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  • Writer's picturePamela Ehn

I'm White and I'm Afraid of the Police

Thank God Chauvin was convicted! Still, as many BIPOC have pointed out, this is just a drop in the bucket and very much the exception to the rule. Already, the right wing is trying to rewrite history and say that it was because the jurors were "intimidated" rather than using the evidence of their eyes that Chauvin was convicted.

Which is why that I'm putting my voice forward as to WHY policing needs to be completely restructured in this country, if my white privilege means anything.

Policing, as it is now, is a dire threat to life and freedom, not only to non-white peoples, but to the disabled, and anyone that does not fit into the "norm" of being a white cishet abled person with money. It may come as a shock to people who know of my racial and class privileges (which are extensive) that most of my interactions with the police have been negative. And that's because I'm autistic.

"Why don't they just comply?" bray the racists and the police apologists. Well, sir, what happens when they *can't* comply? If you justify noncompliance as a reason for extrajudicial murder, you are literally declaring open season on the disabled, especially since many of our disabilities are hidden. Can a police officer tell that a person fails to comply because they are deaf and cannot hear commands? Do police officers even take the time to ask themselves that question? And if such a person fails to comply for the simple fact that they cannot hear the commands, do they deserve to die for that?

And what about that woman with dementia who stole $14 of items from Walmart that the police thought was such a dire threat to society that they broke her arms while arresting her? Dementia patients occupy a wide spectrum of ability and disability, but compliance is the one thing they uniformly can't do. (Side note: I once attended a performance of A Streetcar Named Desire that was utterly ruined because some nursing home thought it was a good idea to bring a gaggle of dementia patients to the performance. Most of them wandered around and talked, and one poor gentleman got on stage and accosted the lead actor with "WHAT AM I DOING HERE???")

In my case, I have auditory processing disorder. That means that I can hear commands perfectly well, but to be able understand them takes more than a minute. So instant compliance on my end is impossible, especially as stress makes my ability to process verbal commands much, much worse. So if I can't instantly comply BECAUSE of my disability, do I deserve to die?

Not to mention that surviving a hostile police encounter requires one to mask and mask hard. Cops have no tolerance for "deviance" so any hint of a neurological difference or a mental disorder could result in escalating violence from the cop. Unfortunately, the stress of a police encounter makes masking impossible. Any police encounter I have may very well end in my death. I only have the frail protection of my white skin, which makes the chances of a police encounter much less likely (cops are not going to stop me for no reason), and white girl tears, which only works if the cop in question isn't a complete sadist, and many of them are.

The worst police encounter I ever had, and which made me fear for my life, happened in St. Paul. (Twin Cities cops are absolute garbage. They are brutal thugs. When I lived in Minneapolis in the early '90s, it was not uncommon to see a group of cops wailing on an indigenous person too inebriated to defend himself. But we did not have cellphone cameras back then.) I had lost my wallet on the bus, and the precinct in St. Paul called me to tell me that they found it and to come pick it up. I was VERY poor in those days, so I had to borrow money to get to the precinct. I show up there to pick up my wallet and they gaslit me, saying that there was never any wallet. This greatly upset me because I NEEDED my wallet. I had no way of even getting home without it. And the cops laughed at my distress. Then a cop who was easily 7 ft tall, got in my face and said "Go back to your parents, little girl!" I was 22 at the time. I said, "My parents are in Boston!" and the next thing I knew, the cop picked me up by the neck and dangled me four feet off the ground. (Yes, I was tiny back then.) I have truly never been so terrified in my life. One twist of his hand, and I could have ended up quadriplegic or dead. I have been on the wrong end of a gun MANY times in my life, but never before did I feel so powerless. One is expected to fight back against a criminal, but you are not allowed to fight a cop. And while I was dangling up in the air by the neck, all the cops in the precinct laughed at my terror. Finally, I was allowed to leave WITHOUT my wallet, so I don't remember how I managed to call my friend Phoebe to pick me up. I sat outside the precinct and could not stop crying. By the time she came to pick me up, I could barely talk. And all she had to say was "What did you do?" She absolutely refused to believe that I was blameless and that I must have done something to deserve nearly having my neck broken by a cop. And that traumatized me so badly, it was ten years before I could speak of this again.

And when I finally got home, my phone was ringing. It was the St. Paul police department asking me when I would come to pick up my wallet.

I've had many police encounters, that while not as bad as the one in St. Paul, that were pretty unpleasant. And then of course, there is the refusal to protect, which I know BIPOC are also familiar with, from cops refusing to do anything about my deranged stalker to cops telling my mother who tried to report felonious assaults against me that they were "not in the business of protecting retards."

When Elijah McClain was killed, that HURT my soul, because yes, he was killed because he was black, but the only reason why there was a police encounter in the first place was because someone was offended by his normal autistic behavior. And in most areas of the country, it does not do to disclose one's autistic status because in the minds of most cops, most of whom have only a high school education at best, autistic=retarded=crazy=dangerous. (Sorry for the use of the r-word here, but this is how cops think.) And that means that disclosing one's disability may very well cause cops to escalate the violence, because many of them, as with many members of society, do not believe that autistic people deserve to live. (Thanks, A$!)

The one exception is the NYPD. They are the only PD that does extensive training on how to interact with the developmentally disabled population, and it's been effective to the point where one cop actually told me that she wished everyone was autistic. This is not to say that the NYPD is perfect. The safety I feel in living here does not extend to BIPOC autistic people I know. And they still have a LOOONG way to go when it comes to racist policing practices and brutality, but it does seem like there has been somewhat of a cultural change in the NYPD, where at least the upper brass is not as tolerant of the brutal policing practices of the past, and there is an effort to train new cops better. So if most PDs are 95% garbage, I would say the NYPD is only 50% garbage, which is still too much garbage!

I'm on board with people saying that we ought to de-fund the police, but I think we need to clarify what that means. First of all, all PDs are over-militarized, and the vast majority of this military equipment is unnecessary and gets used in ways that endanger the public. So let's cut the budget to get rid of the military equipment and use that money to fund social programs that make policing less necessary. I ALSO think we need, and I'm going to lose people here, to raise police officers' pay. When you don't pay enough for qualified people, you don't get the best and brightest. True, some people go into law enforcement because they feel a calling, but many go into it because it's a paycheck they can have with a high school education. Which is ALSO why I think we should make college a requirement for police officers (and that's why they should be paid more). Studies have proven that cops with a college education are far less brutal than those with only a high school education. And lest one think that I am out to remove yet another profession out of the reach of working class Americans, one need not need a degree from any prestige institution when one from a community college will do. (This is also similar to how I feel about the military; we pay far too much for exotic toys while paying our soldiers so little, they need food stamps. I think that's a shanda.) Less money for military equipment, more money for actual officers, and higher requirements to become a cop. And more funding for social programs.

I hope that in the impetus of the Chauvin trial that policing gets restructured. Not only because I wish to feel safe when I travel outside of NYC, but because I am sick of my BIPOC friends being constantly traumatized by police violence and my worrying about their safety if I don't hear from them. Secondary trauma is real. We can all do better and it's about damn time.

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