Eight years ago, I heard what sounded like a car backfiring. About a minute later, there was a knock on my door. I was half-asleep, got out of bed without throwing on anything but boxers and ran downstairs to see who was there. As I turned the door knob, I heard his voice:
“Help me! Fuck, please help me.“
A man stood before me, holding his stomach in pain. I was a bit slow, had just woken up, was maybe a little drunk, and anyway, I’d never seen so much blood. It was gushing from him, pouring through his hands, staining his shirt and jeans. His fingers were slick with it, there was some on his face, his white athletic shoes were splotched crimson.
“Fuck, man–hold on” I said. “I’ll call 911.”
“No” he shouted, really insistent, suddenly terrified. “They’ll send the cops. You gotta help me.”
I’ve no medical training. There’s realistically nothing I can do for someone who’s been shot. I told him all that, shouting a bit in panic. He was gonna die without medical attention, but would rather risk death than confront the police. What the fuck could I do?
I told him I’d be right back, that I was going to call the medics. I didn’t have a cell phone, so I had to run upstairs to make the call. When I returned downstairs, he was gone.
I didn’t hear sirens for another half-hour.
When the police finally arrived, they came without paramedics. I’d told the dispatcher it was a medical emergency, but they’d sent police instead, officers who seemed much less interested in helping the victim than they were trying to find out more about him. When I told them he’d left, they shrugged, asked me a few more questions, and then bid me goodnight.
I didn’t hear the sirens of an ambulance for another half-hour after that. A full hour had passed between the moment I’d called and the moment paramedics arrived to help him.
I learned the next morning that the man had died in some bushes less than a block away from my house.
Calling the “Authorities”
For months and years later, I couldn’t get the situation out of my head. A Black man came to the door of a white anarchist punk, bleeding from a gunshot wound, and all the anarchist knew to do was to call a phone number. Even though I knew the police didn’t care about people like him, I passed his life into their hands, to Authority. What else could I have done?
You might also find yourself wondering a few things about this situation. Some of those things may embarrass or frustrate you. It’s okay–I went through all those questions too. Questions like: was the man a killer? Had he done something so awful that it was better to die alone than face justice? What could anyone possibly have done for him? And why not call emergency services–that’s what they’re there for, right?
Those questions, those arguments, are all ways we try to find our way back to the reality we know, rather than the reality we’ve just confronted. They’re like our defense mechanism, keeping our mind from shattering when we confront something awful. The closer we get to an awful truth, the more our mind tries to protect us, even to the point of suggesting that a dead Black man maybe deserved to die for his stupidity, or really should have just ‘manned-up’ and faced whatever impending justice he was due.
For me, past all those questions and arguments and defenses was a terrible truth that I didn’t want to see. Despite being an anarchist since I was 19, despite having witnessed really awful things being done to people by police, and despite intellectually knowing that the institution of policing is inherently corrupt, it wasn’t until I faced my own helplessness when confronting a dying human and my automatic reaction–calling the police for help–that I understood how much of our lives we’ve ceded to the police, the State, and Authority.
Now, when an unarmed Black person, adult or child, is killed by police, I am no longer surprised or shocked. Sad, of course, and angry, but to act surprised or appalled would be completely dishonest. Besides, I’ve almost never witnessed police doing something helpful.
I’ve seen ’em do a lot of awful things, though:
- I’ve watched friends beaten severely by police in protests.
- A lover and I watched a teenage girl in fairy wings get punched and knocked to the ground by a police officer during an anti-war protest.
- I saw a bi-racial friend of mine, the most harmless stoner you’ve ever met, forced to the pavement by 8 officers with guns pointed to his head.
- During that same incident, I watched my companion get his phone smashed, his head bashed into a wall, and called ‘fucking faggot’ by other officers for trying to film the incident (wrong suspect, it turned out…).
- A former client of mine, a deaf native wood-carver named John T. Williams was shot 5 times (four in the back) just outside the shelter where he lived.
- I’ve seen transfolk and dragqueens get the shit kicked out of them by angry cops while marching down the street in an ‘unpermitted’ queer march during Gay Pride (to the approval of the mostly white gay male business owners nearby).
- I helped defend a queer socialist group from angry harassing protests whom the police actively favored, watching the cops repeatedly threaten us while giving extra allowance to right-wingers driving repurposed military vehicles on the sidewalk.
- And I’ve had my own head pounded repeatedly into the hood of a cop car during an arrest because my lover kicked over an A-board sign advertising expensive condos (they didn’t charge me, just roughed me up damn well).
I could go on about all the harassment of homeless people I’ve witnessed, the violence against my social work clients, the batons and bikes used as bludgeons during peaceful protests–all shit I’ve seen in person. As far as my almost 39 years of life have shown me, unprovoked brutality is what police do.
Police, The State, and Capitalism
We call the police “the Authorities” for a reason. They function as part of the State, by which I also mean ‘government.’ In fact, the police are the human instruments of most State policies, though they are not the only ones. Police enforce laws that the State has made, enact violence (arrest in the most pleasant situations, beatings and death in others), and otherwise provide a physical manifestation of the State in our everyday lives.
On the surface, police are supposed to protect life and property from thieves and murderers, providing for a sort of ‘general welfare.’ Stopping people who speed on roads (or drive drunk) protects pedestrians and other drivers; breaking up fights or riots protects uninvolved bystanders and nearby businesses.
But in my own experience, the Police don’t exist to protect me. Supposedly, I ‘benefit’ by their existence–they ‘keep me safe’ from murderers and thieves and drunk drivers, though this is an indirect benefit. Neither they nor I could point to a specific moment where someone who might want to kill me was prevented from doing so because the police exist.
In fact, like ‘terrorism,’ the idea that the police protect me from horrible people hell-bent on murdering me is a fantasy; I’m a rather nice guy and don’t go around doing things to make others want me dead. Also, I don’t own much–anyone who’d try to rob me at gunpoint or break into my home would be sorely disappointed. In fact, I’d feel so sorry for their wasted effort I’d likely offer them a cup of tea.
Others, of course, have a lot more to lose, and that’s where we start to understand who the police actually exist to protect. While I never have any more than $500 to my name, and nothing I own could be resold for more than $20 (no smartphone, a dying laptop, no automobile), there are plenty of people who have a lot more than that. If you’re poor and want to go the ‘criminal’ route of getting a little less poor, it makes more sense to steal from a business or someone who actually has money to take. They’re the sorts who need to be protected, because they actually have something someone else would want.
Police exist to protect wealth and those who have it.