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Sean Keenan

Police don’t need to join hands with protesters; they need to snitch on “bad apples”

Sean Keenan

By Sean Keenan

On June 1, I penned an essay outlining my perspective on the first night of recent Black Lives Matter protests in Atlanta. Titled Atlanta missed the mark during the protests, but police and demonstrators can learn from the turmoil, the column appealed for unity between law enforcement and the people demanding accountability and justice for cops.

Nearly three weeks after Day 1 of the marches, I’m seeing the unrest through a new lens — through the eyes of someone who’s been hit by tear gas four times, witnessed dozens of arrests and experienced all manner of police-protester interactions. Having been on the ground for more than half of the 20 days of demonstrations — even journalists need a break sometimes — I’ve decided now is not the time to celebrate police kneeling or linking arms or praying with activists.

During all the chaos, I’ve never once felt the slightest bit intimidated by protesters, even at their most uproarious. Some of the police, on the other hand, seem almost hell-bent on perpetuating the chaos. Surely, there is a lot of mental and moral calculus that police assess when figuring out how to respond to dicey situations among protesters. But when cops lob tear gas grenades into tightly packed crowds because one — ONE! — protester throws a water bottle or a rock at a wall of cops armed to the teeth, how does that math add up? From where I’m sitting, it doesn’t.

On June 1, I wrote: “Where we go from here remains uncertain, but there’s something comforting and promising about the prospect of an APD officer ditching their riot shield and gas mask and tear gas grenades to wield instead a picket sign emblazoned with ‘Black Lives Matter.'”

I was wrong.

What Atlanta — and America, for that matter — needs right now are cops who are willing to snitch. Cops who know when to turn on their partners and peers when they sniff out misconduct, no matter how minor or severe. We need cops who don’t feel inclined to strap on body armor and gas masks to engage with people who are exercising their First Amendment rights — people who are so rightfully angry about the state of law enforcement’s relationship with Black America.

Defenders of police all too often lament the inevitable existence of so-called “bad apples.” Those people, however, seem to overlook the rest of the age-old proverb: “A rotten apple spoils the whole barrel,” meaning if the establishment isn’t constantly weeding out the its weakest links, the process is damned to be dysfunctional.

Historically, however, Atlanta’s police force has been relatively complementary to civil disobedience and unrest. When more than 10,000 protesters in Atlanta marched for police reform and racial equity and equality in 2016, there were few arrests. This time around, Atlanta cops aren’t impressing a sense of level-headedness in their response to 2020’s civil rights movement.

We don’t need to call in the cavalry to deal with people picketing. We don’t need guns present in situations that don’t involve or warrant violence. And we sure as hell don’t need cops who are inclined to shoot someone in the back. Ever.

Atlanta might take a page from San Francisco’s playbook, which dictates that police will no longer respond to non-criminal calls. Instead, the new policy says, unarmed civil servants will show up to cater to the needs of citizens. It’s not enough, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Allow me to reform my conclusion from my last column: “Where we go from here remains uncertain, but there’s something comforting and promising about the prospect of an APD officer realizing their role as a guardian who keeps the peace, rather than a warrior who incites violence. Until then, though, the morbid song of squad car sirens and clicking handcuffs shall ring too loud.”

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1 Comment

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    jennifer brooks June 20, 2020 1:48 pm

    “During all the chaos, I’ve never once felt the slightest bit intimidated by protesters, even at their most uproarious.”At the worst of the riots, from where I stood with my binoculars, I differentiated between the protesters and the gamers. After dark that Friday night it amounted to a game of taunting law enforcement and indiscriminately destroying private property…did they mean to target the American Cancer Society and Imagine It: The Children’s Museum of Atlanta? Did they specifically look for black-owned businesses and businesses where workers are predominantly black to attack? Together with the early May attack on the fountain sculpture at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights a pattern emerges that points towards who might be behind the violent element that took over as the protesters went home. You were down in the street, you felt the tear gas. I saw it from above. I know it was there. You saw a bottle of water thrown at Police. I saw many projectiles thrown at Police. I heard news reporters speaking of tear gas at times that I saw no one was running away, so I knew those were smoke bombs being thrown at Police, not by Police. From above, I saw the glow of phone screens as the mob, as if on cue, would scurry around and hide only to come back out a while later, again, as if on cue. And repeat. These were the gamers. The ones with the woman whose voice I heard, “Hey guys! There’s more rocks here”  just before the shattering glass with applause and laughter, again and again, as the Cancer Society and Children’s Museum were attacked. Like you, I was never intimidated by the protesters and never frightened by them. I was frightened that the gamers, in their unbridled glee and enthusiasm for destruction, would hurt people with their projectiles and by detracting from the voices of the  protesters…ah, but they want to silence those voices.
     “learn from the turmoil” Yes!
    AND create aa culture where good cops call out bad cops. It’s time for good cops to stand for their oath.

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