I’m completely not anti-cop, I’m not. I have a little anti-authority built in, but I’m not anti-cop. I respect the position cops are in, anywhere, and in NYC, especially. This is a huge city, teeming with chaos, and on any given day, depending where you are, you can feel the edge between the order that people maintain and the complete pandemonium that’s ready to break through. All it takes is one wrong move, or one right move, depending.
A couple of years ago a guy stabbed a man to death on the steps of the main post office for bumping in to him. I live a block and a half from there. Right before winter break last year the whole uptown A line was shut down from 59th to 168th. Some guy was groping girls on the subway platform and was shot by an off-duty cop. I was coming home from work and my ride was messed up from it all. I got home late. My 10-year-old son was upset—I couldn’t call him from underground.
When we came back from winter break we were in a cab and as we crossed 5th Avenue on 34th Street cop cars were convening on the corner, racing up with lights and sirens, cops jumping out of their cars and running. A man was tearing down 5th Avenue carrying something, and we saw the cops tackle him to the ground before the taxi drove on. And these are just ordinary days in NYC, never mind when there are terrorist threats, protests, parades, crowds gathering for any reason.
Cops are living on that edge all the time, and they are putting their lives at risk, we all know that. And when I’m talking about aggression I’m not even talking about the obvious cases, like the recent killing of a young, unarmed black man in front of his family when he ran because he was scared and was carrying a little pot. Or the even more obvious cases of excessive use of force and brutality that get all over the news. I’m talking about little, everyday encounters where cops have the chance to show restraint and goodwill, or to make a show of coercion and authority.
Last fall I was walking home with my son on 9th Avenue in the late afternoon of a beautiful day. We were approaching the corner of 30th when I heard a cop say something through his car’s megaphone—that’s what drew my attention. I looked and there was a guy on his bike in the bike lane and the cop car was right behind him. So I put together the cop said something like “move that bike out of the bike lane.”
I just watched with curiosity since the man didn’t move but stood stock-still. He was standing astride his bike, looking straight ahead. Then the lights on the cop car went on. The car was right up behind the guy’s bike. The guy on the bike still didn’t move. He stared straight ahead. Then the cop actually nudged the guy’s bike with his car.
The guy looked back at his tire—the position of his bike had shifted and he righted it—and then continued to stare straight ahead. Moments later the traffic light changed and he started to ride across the street. The cop put the siren on and swung around wide to block him, then leaped out of his car and started yelling at the guy to get his bike back up on the sidewalk. He was in a rage and though he didn’t touch the guy he shoved the bike at one point. Suddenly another cop car careens up with lights and siren on and that guy jumps out of his car. The first cop’s bitching at this guy and the other cop chimes in, talking about issuing him a summons. The second cop’s in a long-sleeved white shirt so I take him to be a superior officer.
I couldn’t imagine what on earth the guy on the bike did and he’s standing there trying to explain to them why he didn’t move—that he didn’t want to ride his bike out into traffic. As soon as the light had changed I walked over and got right up in the scene.
"How are you going to push the guy's bike with your car?" I said to the first cop. By the way, his face was red with fury and the veins on his neck were standing out a quarter-inch. He said something inconsequential to me, such as, it wasn’t my business, and I turn to the white-sleeved cop and say,"How are you going to let your guy bump the guy's bike with his car?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," he said. He was in a rage and yelling at the guy, too.
"I saw him do it," I said. They both just yelled more at the biker.
The biker was contained but upset. He was telling them that hadn’t wanted to move his bike out into traffic, the light was red and he had been waiting for it to change. The cops were so angry that he hadn’t immediately responded to their orders. I offered to give the guy my phone number and he took it, and then got the phone number of another guy who had been standing there. I couldn’t believe there was this big yelling scene over this. The original cop was writing the guy a ticket.
“You’re just pissed,” I said to the white-sleeved guy. “You’re just too into your authority.” And he asked me if that was my son who was standing next to me, and whether I thought this was a good thing to expose him to. I said I thought it was a really important thing to expose him to.
I was being cheeky and provocative on purpose, I knew it. And I was adding to the level of everything. I left the scene and as my son and I were about to enter the little courtyard of our apartment down the block I turned and saw the white-sleeved cop in his car in the street out front. He leaned out his window and said that if it were my family that needed help and some guy was keeping the cops from being able to do their job I would feel differently.
“But nothing was happening,” I said. He was blocking traffic by now.
“Have a nice day,” he said, and drove off.
I think he stopped because he felt guilty about the whole thing. And I felt a little guilty, too. I was purposely provoking, but I do think the cops acted excessively. And I thought about it from the point of view of being a high-school teacher in the Bronx. You have a whole class full of students and there’s whole school full of people. There’s bad behavior ranging from kids not shutting up when you’re trying to teach, to fights. You have to restrain yourself. You can’t even say the wrong thing. Every day. And you get worn down and furious. But one wrong word or move could get you fired in a minute, or worse—a lawsuit could get brought down on your school, or on you.
It’s not the same but there’s a parallel. The guy on the bike called me later and was so grateful I had spoken up. He had a court date and I wrote up a little account of the situation. I just heard from him again and he had pleaded not guilty and goes before a judge tomorrow. He asked me to sign my narrative as a declaration and I will. I’ll meet him later today and hand it to him.
For me the jury’s still out on whether cops in this city are too aggressive in general or not. But as I mentioned to the guy on the bike, I tend to stop and watch interactions between the cops and people on the street when I see them, and make it very obvious that I’m doing so. I know I have to stay in line as a teacher and I’ve got a whole classroom full of kids making sure I don’t say or do the wrong thing. Cops are on display in the same way in the city. And I don’t think it hurts at all that they be reminded of that.