow down” on enforcement in NYC and now well known about in Baltimore is not directed by leaders at the topit’s the oppositeit’s from the bottom up.

That’s just one personal view of itjust one extended anecdote, I suppose.

From the perspective of one white person living in the suburbs, my conclusion is that the police problem we see now is not a direct descendant of the creation of police to serve the ruling class, as the article above explains and D’Angelo and Bobby Seale seem to take for granted from their perspective.

I’m suggesting that the doubts white people have about the claims of police brutality by activist black people like the leaders of #BlackLivesMatter are due in great measure because we are coming at the question from an entirely different experience than our black fellow Americans.

Here I am, raised in an idyllic town where the most monstrous crime was being transacted from a mansion on the hill, with no evidence of it at all in the streets of my townthe crimes took place in Newark or Staten Island or New York City. Bodies may or may not have been incinerated on that hill, but in secret. Then I move to another idyllic town where we find the police department is out of control, the citizens rise up, and it is changed. Compare this to the view of Bobby Seale and D’Angelo and it’s clear, once again, that we’ve been living in two different Americas.

Postscript 2 July 14 2016: Please note the date this was written. Since then, a year later, this subject has become larger, after a year gone by with no significant change overall in the US. However it does appear that the city of Dallas, with a black police chief of unusual experience, talent, and determination, has gotten much closer to the ideal of the Obama commission’s recommendations. Perhaps some other cities have, too, but on the whole we have seen approximately zero action to change this situation except many more people speaking up and saying, “Enough.”

Postscript 1 August 16, 2015: I actually chose to live in “the county” (unincorporated land 4 miles south of the Town of Apex, actually served by the historically relatively black County Sheriff’s department, with its legendary Wake County Sheriff John Baker) but I thought I’d bought a house in Apex. Kids went to Apex schools and it was served by the Apex Post Office and had an Apex phone number. Apex has just been named as Time Magazine’s best town in the US, which doesn’t surprise me at all.

Meet Apex