I teach a sociology class called “Policing and Society” at a state college in Northern New Jersey, not far from where I live in New York City. My class is almost evenly split between white, African-American and Latino students. Some come from the ghettos of Paterson and Camden, some from wealthy Bergen County suburbs. Most want jobs in law enforcement.
Not surprisingly, my students have been sharing with me videos of police interactions captured by bystanders or police-issued body and dash cameras all semester long. Most depict suspected misconduct and abuse, but a few portray police men and women doing the right thing under remarkably stressful circumstances.
There’s one that’s apparently gone viral over Facebook (shown here from Youtube) that was brought to my attention earlier this week. We watched it together, all of us, and it sparked a discussion I was grateful to have; it was was probably the most honest and open one we’ve had all semester around this difficult topic.
Very simply, it captures the eviction of a group of young people (and the eventual, lawful arrest of one of them) from an IHOP by a Fort Wayne, Indiana, policeman. By the opinion of most who have viewed it, attempts by the amateur videographer to capture “police brutality” and improper use of force have backfired. The officer involved instead appears remarkably restrained and professional despite behavior that can only be called reprehensible and most certainly criminal.
The larger point the video made to me, though, and that my class seemed to agree with (across racial and cultural lines) is this: If you don’t believe that young, white kids- from what appear to be at least middle class backgrounds- expect to be treated differently by police and are more emboldened to challenge their authority, you’re not living in the real world.
Of course, what’s depicted is only what was captured in one place on one night. Still, there is the undeniable hint of a microcosm here in terms of what these youth regularly believe is not only survivable, but not even reckless. In some way, in their minds, it’s actually appropriate. Don’t like what a cop is telling you to do? Scream in his face and dare him to arrest you. Have a friend follow along with a phone camera, demanding explanations from him from a couple of feet away as he tries to do his job in the face of despicable, taunting vulgarity and a repeated refusal to cooperate. Why not? What’s the worse that’ll happen?
Then contrast that with the young, African-American men in the same video, at just before the 1:00 mark, who look on silently and are utterly non-confrontational. There’s no evidence they were involved with the offending crowd in any way to begin with, and also none that the responding officer would have treated them any differently. Regardless, whatever their intentions were or their attitudes toward police are, they kept those things to themselves.
Why? Because they’re not stupid.
Neither are my students.