Police don’t need to join hands with protesters; they need to snitch on “bad apples”
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.
Three minutes til Atlanta curfew… pic.twitter.com/AWhwn5hFv2
— Sean Keenan (@ThatSeanKeenan) June 5, 2020
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.”