Black for Blue

Learning to Love Tha Police

When I was 25, a buddy of mine was killed by a police officer who thought he was doing surveillance on a drug dealer, not a college student majoring in secondary education. A few years earlier a buddy of mine was yoked up and cuffed in his college cafeteria, after cops mistook him for a rape suspect. They released him the next day, once they figured out they had the wrong dude.

More than personal experience, enmity toward cops was damn near written in my DNA. My dad was a Panther, and when bored as a kid, I'd peruse his old Black Panther newspapers to behold a gallery of seemingly unjustified thrashings and killings perpetrated by the police. In high school I wrote a paper on state repression of black-power groups. I played Straight Outta Compton so many times, I could have recited Ice Cube's verse to "Fuck Tha Police" backwards. Like most black men I saw cops the way the rest of the world sees us—with uncompromised fear and loathing.

Perhaps nowhere has that loathing burned hotter than in Giuliani-era New York. Before I ever set foot in the city, I knew about Diallo and Louima and Anthony Baez. But as brutal as all those killings were, most of my negative impression of the cops had to do with the asshole who fashioned himself their champion.

If only they were all like Officer Friendly . . .
Photo: Cary Conover
If only they were all like Officer Friendly . . .

It's not like New York cops are particularly brutal, compared to other jurisdictions. After riots ripped through Cincinnati in 2001, Time magazine discovered that over the previous five years, suspects tended to die too often at the hands of Cincy's police department, with a fatal shooting rate more than four times as high as that of New York City. Los Angeles' Ramparts division was found to have been so exceedingly corrupt that its officers had taken to planting guns on suspects. And in 1998, The Washington Post discovered that D.C. cops had shot and killed more people per capita during that decade than had any other major police department in the country.

But all of these towns, despite their heinous incidents, lacked one major factor to ratchet up the cop-hatred—Rudolph Giuliani. It's one thing for the cops to gain a rep for being a little too easy with the nightstick; it's another for the mayor to release a guy's sealed juvie records, days after he's been wrongfully murdered by a cop. Perhaps entirely because of Giuliani, I was sure that while other cities had their share of brutal pigs, New York's hogs were king of the hill.

When I came to New York, I brought my "Fuck Tha Police" attitude with me. But I arrived in the waning days of Giuliani's tenure, and a couple months before 9-11. Thus my impressions of New York cops are considerably different than those of brothers who lived under the Giuliani-era flatfoots.

Then came the night we needed them, and they delivered. And they're delivering still. Just last week, suspect in hand, they brought my partner in to look at a lineup of possible perps. It ended up getting blocked for legal reasons, and she's supposed to try again this week. Maybe the cops actually care about us. More likely, they just want to get the guy. Fine by me.

I came to a city seemingly too depressed by 9-11 and the attendant recession to think too much about police malfeasance. When the shit did hit the fan—like when a cop killed the unarmed, 19-year-old Stansbury last month—I watched Commissioner Ray Kelly concede that the killing appeared to be unjustified, something I'd never seen a commissioner do. These days, when I go out of town, I appreciate the cops who stand out on Canal Street trying to make something of the chaos, and make my trip through the Holland Tunnel that much easier. I've had to give the cops credit for maintaining a record-low murder rate, even as the city's economy shuddered.

Even in situations where I should have still hated cops, I gave them grudging respect. A year after I came to New York, I got a job delivering food all over the city. Since I was routinely illegally parked, the job demanded a cat-and-mouse game with the police. The difference was that every time I got pulled over, or came out to find a ticket on my windshield, I could concede that I was in the wrong.

At the end of the day, this is more about my passage into post-hip-hop adulthood than about the cops. I'm at the phase in my life when I am supposed to make the transition from youthful idealistic rebel to full-fledged corporate sellout. I'm down for that. About a year ago, I discovered that I looked ridiculous in baggy jeans and T-shirts marked 3X. I got a little less certain in my ability to defend hip-hop. Now I can only remember the first few couplets of "Fuck Tha Police." It's an anthem for a different age. I've got a son now and, like all parents, I'm obsessed with his safety. If that means taking a few of our own off the streets, then by all means hop to it. When Operation Impact first hit Flatbush, a friend asked me what I thought of all the cops who were suddenly occupying our neighborhood. I confessed some degree of discomfort, but in the back of my head I couldn't help thinking, "God bless 'em."

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