I have a long history of dealing with police (and RCMP), and it may (or may not) surprise you to know if you have been following anything I’ve written so far about the ongoing investigations into one of their own, or about the police beating the freedom of speech out of my friends (I guess they think their job is to serve and protect the shit out of you); but my history of dealing with the authorities is primarily characterized by shitty experiences. The ironic part is that, with the notable exception of being caught shop-lifting (we call this “surviving by any means necessary”) from a Zeller’s while I was homeless in 2002 (for which I was not convicted), I have been the one being victimized when I’ve been forced into interactions with police and RCMP. And yet, most of my interactions with police and RCMP (from this point forth, simply referred to collectively as either police — the entire collective — or cops in the case of individual officers) were still shitty. I’ve often been made to feel manipulated or further victimized by police, who have frequently blamed me for my own victimization, attempted to charge me, or even gone out of their way to avoid enforcing the law to protect my rights.
I am writing here about the intersection of inherited social privilege(s) with the need to interact with police, because of all the annoying things I’m observing since a local business owner named Jennifer (spoiler: not one of my favourite people) has been accused of “outing” people to police for having provided their names and personal contact information without first establishing their permission to do so, the privileged assumption that no one in her position would reasonably conduct themselves in the same manner is really starting to grate against me. What if police were threatening to detain her as a material witness (it is a criminal investigation, for fuck’s sake), while she was alone with her toddler at home (who would be taken away by child services under the circumstances), if she refused to cooperate? Are we really supposed to expect her to protect someone else’s privacy with greater dedication than her commitment as a parent to protect her own child? Maybe I can help put a little more perspective on why this issue just isn’t as black-and-white as violating a promise of confidentiality (reckless stupidity aside, of not seeing even the possibility of an RCMP interrogation coming despite appearing in national news stories in print and on television, with a declaration of inside knowledge).
It’s no secret that the marked majority of police are of the male gender. An astronomical majority are also cisgendered, but I’ll get to that momentarily. It’s also no secret that the frequency and magnitude of violence against women at the hands of men, when compared to the frequency and magnitude of violence against men at the hands of women, simply cannot be understated. Violence against human beings by other human beings is an innately bad thing, but it also doesn’t happen to play out within a sexism-free vacuum very often (if at all). I’ve written about microaggression in the context of greater rape culture, sexual harassment and assault, and the things male rapists of women will (and will not) disclose about their particular proclivity towards violence against women. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to see where I’m going with this: male cops can be intimidating to women simply because there are more male cops assigned to serve justice to a female majority crime-victim population. It is hardly a far stretch to suggest that some women who are socially vulnerable in other ways in their life (such as by being transgender or a sex worker) hesitate to deal with police at all, and are in a very uncomfortable place (emotionally or intellectually) when they don’t have any other choice. But thanks to Vancouver Police Department, even otherwise socially privileged women can now secretly shit their pants at the sight of a male cop. They did, after all, break one of my female friend’s hands, just for using a crosswalk (in which she was nearly run the fuck over by an SUV while they had a snack and watched from three storeys above). Apparently when women occupy the streets these days, we relinquish all rights to protection from criminal harassment or even threats of bodily harm. Thanks, guys.
You would probably have to be completely obtuse to believe that there is a fair representation of trans* individuals in any police department anywhere in the world. With the number of trans* people who die trying to live authentically, who commit (often aggravated) suicide, or who are beaten to death somewhere between authentic living and the first step towards help to get there, you would also have to be completely obtuse to believe that there is a fair representation of trans* individuals anywhere. And for those of us who do make it, many of us have past trauma around our gender dysphoria; sexual harassment, assault, and/or rape; struggles with drug and/or alcohol addiction; and time spent living on the streets. Most of us face significant barriers to coming out, and lose a great deal of our support (e.g., friends, family, gainful employment, safe housing) in the very same process when we finally do overcome those barriers. Except for a minority of otherwise extremely socially privileged trans* people, it would be fair to estimate that more than 95% of us have had very negative interactions with police. And I’m talking about yesterday night, not 1968. Many of us will be arrested and detained without cause and/or sexually harassed by cops; and some of us have been abducted, assaulted, battered, and/or raped by cops — treated like we are disposable. Suffice to say, many of us are completely unhappy with the prospect of dealing with police for any reason. And when we have no choice, we have to put our guard up. It’s for our own protection.
