Don’t Let Cops Join Our Protests
Cops who turn marches against police violence into parades don’t actually want substantial changes to policing.
This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.
Sunday is my Sabbath. I rest and rejuvenate. Every now and then, I steal my own phone from the shelf where I pretend to hide it and check on the world. The other day I was shocked by what I witnessed. Police officers were participating in protests against police violence.
In Flint, Michigan, the sheriff looked down on a sea of Black people sickened with the waves of recent police violence. The sheriff joined them, saying: “I want to make this a parade, not a protest!” In Kansas City, Missouri, a Black police officer and a white police officer held up a sign that read “End Police Brutality.” Camden, New Jersey, officers marched in the front of local protests. NYPD officers took a page from Colin Kaepernick’s playbook: They kneeled. One hour later, they stood up and attacked the crowd that surrounded them.
For many, acts of police solidarity are wins. Some people believe that “good cops” lead by example for “bad apple” cops who bring shame to the profession. Police reformers hope that relationship building, diversity, and dialogue will make policing less violent. It cannot. And we must never invite or encourage police to march with us in protest against their own violence.
Initially, my plea appears divisive. Wouldn’t you rather have police marching with you instead of breaking your windows, pulling you out of your car, and shooting you with a stun gun like they did to a Black couple in Atlanta? Isn’t marching with police better than getting tear-gassed by them like I did in Ferguson, Missouri? Why can’t we try to see eye to eye with the police, instead of losing an eye after one of them shoots you in the face with a rubber bullet, like journalist Linda Tirado?
Yet history and my spirit tell me that the police who stand with us today will not sacrifice anything to end police violence tomorrow. Will any of them agree to firing police officers en masse? Will they march to cut their multimillion- and multibillion-dollar budgets and urge city councils to invest in Black communities? Will those officers conduct sit-ins to build more schools than cop academies and jails? Will they call on their police unions to retract their endorsements of President Trump? Will they refuse to enforce laws that criminalize poverty, Blackness, and sexual orientation? And will these officers demand that their departments release disciplinary records and disclose complaints against them and their colleagues? No to all of the above.
Marching officers will refuse significant changes to policing, in part because they receive their orders from politicians who empower police to be violent. These politicians, too, will yell “Black lives matter” in Black churches on Sunday and veto cuts to police budgets on Monday. Several legislators sponsored Blue Lives Matter bills, and President Barack Obama chose to sign federal legislation to protect police officers at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, even though Black people were getting run over by cops and bystanders alike, tear-gassed, shot with rubber bullets, and beaten.
We must also reject police from our protests for strategic reasons. Cops befriend activists and community leaders to build records and intelligence about local activism. Undercover officers spy on Black activists and plant devices in their homes, schools, and meetings. Additionally, encouraging police officers to join weakens the power of protests in the future. Why would you go into the streets to fight against the police who turned your protest into a fun parade? Why would police officers confront the violence in their departments if they have self-appointed spokespeople of the Black community on speed dial to successfully discourage dissent?
Police, ultimately, are the problem. Not merely the collection of their individual brutal acts. This is exactly why we can learn from several LGBTQ organizations that oppose officers at parades. Cops wreak havoc in queer communities. LGBTQ Americans are incarcerated at a rate three times higher than the general population because of police profiling. Almost 90 percent of LGBTQ respondents surveyed reported that during sex work or allegations thereof, the police harassed, attacked, mistreated, or sexually assaulted them. The Stonewall Rebellion, which historians suggest catalyzed the gay rights movement, was a response to a police raid on a gay club.
Today, it would be absurd if ICE agents led a Cinco de Mayo parade, or if CIA agents wished Eid Mubarak to Muslims after Ramadan. Why? Because those agencies are responsible for the surveillance, imprisonment, and death of people in those communities. The absurdity is not simply about whether individual bad people work in those careers, but rather—as one of my favorite rappers, J. Cole, explained—the job is bad.
To eliminate police violence, we must do the opposite of building relationships with police: reduce and eliminate contact between them and us. “Us” is literally everyone: people of color, Native people, Black people, homeless people, poor people, gay people, people with disabilities and varying mental health struggles, women, trans women, immigrants—nobody is safe. Including white people, who represent about half of police victims. So even if police treated everyone like white people, many will still die.
Institutions must also sever their relationships with police departments. We should follow the example of Jael Kerandi and other college students who pushed the University of Minnesota to stop using Minneapolis police for large events. School boards and teachers unions must call on their school districts to cut ties with police officers inside schools, just as the Minneapolis board and union did last week. Essential workers must protest partnership with police officers who lock up people en masse and learn from the Minneapolis bus drivers who refused to transport arrested protesters to jail. We must support campaigns from the Advancement Project that demand cop-free schools, and from organizations like BYP100 calling to decriminalize sex work and end stop-and-frisk. We who believe in freedom should have supported Assata’s Daughters’ fight against a new police academy in Chicago and the Dream Defenders’ Freedom Papers demand to be free from police and prisons.
Unlike the police officers who kneel, these activists and organizations understand that body cameras, civilian review boards, and extra training cannot stop police violence. Thus, we must always search for ways to reduce police contact, reduce the reasons people think they need police, and reduce the size and scope of policing. Without moving toward police abolition, people will continue to die and cities will continue to burn.
In my faith tradition, we believe in altar call, an opportunity for people to experience transformation through joining a community for collective struggle and growth. Altar calls are deeply emotional. We ask people to leave behind what the world values: greed, power, and indifference to human life. If officers are serious about joining a struggle against police violence, they must also leave these behind. Badge and gun, too.
Derecka Purnell is a human rights lawyer, writer, and organizer.