Ta-Nehisi Coates guest-edited the September issue of Vanity Fair, and assembled a truly remarkable roster of contributors. I recommend many of the essays, but want in particular (for now, at least) to lift up Eve Ewing’s essay on police unions, which continue to be a sticking point around here and elsewhere among liberals. The point is especially salient today, as the Kenosha police union is up on its bullshit, leaping to defend its members who attempted to murder Jacob Blake and criticizing Wisconsin’s Democratic governor for being so bold as to say that it was bad to shoot a Black man multiple times in his back at close range while his children watched.
The man stands before them, head slightly bowed. He is gangly, awkward, against the backdrop of the officers’ firm march. They are hurried and he is not. Everything about them is fast, crisp, matte.
We watch the push. We watch him fall.
We watch them pass his body. Swirling around him, an eddy of thick black fabric. When the blood comes, it drifts languidly across the concrete.
When night falls, this is the story they tell: “During that skirmish involving protestors, one person was injured when he tripped & fell.” But when the video appears, the world will see the police shove Martin Gugino to the ground, fracturing his skull.
The email from John Evans, president of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association, came the next day. Evans forcefully defended the police officers implicated in the assault. “After witnessing first hand how these 2 officers were treated,” Evans wrote, “I can tell you, they tried to fuck over these guys like I have never seen in my 54 years.” He signed off the email by writing, “Fraternally, John Evans – PBA.”
There are people who will tell you that people like John Evans lead a union. But this is not a union. This is something else.
This is a brotherhood. It abides no law but its own. It scorns the personhood of all but its own brethren. It derides all creatures outside its own clan. And for that reason, the brotherhood is not only a hurdle impeding reform. It is the architecture of an alternate reality, one that seethes and bubbles just beneath the surface of our own. And it’s a reality in which none of us are human.
When Chicago police officer Robert Rialmo killed Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones—a young man having a mental health episode and his neighbor, who answered the door—Rialmo was fired. The vice president of the Chicago FOP called the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which recommended the firing, “a political witch hunt on police officers. The investigations are unfair and politically motivated.”
When Jason Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder for the death of Laquan McDonald, the FOP defended him. When four of the officers accused of aiding in the cover-up were fired, a different FOP vice president used the decision as an occasion to impress upon police board members that they should not “fall to the pressure of the media or the radical police haters.”
These men were sworn officers of the law. But they did not look at Van Dyke as a convicted murderer who had broken that law. They did not look at him and see police—a social category, a profession, a uniform one puts on and can take off. They looked at him and saw their brother. They saw a different type of being, bound by an oath that transcends civilian understanding. And by virtue of Van Dyke’s being, in their eyes, he could do no wrong.
The same logic underlies the phrase “blue lives matter,” which semantically equates the color of a uniform with the nonnegotiable, unshakable fact of Blackness. It’s a phenomenon not unlike the transfiguration that took place behind the eyes of Darren Wilson. “It looks like a demon,” he told the grand jury in describing Michael Brown. Michael Brown: not man, but beast. Jason Van Dyke: not man, but kin. A brother in the pantheon. A demigod among demigods, his actions deemed necessary and virtuous because they were wrought by his hand, and his hand was necessary and virtuous.
Of course, as Catanzara’s comment about support for protesters demonstrates, it’s not that it’s impossible to be cast out from the brotherhood. The unforgivable sin within the brotherhood is to cast aspersions against the only people whom the brotherhood recognizes as human—its own kind. Shoot a boy in the back, and you can still be in the brotherhood. Side with the people who are asking questions, or raise a fist with them, or kneel before them, or talk to them, and you are out.
Maya Angelou had a thing she used to say—When people show you who they are, believe them the first time. Perhaps it’s time for America to heed Angelou’s advice. The Fraternal Order of Police has told us candidly what they are—that they are not a union, but a fraternity. A brotherhood. We ought to believe them.
