Sprinkled throughout the coverage of the protests against police brutality last week were stories of police officers making gestures of solidarity with protests. Some officers at a Queens protest in New York, knelt as protestors read the names of victims of police violence.
At other times throughout the weekend, those kneeling NYPD officers’ colleagues drove police vehicles into crowds, violently threw a nonviolent protester to the ground, and brandished their weapons menacingly contra department regulations and their stated goals of protection and service. Actions will always speak louder than gestures, and the NYPD was far from the only department whose treatment of protestors made its rhetoric and gestures ring hollow like PR stunts. An examination of other departments who made gestures of understanding toward protestors reveals that this kind of duplicity seems to be the rule and not the exception.
But there were at least two exceptions. There were probably more, but these are the two we know about.
In Genesee County, Michigan, Sheriff Christopher Swanson addressed a crowd of protestors outside the Flint Township Police Station.
“We wanna be with y’all for real,” he said. “So I took my helmet off, they laid their batons down–I wanna make this a parade, not a protest….you tell us what you need [us] to do.” Chants of “walk with us!” broke out, and Swanson and his now baton-less deputies obliged, talking and shaking hands with protestors along the way.
“I wanted the unity,” Wysocki said. “I was looking for peace. People had to be able to speak their mind, they had to be able to vent.”
In both cities, the less confrontational approach taken by law enforcement leaders was followed by outcomes that contrasted sharply with events in Detroit and Philadelphia, the major cities nearest to Flint and Camden, respectively.
These examples fuel the notion that police attitude has a major effect on how protests develop; that the violence and property damage that police departments claim to want to avoid could be motivated by fear, anger, and a sense that concerns are going unheard among the perpetrators.
Swanson and Wysocki showed that consciously and publicly listening to protestors can reduce these emotions, that the confrontational approach taken by most police departments to their communities — an approach that contributed to the death of George Floyd and the chaos of the subsequent protests — isn’t a smart way for a department to operate if it actually wants to prevent riots, which doesn’t always seem to be the cause.
That’s a dark thought, but America is a dark place. Things might be a little brighter if more cops imitated Swanson and Wysocki. It probably won’t happen soon. If policing can be done more responsibly, with more dialogue and understanding, it still seems hard to imagine the entrenched ways of thinking changing course. But, imagining gets a little easier when there are at least a few positive examples.