Our society is systemically characterized by both visible and invisible institutions of white supremacy. It’s constructed on orchestrating a silent, invisible genocide that perpetuates to this day, against all indigenous peoples across Turtle Island. It has also been significantly advanced through human trafficking from other colonized parts of the world, which has since been repeatedly re-packaged, resulting in labour exploitation and perpetual re-colonization. Thus, it really cannot be understated at this point: when a white male cop shows up on the scene to detain someone for Walking While Brown/Black, or a group of white male cops descends on a street demonstration of mixed company, certain people will be made to feel, by their mere presence, like secretly shitting their pants (metaphorically speaking). This feeling may be felt stronger depending on the specific region of Turtle Island where this cop (or group of cops) appears, or depending on the circumstances of the situation itself (such as when nothing illegal is taking place and they show up anyway). It may also be felt stronger (though not necessarily to the same magnitude) by whites who are not the “right kind” of white — imagine for a moment, being the surviving Canadian-born family of Robert Dziekański, or a member of the community for whom this unnecessary tragedy struck particularly close to home. It doesn’t take a neuroscientist to (reasonably) anticipate the possibility that a significant majority of people, especially in the Lower Mainland (unceded Coast Salish territory), are intimidated by police by default.
Update: Despite raising the example of a Polish immigrant who was tasered to death by RCMP, in an ironic oversight, I failed to address the privileged assumption of citizenship — that is to say, I neglected to take into account the very real threat of deportation that is levelled against non-citizens. This brings to mind, of course, the critical loss of support one might be vulnerable to being threatened with in the event one’s family or lover(s) were residents of another country. A criminal record (and some other court orders) deprives such an individual of access, and thus, it should be fairly apparent that this kind of information can be used by police to manipulate vulnerable persons into being successfully coerced.
By now, if you are still reading this far, you must be starting to see a pattern. And that pattern spells out the fate of class distinctions that run through all levels of societal organization: the people who inherit (by virtue of birth lottery) the best chance at being of a high socioeconomic status are white, cisgendered, and male. But these are also the people who are most free to go to post-secondary institutions (such as the Canadian Police College) straight out of high school. These are the people who are most likely to receive meaningful support from their families as they pursue a higher education and a career. White cisgendered men are not just the most likely to earn a higher position of authority within police forces — they literally hold the majority of those positions. These aren’t a series of unfortunate coincidences for racialized individuals, people who grew up in working poverty, and/or trans* people and women. This is the manifestation of systemic privilege in our institutions of justice (the reason it is called the “(in)justice system”). And who is most likely to be caught committing a crime, and/or unable to afford adequate legal defence? But racialized persons, trans* people and women, and especially the (working) poor (who are often racialized and/or of a marginalized gender). Class privilege is equally as pervasive all across Turtle Island as systemic racism. And equally as daunting to subvert or overcome.
It certainly plays a part in my turbulent history interacting with police: I am treated astronomically better, now that I am able to sustain the illusion of a roof over my head, than when I was living clean and sober in a tent pitched in the backyard of a condemned house teaming with meth addicts (cops cooperate generally now with me, as opposed to actively trying to obstruct justice when my rights have been violated — and who do you call when the police are the ones perpetrating the crime?) And it played a role in pro-longing the serial murder spree of Robert Pickton, who chose survival sex workers (particularly of aboriginal descent), specifically because no one would treat it urgently if they started disappearing. One woman (whose testimony as a material witness was heard during the trial some years later) was picked up by Pickton, who then confessed what he was doing on the farm as he was driving her back there. She quite literally dive-rolled out of the vehicle as it was slowing down, and reported straight to police, who laughed her out of the detachment. With the current climate of criminalization around sex work, no one can reasonably blame those surviving sex workers for trying to remain anonymous after finally coming forward during the trial proceedings. It is almost literally as if poverty itself is criminalized in our society (the Downtown Eastside is one of the poorest neighbourhoods in our country, and is also the most heavily policed in the entire Lower Mainland).
