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Can we talk about cops?

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A small group of us had a long meeting yesterday with an Oakland Police Department (OPD) senior cop. This was part of our imminent launch of a new political action group we’re organizing, the Coalition for a Better Oakland, to address some of the catastrophes in Oakland created by years of government mismanagement, political corruption and misguided extremist political ideologies.

It was the first opportunity any of us had ever had to sit down informally with a top cop of long experience and leadership, and have a frank conversation. We agreed at the outset that nothing was off the table. No tape recordings were made; I took a few notes, but that was it. We could ask him whatever we wanted.

I asked the cop why he had agreed to meet with us, and he was earnest and passionate as he explained that OPD will meet with anyone who’s trying to help them. Cop-hating in Oakland is an old game. There was a story in the newspaper the other day about a LatinX cop who went to a coffee shop in Oakland and was refused service. Cops get spat at, they’re routinely given the finger, and in general they have to be on their guard all the time when they’re in uniform. Anti-cop rhetoric in Oakland is strong and pervasive. Everywhere you go, there’s graffiti: FTP (fuck the police) and ACAB (all cops are bastards) are the most common, but there are also calls for murdering cops. It must get very tedious for a uniformed officer just trying to do her job!

For my part, I felt a responsibility to let the cop know that I, and the two others from my group at the meeting, were not psychos or freaks of some kind. We’re not “badge chasers” or anything like that, but citizens of Oakland who hate what’s happening to our city, and who no longer feel safe just going about our daily (and nightly) routines. For thirty years I never felt uneasy walking at night downtown. Over the last year or two, I do. Murder is soaring: we’re on track to set a record this year. Street attacks, robberies, muggings, carjackings—every day there are stories in the paper, and then, of course, the anti-Asian assaults have made national headlines. With all this going on, you’d think the City Council would be considering increasing OPD’s budget; the department is currently staffed only at 50% of the needed levels. But no. The City Council’s so-called “Reimagining Public Safety” task force continues to call for more defunding of the department and re-routing the money into such things as “immediate housing,” “restorative justice,” “decriminalizing homelessness” (which by the way is based on a lie, since “homelessness” has never been against the law), removing the forensics crime lab out of OPD and into a “non-police” organization (since, according to the Reimagining people, the forensics lab—staffed by technicians—is somehow a hotbed of “police misconduct”), launching a proposed “basic income” program (Oakland’s just-announced program this past week was threatened with a lawsuit after Oakland said it would send money only to people of color, excluding poor white people), eliminating funding for OPD’s helicopter (!!!), radical changes to recruiting and hiring, in which intellectual standards are eliminated in order to make the process decrease “bigotry and bias,” and scores of other proposals—some good, some downright stupid.

No doubt, these proposed changes are well-meant, but they do represent an ideological bias of their own: that police are inherently evil, and that crime is largely the fault of systematic racism. The bottom line is that career cops in Oakland are frustrated, feel disrespected and insecure, are leaving the department for greener pastures, and the people of Oakland are increasingly left to their own devices.

There are so many issues to unpack. One thing we talked about at our meeting was the theory, often advanced by “defund the police” people, that goes something like this: Change is hard. Whenever change threatens an existing institution, its rearguard will resist it ferociously. Therefore, the rearguard has got to go, since change is inevitable and good.

That theory sounds plausible. Many of us were taught about the “paradigm shifts” that occurred in the 20th century in science. We learned that the rearguard resisted the new approaches of quantum mechanics and relativity. The Nazis in particular called these “the Jewish sciences.” They also resisted the new forms of painting, such as Abstraction and Expressionism, in favor of “social realist paintings” that, today, are considered sheer rubbish. So, yes, there is a valid school of thought that says change is good and resistance to it is bad.

But when it comes to quantum mechanics or Expressionist paintings, human life and welfare are not threatened! What threatens public safety here in Oakland is an out-of-control criminal culture which seems to be encouraged by the guardians who are supposed to be protecting us. This is particularly true concerning Oakland’s Community Police Review Agency, whose primary role seems to be encouraging citizen complaints of misconduct against officers. The Agency’s chair came under widespread criticism for forcing the firing of the former police chief (because, it was alleged, she was white), and a city-mandated review of the Agency’s performance accused it of widespread abuse of power.

Race is at the heart of almost everything that happens in Oakland, and it’s sad that common sense seems to have been removed from every conversation. In Oakland, you’re either “woke” or you’re engaged in systematic racism. There’s no middle ground. If you’re against sideshows, according to this extreme view, you’re discriminating against the cultural practice of a particular group. Never mind that sideshows are a huge menace in the Oakland flatlands, where legal traffic is blocked, pedestrians are threatened, and people actually die. This is the kind of impasse that has brought Oakland to its knees, and is why we created the Coalition for a Better Oakland. We believe our common sense approach to issues of crime and homeless encampments represents a majority of Oaklanders, as opposed to the handful of anti-cop activists who disrupt every City Council meeting, a good proportion of whom demand the complete elimination of the police department, with the funding going to shadowy programs they and their friends run.

I have insisted from the get-go that our Coalition is nonpartisan. I refuse to concede that anyone who supports cops is a white supremacist. Anyone who reads my blog knows I’m a Democrat who is unalterably opposed to the far right. This past week, I took steps (along with some of my colleagues) to prevent a self-professed “militiaman” from being part of our group. We have to be very careful to prevent rightwing, insurrectionist radicals from getting anywhere close to us. If that happens—and I am monitoring it—I’ll leave the group. It’s the extremes on both sides—the Jan. 6 proud boy/QAnon freaks and the BLM rioters who tear cities apart—that are the enemies of the people, not the cops.

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