We Can Never Turn Our Backs

Jose Vilson Education, Jose

I hadn’t seen it live, but the pictures popped up on my social media screens. One set of photos has officers’ caps pointed directly at the procession. The other set of photos has the officers’ caps pointed in the opposite direction of a big screen with NYC Mayor Bill deBlasio in the background. For the police officers and the insulated mass of folks who agree with them, they must believe they were doing something courageous, for, how dare a mayor speak candidly about conversations he has with his Black son? How can he simultaneously lead the nation’s largest police force and harbor tenuous feelings about how they might treat his son?

In the mix with this reality is the perception of what a police force ought to do, what it currently does, and what the difference is between these two purposes in the eyes of many.

What I’ve heard a few times from rank and file teachers here in New York City is that they wish United Federation of Teachers (UFT) president Michael Mulgrew fought as hard for his members as the NYC Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) president Patrick Lynch. According to them, the UFT has become more of a political organization, and seems more adept at giving back items that unionists fought for in the last 40 years, including length of school days and retroactive pay. They say the UFT hasn’t fought enough for its most embattled teachers, many of whom have been harassed and fired for frivolous reasons.

Pat Lynch, on the other hand, has proven himself quite a firestarter, saying just about anything to absolve his members from wrongdoing, creating a culture in the city that makes police dissent seem sacrilegious. His most recent salvo made him judge, jury, and executioner of the mayor and him administration in one fell swoop. Yet, what’s most striking for many citizens of NYC, especially people of color, is the belligerent memo, which the PBA denies sending out, that says the police will operate as a wartime unit and would act accordingly.

Who does the PBA seek to have war with? The rest of us? If so, at least in the eyes of many people of color across the nation, that’s already fait accompli. Many of us already think twice before we say anything within a 5-block radius of a police station. We already put both hands on the steering wheel when we get pulled over. We already keep our hands out of our pockets when we walk about stores, low and high-end. We already try not to make eye contact with police, and already have two types of conversations with our sons and daughters: the birds and the bees, and the bullet and the NYPD.

We already know one of “us” might be gone at the hands of the police every 28 hours on average.

But that’s what some teachers want, which is fine. NYC Educator has made good arguments here, and they deserve a second and third reading from everyone. Simultaneously, we need to be mindful of those who suggest that we take things too far back (which isn’t what NYC Educator is saying, mind you). If we push too far back into tighter versions of unionism, we’ll regress to 1968 levels of racial angst. Around 60% of all NYC teachers are white, 44% of them in high-poverty schools. All the while, incidents involving people of color and the police have ballooned in the media, starting from Trayvon Martin and peaking at Eric Garner. All these murders merit discussion, with pledges of allegiance dedicated with a signature to justice for all. Yet, in many classrooms in NYC and elsewhere, the teacher is either incapable of having this nuanced discussion or sides with Pat Lynch.

I can’t see myself supporting a union with a Lynch as its head. I do find fault with some of my colleagues across the city. I do disagree with some of the harder lines some of us take on practically everything. I do think some of us don’t have an actual plan besides “no,” and, for parents in already strenuous situations, “no” is not a plan of action for helping students get ahead in life. When teachers don’t do right by our students, mistreat them, or think of them as less than human, I don’t want them as colleagues anymore. At this point, we as teachers don’t run around saying this because we hear plenty from well-monied politicians like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo or New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, both of whom I gladly protest.

But the police protest is about whether police can brutalize if they seem the person suspicious. Even the most popular activists want police. Just not this current rendition of it, institution and all.

This confluence of elements makes it harder for me to empathize with police, who feel maligned by protestors and the media in their own right. My profession puts me at the behest of the community, and the community asks me to serve in the capacity of math teacher. I try my best given my circumstances. My job isn’t as dangerous as a police officer’s, but I continually reflect on whether I’m serving the community, and, if I knew that a large section of my community felt under-served by me and my colleagues, I would probably want my union representatives and my bosses to talk to the community and find out how to better serve them, not double down on how great a job I’m doing.

To protect and to serve, and that’s something we can never turn our backs to.