Guest columnist Will Meyer: A tough Pill to swallow

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Published: 1/3/2019 5:03:41 PM

I am disappointed by Michael Pill’s recent column, “Keeping the streets safe for all us liberals,” following a letter Northampton Police Department Chief Jody Kasper sent to Mayor David Narkewicz warning about a “small but vocal group” spreading “aggressive anti-police rhetoric.”

I could pick apart every line, but I will do my best to leave it at fact-checking broadly.

Early in the piece, Pill suggests that police officers are poorly paid and receive little or no respect. Both of these claims are untrue. Northampton Police salaries start around $45,000, and top officials can make six figures, including overtime. Likewise, the claim that police receive little respect is ludicrous: Have you ever been to or seen pictures of a funeral of a police officer? To the contrary, I’m sure you have noticed how politicians and institutions act in the wake of an unjustified police shooting of a civilian — there are no state flags at half mast.

Pill exaggerates the threat posed to police officers. While policing certainly has its hazards, several jobs are significantly more dangerous than policing. According to a 2015 Bloomberg analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Labor on work-related deaths, taxi drivers are more likely to die on the job — from homicides — than police officers. And professions such as trash collection, construction and logging pose far greater risks of on-the-job deaths.

Furthermore, the “thin blue line” metaphor that Pill references has extremely racist origins. (The Shoestring published a piece about its history.) A self-described “confirmed leftist” shouldn’t use racially charged language. As Shoestring contributor Brian Zayatz notes, William H. Parker — the Los Angeles police chief who first popularized the term — made clear that “the ‘society of law and order’ that the thin blue line protects was a society of middle class whites.”

Pill is right that the police protect and serve “middle-class people.” But as someone who identifies as a leftist, it is surprising that he only seems to care about middle-class people who get robbed, raped or killed. For many poorer people, there is no police department protecting them.

Pill warns that “we must be especially careful about generalizing” about the NPD. But there are many valid, specific critiques of the NPD to be made. Since 2012, two people of color have alleged excessive or inappropriate use of force by the department. There’s also Chief Kasper’s controversial 2017 proposal for surveillance cameras, and, of course, the NPD’s “drug recognition training” in Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s jail in Arizona.

Still, as for the latest in Northampton, there is no correlation between the NPD receiving “proper training” and the need for Walmart to donate bullets (and likely receive a tax break). To imply that the NPD won’t receive ammunition or funding for the department is disingenuous. As Ryan O’Donnell noted recently, “with the exception of a 2017 proposal to add surveillance cameras downtown, the city council has approved every request the police department has made” during his tenure.

Later in his piece, Pill lumps in judging police officers with judging people by race, religion, gender and sexual preference, but this conflation fails to grapple with how these categories relate to capitalism historically. Policing, for one, originated from slave patrols, the extermination of indigenous people and suppression of labor activity (see The Shoestring’s interview with Alex Vitale, author of “The End of Policing”).

And gender and race have always been used in workplaces as a basis for discrimination. Further, given that slavery is still legal (under the 13th amendment) and is still practiced in jails and prisons across the country and region, it’s important to recognize that police are the front door to a system that still enslaves people today. Obscuring this is a denial of both history and the present.

Pill invokes Martin Luther King, Jr., who was harassed constantly by the FBI and spoke publicly about it. He borrows King’s “content of their character” line and fails to appreciate how MLK understood racism as a system that oppressed people because of a lack, in part, of access to the economic benefits afforded to whites. In doing so, Pill divorces police from the systems they uphold, the same ones King referred to as part of the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.”

Pill’s use of the “I Have a Dream” speech to shield police officers from scrutiny is a disservice to King’s radical legacy and the ideas he died fighting for. As for his line “there is good and bad in all of us,” this type of equivocation protects authoritarians the world over. Trump, of course, said after Charlottesville that there are “good people on all sides.” Same idea.

In closing, Kasper and Narkewicz have blown this idea of “anti-police rhetoric” out of proportion. Five people went to a city council meeting to state their objections to the Walmart gift, which is allowed in a democratic society (five people is nobody), and then Walmart changed its mind after city councilors sent the proposal to committee.

Police will still have guns, don’t worry — and they will still protect the middle class in Northampton!

But ultimately, the point isn’t Walmart’s largesse. It is the trotting out of the “anti-police rhetoric” line — what Kasper and Narkewicz are trying to normalize here is the neutralization of any type of dissent relating to the police department.

The message of Kasper’s letter and now Pill’s column is: “Support the police, or else.” It is a threat. People should be allowed to criticize the government if we live in a democracy, full stop.

Will Meyer is the Valley Advocate’s “Basemental” columnist and co-editor of The Shoestring (theshoestring.org). His writing has appeared in The Nation, Columbia Journalism Review, The Village Voice and other outlets.




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