(Photo credit to Erik Fitzpatrick/flickr.)
I went on a date with a cop once.
I didn’t know she was a cop when I asked her out. I mean, I didn’t really ask her out: I saw her on OkCupid, saw she had a username that referenced Discordianism, and wrote her a message to the affect of “you’re out of my league but maybe you’d like to coach me on your off-season?”
She replied that she was already at a cafe near my house and I should just come by — whereupon I was immediately reprimanded speeding to get there, reeking of weed, and making reference to illegal activity on my OkCupid profile. When I jokingly asked her if she was a cop, she regaled me with tales from her adolescence, writing her father’s police reports for him and developing a deep respect for “the service”.
I was horrified, ashamed. But at the time, my politics were woefully centered around my transness; I tried palliating my anxiety and disgust by saying that if I had at least one cop out there that thought relatively positive about me, then I would be safe(r) from police violence.
I hit a veritable daily double of dumbassery. For one, she didn’t like me that much. After inviting me over to her house a couple times to set up her entertainment center and eat cheese and wine party leftovers, she ended things because the person she had been actually interested in all along finally got out of their relationship.
And lo: the number of business cards of police supervisors, city employees, and local politicians I collect in the course of my organizing means nothing to the cops who catcall me, search my bag for condoms when I’m by myself at night, or just shove me in passing on the street.
I understand the hope some people might have that something like Starbucks’ “Coffee with a Cop” program could help prevent ostensibly avoidable tragedies. At the last City of Oakland public safety committee meeting, City Councilmen Abe Gullen announced that Starbucks would be partnering with National Black Law Enforcement Professionals to have the Oakland Police Department host “Coffee with a Cop” for two hours every three weeks.
There’s a kernel of good faith there, maybe — not from Starbucks or the police departments that sign up to this, but in the people who want a chance to speak with cops and speak to the needs of their neighborhoods.
Appealing to mutual self interest is how you build solidarity and confront divisive bigotry within working class communities.
Where it all goes tits up here is this requires people be able to approach and have community with one another as equals (or as people striving to be equals) — the police do not view non-police as equals.
And while this is easy to grasp at the personal level — as I write this, KilledByPolice.net claims 557 have been killed by police, WaPo puts the number of people killed by police gunfire at 447 — analysis frequently stops there, framing police violence as some systemic moral failing and not an instrument of class control and white supremacy. To understand the prerogative of police as a whole, and the utility of Coffee with a Cop as an act of class violence to legitimize further class violence, we need to take a look at a city slowly being murdered by its police apparatus.
Oakland is a city of about 400,00 people. We are amidst a massive housing crisis; thousands of homeless residents are forced to camp out underneath freeway overpasses, locked in a vicious cycle of the city using evictions and sidewalk cleanings to basically juggle them throughout the city; rising housing costs (influenced in part by an influx of tech startup money into SF) has created staggering displacement of Black families over the last 17 years; people without regular income are stuck living in unsafe, undermaintained industrial spaces; can’t forget rampant evictions by mega landlords.
Our sidewalks are overrun with illegal dumping. Public spaces are neglected. Freeway overpasses are overrun with vines (which is dope as hell but also maybe unsafe?). Many residents live in deteriorating housing owned by landlords who’d rather just flip the properties.
The cause of this blight and disrepair isn’t a mystery. It’s not as if Oakland had all of its money tied up fabric softener, napkins, diamonds, or whatever bullshit nonessential commodity our generation is devaluing at the moment.
The money to develop low or no income housing, revitalize public arts programs, or open a public bank, is there. It’s just being sucked up by the Oakland Police.
On the left is a chart of the number of Oakland city employees; on the right reflects the pay of Oakland employees vs literally the rest of the City’s payroll.
Oakland Police Officers make six figures. With overtime and “other pay”, many officers took home between $300-400,000 in 2016. In at least 10 cases, the overtime pay accrued exceeded the officer’s base salary. For many other officers, it was about equal to their base pay.
Now, to be fair, Oakland PD’s plate does get pretty full. Because they’re the most reliably funded government department, they absorb other department’s operations — parking enforcement, welfare checks, animal control, mental health crises — anything that could be done by civilians with training, discretion and communal ties are given to the cops instead.
Feelings about cops aside, we could maybe agree that as inappropriate it is for someone armed with barely any mental health of de-escalation training to be dealing with people suffering from mental health crises, addiction, or the trauma that results in crushing long term poverty, it’s good that they’re out there, working with their community, learning people’s names and shit.
Except only about 8% of Oakland Police officers live in Oakland. Lunches and the odd “going to see Cars 3 with the boys after work” aside, the vast majority of these salaries (including those hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime) are leaving the city’s economy entirely. They’re not going into local businesses. They’re not supporting public programs or amenities. The city’s economy and culture are being exsanguinated by our police department.
I harp on the overtime; it’s something that activists and local politicians alike agree, irregardless of our opposing stances on the legitimacy of police, agree needs to be curbed. The police sternly push back on this, saying they can’t anticipate when and how much overtime it will take to do all the jobs the police have taken from other city departments.
(And posing undercover at demonstrations against police brutality to instigate violence. And showing up to the city council meetings of other cities to bully them from withdrawing from Operation Urban Shield, another pyramid scheme tying up our community’s resources in militarized policing.)
The police have too much to do and not enough people to do them. That’s why they want a new police academy. And more officers. And a 6% budget increase annually. Civilianizing tasks that don’t require a gun and the training to kill someone with a chokehold isn’t an option. Diverting money into violence prevent programs isn’t an option. The only option is more, more, more.
When you have police who aren’t based in your community, the degradation and blight of our community is just billable hours.
This isn’t something you can reconcile with having “coffee with a cop”. Such a meeting isn’t some “get to know you date”. It’s not breaking bread. It’s not a meeting of the minds.
It’s the murky, cloudy swill the detective gives you in your interrogation. It’s the tube of fruit punch you get at the county jail. It’s the “loaf” they feed you through the slot of your hole. It’s another course of the same meal.
You can’t overcome the systemic anti-poor, anti-Black, anti-immigrant, anti-women prerogatives of policing over a cup of coffee. No matter how intimate of a mutual understanding you think you’ve come to on the topic of providing Black youth programs and resources as a deterrent from violent crime, when you’ve finished your strawberry and creme frappuccino, they still have the gun and the six figure salary and the lack of communal accountability for their actions. Only now, they know who you are and what you care about and what you’re afraid of. You don’t get a human trafficking conspiracy in our police department because one guy of his own volition googled “How to coerce girl for sex when police” and shared it with his friends.
The fact that the cops who partake in this kangaroo court in camera get to put this down as overtime pay is just icing on the lemon pound cake for Stan? Steen? Staind???
Equality isn’t an attitude, it’s a social context, and you can’t address issues of inequality in a venue of the aggressor’s choosing (like, say, a global coffee chain that is repeatedly targeted by protesters in demonstrations that would benefit from a more direct, collaborative relationship with the police).
The cop having coffee with you is, at all times, on guard duty, protecting the institutions of capital from you.
They aren’t workers, even if they call it a “medium” instead of a grande. Or say their favorite MarioKart character is the Koopa Troopa.
Author: Jetta Rae
Founder of Fry Havoc. Can be found on twitter at @jetta_rae