Turning Tables -- Protest and Police (Repost)

This article was originally published in December of 2014, shortly after the events in Ferguson. Photos by Soraya Matos.

A few nights ago, my roommates and I went down to protest. The time honored tradition of “activism” called us — by us I mean us white, privileged kids — to the streets, so we donned bandanas and black T’s and left for the Berkeley’s I-580 highway. None of us believed that protesting could change anything. But we went anyway. Protesting is fun!

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you have a handle on the events of the last few weeks. We aren’t exactly the top hit on Google for #berkeleyprotest, or #blacklivesmatter. Two grand jury non-indictments, murders of 12 year-old kids, and growing dissent in major US cities (and India, thanks guys!) have the people demanding accountability. If you’ve been listening to our podcast, you know I’m not going to argue with you about this. We need to fix our police system, and that’s that. Black lives don’t matter in America, and we should be ashamed of ourselves.

Still, I’m not sure if old-school protesting (people in the streets, picket-signs, marching) is the way to bring about change. But I also don’t think I cantalk about it without participating first hand. Protesting didn’t keep us out of Iraq, and it didn’t reform Wall Street. In many ways, protesting feels more like an activity than a real outlet for reform. Something privileged liberal-arts types do for fun. As I picked out the right shirt to demonstrate in, I was acutely aware of my hypocrisy.

But maybe I was wrong. My first night in the protests I marched several miles through downtown Oakland with a few hundred people. I somehow ended up with a rain slicked banner in my hands, and my voice growing more confident as I joined more and more chants. Police surrounded us on the sidewalks, and cop cars drove ahead of us and behind us. They heard every “killer cops have got to go,” and every “no justice, no peace,” loudly and clearly. They hardly budged.

The Bay area has long been a hub of activist movements, but protestors are not the only ones that know how to prepare. The cops here, unlike those in Ferguson, know how to deal with dissent. In a time when anti-cop sentiment is running rampant — why deal with the problem head on? After all, protestors are easily riled up, violent masses. They’ll implode like they always do.

As long as someone gives them a push.

Undercover, plain-clothes cops are a real thing. Just look at this Berkeley (edit: this is a CHP officer, thanks to user “tpb” for the correction) cop pulling his gun on protestors last week. The incident says a lot about how cops treat protests — not as moments of discussion, but as cells that need to be infiltrated. Even that might be excused if cops were just around to monitor the situation. But they have more sinister motives at hand.

This is not an isolated incident, as the Berkeley cop might suggest. I’ve seen it myself. In the space of two blocks in downtown Oakland, I watched two plain-clothes cops unmasked, both while screaming to “start the fire” of revolution. Another one tried convincing the protestors to split into two groups, telling the slower group to stop in hopes of spreading us thin. Both times they were recognized, their violent vitriol immediately rooted out and exposed. Both cops immediately left down a side street, pulling off their hoods and nodding to the nearby blues in uniform.

Philosophically, I can’t imagine any more damning evidence of a system that has lost sight of it’s goals. The mission statement “to serve and protect” loses all meaning when undermining your constituents and intentionally sowing discord is the only “problem solving” method in your arsenal. When the people you defend become the enemy army, you’ve lost more than the war.

Like everything else in the world, this statement has nuance. When protestors fall to violent tactics, we damn our own cause even further. Ultimately, the only way to bring about real change is not through body-cameras or stricter juries, though they will help. What we need is to reestablish the human connection between cops and citizens. Division doesn’t change minds, it entrenches conflicting viewpoints. Of course, reforming the system legally will create more trusting scenarios, but those reforms need to come from within to some extent.

So the second night I went out, I went with altered intent. It wasn’t my goal to scream, it was my goal to smile.

10 minutes after arriving I was nearly arrested. Cops were pushing us off the freeway, backing us down from the road onto a public bike path. But that wasn’t enough. They kept moving us back, while 30 officers with rubber-bullet guns watched us from the high ground. Some of us sat down, attempting to hold our line, but immediately we were snatched up. I will never forget a woman’s cries as they dragged her along the pavement and the police line swallowed her whole. She was sitting right next to me. Someone grabbed me and pulled me back into the protestors as the zip ties were coming down.

When the police line finally stopped moving, the protest gathered with an angry energy. But anger can’t last forever, and slowly the noise subsided. So we tried something new. I extended my hand to the cop in front of me, and just asked him to shake it. Not to quit his job, or to renounce his profession, but to make a small, human connection with a person he swore to serve.

I left my hand there for 5, 10, 15 minutes, but he hardly moved. “We aren’t here because we hate you, we’re here because you’re our brothers too,” I said, over and over. New Age-y, yeah. But also true. This war between police and constituents is, at it’s core, a war of perception. Police need to realize that skin color does not signify someone’s threat level. We are all people, all Americans. We are on the same side, we’ve just forgotten it.

Instead of shaking my hand, he began to cry. Real, tragic, and powerful tears. His eye contact never broke, even when his superiors asked him if he wanted another cop to take his place. He held my gaze for 20 minutes, his fingers still on his baton. But his eyes said everything.

I will never, ever forget that moment. Not because of the sadness it inspired, but the hope. Riot shields can’t guard you from yourself.

Even sadness can only last so long. Both sides tired, our negative emotions spent, it shouldn’t have surprised me when humor took over. I started babbling about my day, about my life, about the protests, trying desperately to find some human connection.

And then I got a laugh. Talking about breakfast cereal, my delicious 5lb bag of “Mini-Spooners,” the generic Mini-Wheats, I saw a young officer laughing in the background. Suddenly the whole protest was cheering and smiling. The energy only grew, as jokes started piling up and more and more hands extended for shaking.

“Two peanuts were walking down the road, and one got a-SALT-ed! ……… Too soon?””Hey, 20128 — what’s your name? Timmy? Yeah you look like a Timmy.”
“I’m a canvasser — I’m used to people not shaking my hands all day, Tubby”
“Awww don’t call him Tubby, he looks…. nice!”

And on and on, as small smiles grew on the faces of several officers.

Eventually, several shook our hands or waved. I was ecstatic. The robot cracked! There WAS a human being under there! First, one cop waved. Another extended his hand. A cop nick-named Robert Romano (for his striking resemblance) came from the back to fist-bump us. We were asking for something human, for the smallest show of solidarity against a system they should want to reform more than anyone else.

Because we cannot forget that being a cop does not make you a bad person. Cops are not Nazis — where the office workers engage in the “banality of evil” each day. The police are not the problem, the police system is.

We need to work together to fix that, and the first step to working together is acknowledging each others shared humanity.

I will never pretend that I “made a difference” at these protests. I, Nick Geisler, am not that important and I did not enact real change. But I took one step towards understanding the power of protest. In many ways, my actions were selfish — walking away from that protest, I was happier than when I arrived. And I was hopeful. Because street demonstrations are about real people, in the flesh and blood, fighting for change.

If even one cop went home and rethought about the reason he joined the force, and his ability to make change, then I am a happy man this morning. Luckily, I know there is change a foot. Not thanks to me, but thanks to people like the Richmond police chief.

Many of my criticisms about demonstrations — their idea that participating enacts change, their trendiness, their questionable empirical use — haven’t changed. Taking a black and white stance on them, however, puts me in the same boat as those that I’m trying to reform.

Demonstrating in the streets won’t change things on its’ own, so keep working #Anonymous (much love to hacktivism, a front where we can actually go toe-to-toe with those in power), and the Berkeley art activists (ART IS PROTEST!). Together we’ll make real change. Cliche, I know. But most true ideas are.

Nick Geisler