And on the claim that arguments against police unions will be leveraged into attacks on other unions:
those who lead America’s police unions raise a cautionary alarm—that teachers and other public sector workers should be wary of any attempts to curtail police power, lest they find themselves at the center of the next effort to limit union rights. In June, Patrick J. Lynch, who heads the Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York, wrote an op-ed in the New York Daily News drawing a direct connection between efforts to defund the police and a broader labor struggle. “Our brothers and sisters in the labor movement should be very careful. If they support a successful campaign to strip police officers of our union rights, they will see those same tactics repeated against teachers, bus drivers, nurses and other public sector workers across this country.”
But there’s a crucial difference. “How many unions are there where you’re assigned a gun and told you can shoot people?” Philadelphia district attorney Larry Krasner asked me during a phone interview. “I mean, they have superpowers. They are given superpowers over the lives and freedom of other people. Over the integrity of their bodies.” Krasner told me of two instances in his legal career when he defended women who, after finding their police officer husbands cheating and trying to divorce them, had been arrested by those same husbands. One was arrested twice. The other was arrested alongside her brother, who had tried to defend her. Both women were found not guilty despite police officers testifying against them on the stand. Krasner attempted to sue on their behalf, for monetary damages but also injunctive relief—for the police department to change its policies to require an arrest of a relative or spouse to be overseen by a supervisor.
“The answer that I got from the city is nope. We’re not going to do any of that. Dealing with the police department, contract negotiations…we’re not even going to get into it. So we’ll just pay you more money,” Krasner recalls. “So you know, that kind of told me everything I needed to know. It was an overwhelming imbalance of power. It’s a city I think that in many ways is so politically compromised by its relationship with police unions that they have for a very long time pretty much given them anything they wanted.” Krasner believes that the situation is exacerbated by the fact that in Philadelphia, the FOP allows retired officers to be voting members. “The police union is the voice of the past,” says Krasner, “and in Philly the past is Frank Rizzo,” the 1970s-era Philadelphia mayor who openly told his supporters to “Vote White.” Before becoming mayor, Rizzo was police commissioner. During his campaign, Rizzo promised his supporters that after he was elected, he would “make Attila the Hun look like a faggot.”
Rachael Rollins, district attorney of Suffolk County (which includes Boston as well as nearby Chelsea, Revere, and Winthrop) agrees with Krasner, telling me that police are “the only section of our municipal local, state, or federal government that has the lethal and legal authority to kill you with no oversight.” For this reason, she dismisses Lynch’s comparison between police unions and teachers unions. “If a teacher strangled George Floyd as an 11-year-old,” Rollins said, “no D.A. would even wait a nanosecond to charge that teacher with a homicide. We would be shocked and appalled. But when police do it, we have been so triggered to believe law enforcement, right? To not question them…. When you have the authority to do something as final as death without oversight, you are different than any other union we are talking about.”
Beyond this point—police carry guns and are permitted by the state to kill people—is a deeper distinction: the task of policing itself as intrinsically counter to the ideology of a union. “A union is supposed to protect the rights, and the labor movement is supposed to protect the rights, of all working people,” said Sheri Davis-Faulkner, a program director at the Center for Innovation in Worker Organization in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University. “The point is to be lifting up all working people. That is the work. Collective bargaining and having bargaining units, that is a part of it. But it’s also pushing an ideology that people should not be exploited.” Police unions do not and cannot promote this ideology, because doing so would require them to confront “the infrastructure that has been built for them to be policing Black bodies and protecting White communities,” Davis-Faulkner told me.
“In its best formulation, the labor movement has been about the concept of solidarity,” says Feurer, who studies political conflict and the labor history of the late 19th and 20th centuries at Northern Illinois University. “And so that is the key conundrum here. Is that if you’re an entity that’s sworn against solidarity, you can put your foot on the neck of a working-class person. It is the cardinal issue that we’re facing right now…what do you do with a group of workers that are in your movement whose purpose is a state purpose? Whose purpose is to deny protest rights, and to deny solidarity?”