Sunday, November 6, 2011

Police State, or the Halloween State of Exception

Last week my downtown neighborhood geared up for the the annual Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. Usually that entails a couple of police barricades along Sixth Avenue for crowd control, a number of parade vehicles staging on side streets, and an influx of ghosts, goblins, and vampires.

But this year was different. This year whole streets were blocked off hours and hours before the parade began. After 4pm there was no traffic on Spring Street. I had to pass through three police blockades to walk home from a doctor's appointment. Still, that was no big deal: I had my identification with me.

Unfortunately it was a big deal for my daughter. She attends a school for children with special needs; she has a disability that requires that she take a yellow school bus home. Typically she arrives home around 3:45. But on Halloween she got home at 5pm, after her frantic father retrieved her from the bus that was mired several blocks from home. Her school bus had been driving round and round and round the neighborhood trying to find a way into our block to no avail. 

When I arrived home and learned about this after just having navigated my way through three police blockades, one of my seldom-deployed subject positions emerged: indignant mom of special needs child. When I called the police community affairs number they referred me to the desk of local precinct. There the desk sergeant told me that he was awfully sorry and yes there was more security in the neighborhood this year than usual.

When I countered that the neighborhood had been made less secure for my disabled minor child by the actions of the police, he conceded that perhaps they had gone overboard and that he'd look into it. He was sorry, he said. Maybe, he said, I should call them in advance when they're going to close down the neighborhood streets to let them know about my daughter.

But how would I know that you're going to close down the neighborhood streets when you haven't done this before? How am I supposed to know how your unannounced actions are going to affect my daughter's well-being?

I don't know, he said. There is a lot of security this year, he said. He'd look into, he assured me, and we concluded our deeply unsatisfying conversation.

One of the reasons that I keep my child-avenging indignation well-contained is that once it's out of the box, it's not all that easy to put it aside. With plenty of steam still coming out of my ears, I put on my shoes and headed out to find the police supervisor on the street who had prevented my daughter from getting home. As I closed the door behind me her dad called after me, Don't do it, don't go out there. I know you. You're going to get arrested. 

A blue shirt on the corner told me there were no supervisors around, but then I spotted a Community Affairs Officer over at Thompson and Spring. I walked over and told him what had happened and he was all apologies. Wow, he said, that's terrible. And it's a yellow school bus? Yes, it's a yellow school bus. You know, he said, there is a lot of security this year. I repeated my concern that preventing a yellow school bus from driving handicapped children home did not seem like a big improvement in neighborhood security.

You know, he said, there is a lot of security because of Occupy Wall Street.  They're going to try to march in the parade.

And that would be a problem because . . . ?  It's a public parade, right?

Well, they might take over the parade, he said.

And so, I said, the police think that protesters from Occupy Wall Street are going to sneak into the neighborhood on a yellow school bus carrying disabled children home from school?

No, no, they should have let the bus in, this was just a mistake, he said. I'm going to tell you something, he said, leaning in and lowering his voice in a conspiratorial tone . . . I'm going to tell you something. You're not taping me, are you? he asked.

No, I said.

Reassured, he continued.

You know, the police are a paramilitary organization.  If someone gives an order, the guys below just follow it. They don't think. They just follow the order. Someone should have opened the barricade to let the school bus through, but no one wanted to get in trouble. He paused.  Are you sure you're not taping me?

Yes, I said, I'm sure I'm not taping you.

I wish, of course, that I had been taping him. I have a very good ear for conversation, but there's nothing quite like having something on tape.

And so we read here my memory of the dialogue, in which the police community affairs officer first tries to put the blame for the disruptive neighborhood policing on the Occupy Wall Street protesters. Finding no sympathy for this tactic, he quickly switches gears and third-parties the police department (I'm with you, I'm not one of them, I don't know why they're so stupid.The police, he lets the secret out of the bag, are a paramilitary organization.

There was little more to say. I could have continued my harangue, but to what end? He was good. He was very good. He was very, very good at his community affairs job. He gave me his card. He urged me to follow-up with him.

So I went home, knowing that the ghouls, and goblins, and witches haunting my neighborhood that evening are not nearly as scary as the state of exception that allows the police to shutdown our neighborhoods because peaceful protesters might join in a parade.


Heather said...

There are a lot of police out there doing the right thing. In Albany, they refused an order from Cuomo.

YES, We camp!

Others at the demos have been saying similar things to me. They are caught in between, need their jobs...etc. Others clearly have a sadistic streak. One said that his billy club "will be getting a workout tonight" at our peaceful Times Square demo. Ugh.

Anyway, there is an interesting statement from Oakland police about how they have been given conflicting orders from the mayor's office. I'll find it and post. Really quite a mess out there.

Micki McGee said...

The shifting subject positions of uniformed police during the occupations are quite remarkable, and I hope someone is working on studying all of this: obedience to authority, sadistic abuse of authority (a Billy Club Sadist was at Wall Street as well), agreeing and supporting protesters (since they are part of 99% just as we are), stepping in to defend speech rights of protesters. Certainly something to think about in all of this. You've gotten me thinking more about this, so maybe I'll write a post about this as well.