Black for Blue


Nothing will make you go John Ashcroft quicker than looking into the speaking end of some revolver. That is, except, if your girl is looking into it instead of you. One night in December, I was roused out of a half-slumber by a frantic ringing of the doorbell. It was my partner screaming that she’d just been robbed. Some punk stopped her outside our basement apartment, demanded her purse, and when she didn’t oblige, put a handgun to her head. The shock of her being robbed was only matched by my shock at how quickly help arrived at our door. She was still on the phone with 911 when the cops of the 71st Precinct pulled up, scooped her in, and took her around our Lefferts Garden neighborhood trolling for the kid.

Needless to say, I was pretty pissed about her getting robbed. It wasn’t so much the act as the fact that someone had shown so much disregard for her life and his own (armed robbery will earn you a trip upstate) that he would just pull out a gun. The guy didn’t even get anything valuable. While I was waiting for her to come back, I thought about my dad and how, despite his own negative feelings toward the police, he strongly believed that people who endangered themselves and their communities should be removed. I always wondered how he reconciled animus toward police and strong belief in the necessity of jail, and then, at that moment, I understood.

They didn’t catch the guy that night—though my partner later identified him in a photo lineup. If they’d relegated the case to File 19, I would have totally understood. After all, a holdup for a few bucks must rank as pretty small potatoes. But they didn’t drop it. The officer in charge of the case calls every couple weeks to give updates on their progress. He’s courteous, and in a city where there must be more serious crimes, I marvel at his tenacity for trying to close a case over a run-of-the-mill mugging. Frankly, I wouldn’t want his job in a million years, but it’s really hard to not appreciate him doing it.

Feel free to note the obvious—I am indeed the last person in the world who should be falling in love with the cops. Like most black men my age, I’m a serial cop-hater, armed with an astonishing array of ill encounters with flatfoots. Young black male rule number 4,080—when you see Jake strolling down your side of the street, get your English proper and cross to the other side.

Lately they’ve begun lining up by the dozen on Flatbush, and when I see them a warm fuzzy feeling blooms in my bones. Suddenly a late-night stroll is, well, a slightly safer stroll. The honor guard is courtesy of Operation Impact, a program the city expanded last month in hopes of subduing the worst havens for crime. So far the results have been promising. New York itself is in the midst of an anti-crime wave unseen since 1968. According to the FBI, New York has the lowest crime rate of any city in the country with over a million people. In December, The New York Times reported that New York was roughly as safe as Ann Arbor, Michigan—population 100,000.

For black New Yorkers who endured the tyrannical insensitivity that was Rudy Giuliani, the stats have come at heavy personal cost, paid in harassment, anger, and fear. The city has been the scene of torture and killing provisioned by the badge—Amadou Diallo in a Bronx doorway, Abner Louima in a Brooklyn station house, Patrick Dorismand on the West Side, Anthony Baez outside his family home, Timothy Stansbury on a projects roof.

Bloomberg is no Giuliani. As opposed to polarizing the city, he has united it in hatred of him. A Quinnipiac University poll this month found that he has an approval rating of just 35 percent among African Americans and Latinos. And that was after he was praised by black leaders for saying cops were wrong to shoot Stansbury.

Neither the contrition of a mayor nor the headlines about a safer New York have done much to soften black people’s hard feelings toward the cops. But for a newjack like me, who’s passing out of his rebellious twenties and into his staid thirties, they’ve made all the difference in the world.

Just last week, suspect in hand, they brought my partner in to look at a lineup of possible perps. She’s supposed to try again this week. Maybe the cops actually care about us. More likely, they just want to get the guy.

photo: Cary Conover

Anybody who’s spent five minutes listening to the average hip-hop record knows that cops and black males have a “special” relationship. More to the point, we hate cops and are convinced they hate us. For both visceral and logical reasons, cop-hatred is the default setting for brothers. All black folks have the sneaking suspicion that they were born under a bad sign; cops exist to make sure we stay under it. That cosmic calculus becomes evident fairly early. When you’re a young city kid, cops harass you for nailing a crate to a telephone pole so you can play basketball, but don’t harass the mayor for not putting a basketball court in your ‘hood. Cops kick you out of shopping malls for looking like you’re up to mischief, but ignore merchants who follow you through their stores. To the young black males whom life deals a bad hand, the sole purpose of cops seems to be enforcing dealer’s rule.

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.

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.”