I’ve previously written about able-bodied and able-minded privilege (and part of my post on body-policing concerns this matter too). Well, this is a dynamic of privilege and oppression that plays into interactions with police as well — especially as concerns invisible disabilities, such as addictions, mental illness, and chronic pain. This is another significant factor in the over-policing of the Downtown Eastside that cannot be understated, as many of the evicted residents and former out-patients of the now-closed Riverview hospital (an important institution for the treatment of mental health and disability) are now either homeless or living in abject poverty, and struggling without the help they need (help that would eliminate the challenges of living with a mental disability for a majority of those individuals). Able-bodied individuals take for granted the ability to pick up the phone and dial 9-1-1 or a non-emergency police dispatch number without assistance, and people who live without mental disabilities (such as post-traumatic stress disorder from, oh, police violence and/or rape as examples) take for granted the ability to feel able to call police. To not feel helpless and to help oneself without barriers.
Once again, this is a form of oppression that has repeatedly factored into my generally shitty interactions with police; and I know I am not alone in this, as more and more of my otherwise-privileged friends come forward and share their stories of being beaten by police. But more on that momentarily. My issue has been of a different kind of trauma all together. I grew up in an abusive household, and when my oldest sibling called the police from her friend’s home after running away at the age of 16 (the legal age at which one can emancipate oneself, and at which one can leave home and legally refuse to be escorted back by police), my father (a provincial constable) talked the police into taking her back home. When she called social services, they interviewed the entire family together and when they closed that door, we were condemned to an increase in the magnitude of the abuse we had already been suffering for so long. My parents deployed police to manipulate and control me until I left home, and this caused me to automatically distrust cops, even when I most needed them — when my life was unravelling at the hands of multiple rapists. So when I resisted phoning them until I felt absolutely terrified for my life? Well, what do you know. They started coming up with any excuse to avoid doing their jobs, and often threatened me with criminal charges to silence me when I had already been pushed to call them as my last resort out of sheer terror. Thus, the very possibility of being arrested, especially if I know I’ve done nothing wrong, makes me secretly shit myself (metaphorically speaking).
It’s been since 1973 that (non-criminal) sexualities other than heterosexuality were no longer considered a form of mental illness. It was four years prior that homosexuality was decriminalized in Canada, with some stipulations around the age of consent (that some would argue, are merely somewhat arbitrary attempts to police the sexualities of marginalized young adults). But many in the LGBTQ communities across the nation still remember that previous generations suffered regular and frequent raids by police, cops literally trying to gang-rape and beat the straight into lesbians and trans* people in particular, and detainment (in jail, prison, and mental institutions) simply for loving someone of the same sex or living as a gender deviant. As stated above, some in our communities are still suffering violent assaults by police. These transgressions have simply never effected straights, whose sexualities have never been criminalized either. It is not unreasonable for someone who is a reputed queer (like me), or who doesn’t “pass” for straight in their day to day live, to be defensive and anxious around cops, or find the idea of dealing with police at all to be extremely unsettling. As far as we’ve come, we’re still so close.
The Privileged Assumption of a Clean Record & No Prior Trouble
With all of these ways that relative privilege and oppression construct a dynamic between police and the policed — and this is really just a light dusting of the topic — it’s a miracle anyone other than able-bodied, cisgendered, straight white men have a clean record. And yet, even many of them don’t enjoy the freedom of never having a conflict with police from the wrong side of the law. We live in a society where having a criminal record can mean all the difference between living perpetually on the brink of homelessness, and being the chief of police with a wife and kids living in a middle-class suburb. Having a criminal record can also mean the difference between being thrown while handcuffed down a flight of cement stairs, and having a police officer drape your coat over your handcuffs to protect your dignity if you should ever be arrested. A prior history with police (especially a traumatic one, or a criminal record) isn’t something you can see, and those who don’t have this to deal with take it for granted, because those who do just don’t talk about it.
Isn’t it about time we stop making assumptions and start engaging with what it means to be “free” in this society? Innocent people shouldn’t have to live in fear of the people assigned to police them, but many of us do, and rightfully so.