A strange new type of story has started popping up in social media feeds and Web headlines lately, in between news of (yet more) unarmed black people being brutalized or shot dead by police. It’s the flip side of the #blacklivesmatter movement: “feel-good” stories of white cops hugging and doing good deeds for black women and children.
The recent examples seem endless: An Alabama cop, instead of arresting a poor black woman who stole three eggs to feed her grandchildren who hadn’t eaten in a few days, purchased a dozen eggs for her. But he’s not the only knight in shining Kevlar.
In Louisville, Ky., a cop helped a once 500-pound black woman finish a marathon. In Sumpter, Wisc., an officer put Santa Claus to shame, purchasing a bed, a TV and a Wii for a poor 13-year-old black boy. In Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., one white cop went above and beyond the call of duty and “helped a teary teenage black girl with her school problem,” which was that she didn’t want to go to school because she had to wear the same clothes every day. So he took her shopping at Target.
In Philadelphia, officers provided a ride to school for two young black sisters. Unconcerned that their mother was angry about the police picking her daughters up after they missed their bus, Philadelphia Police Captain Louis Campione made clear they knew what was best for the girls: “The intent was to protect those children. To get them in school. To get them educated and to make their day less stressful than it was.”
In Facebook posts and glowing local media reports, cops who escort black and Latino youth daily from school to prisons, who stop and frisk these same kids walking to school, who arrest kids as young as 5 for having a tantrum at school, who pull a gun on kids to stop a snowball fight or blow a 7-year-old’s brains out while sleeping at home are rebranded as heroes. Thanks to power and privilege, tax-paid civil servants engaged in atrocious acts of violence can be transformed into benevolent saviors.
These stories almost always involve young children or women, never fully-grown black men — the very people who are disproportionately killed by cops over and over again. Filling the void of “absentee fathers,” the police are becoming, in these supposedly feel-good stories, the breadwinners, protectors and sources of stability within the lives of black women and children. But the narrative erases the role the police played in causing so many of those absences, and the celebration of cops as saviors tells us a lot about the audaciously sneaky and sometimes seductive nature of racism.
And every day, white America — with its insatiable desire to believe that we are a post-racial society — is eating up these feel-good stories. What started as a local news story about a cop saving a cat from a tree goes viral nationwide, and it tells people that their heroic police really are the good guys who protect and serve, and who don’t arrest, beat or shoot black people in disproportionate numbers. It is reassuring because it redirects attention from protests, police violence and the disconcerting reminders that racism still plagues the nation. Don’t pay attention to that cop in Cleveland who jumped onto the hood of that car, pumped bullets into the windshield and killed two unarmed citizens. Don’t believe the activists; don’t listen to those demanding justice and highlighting racism. Just focus on the positive. Ignore all that noise demanding changes, because the police have it handled. (And never mind those New York cops who taunted protesters with “I CAN BREATHE” T-shirts, or those cops who wore “I AM DARREN WILSON” bracelets.)
That distraction isn’t by accident. In Chicago, police organized a “Daddy-Daughter Dance.” While many celebrated their kindness, the police themselves made clear that there was another agenda. According to Cmdr. Larry Watson, these activities are about changing the public perception of police: “They actually get to see us to find out that the police are nothing but people. We just happen to have uniforms on.”
But these girls’ dads are not just mysteriously gone: Many of them might be among the 1.5 million black men missing from everyday life as a result of early deaths, discrimination and the war on drugs. The dance is supposed to distract us from the fact that the violence that ravages parts of Chicago is the result of excessive policing, hyper-segregation, unemployment and mass school closures. This is America’s policing within black and Latino communities: daily harassment, profiling, terror — and a good deed later. The message is plain: “I locked your daddy up, maybe even beat and shot him, but take my hand and dance with me, little Keisha.”
Like rhetoric about the dangers of policing, the stories of good-deed-doing police contribute to the false mythology of hero cops. “Together, this creates a sense of invincibility and righteousness among the police that is used to justify even outrageous behavior while simultaneously creating the perception among the public that the police are untouchable,” writes David Feige at Slate. “And it is that very sense of powerlessness in the face of police misconduct that has fueled the anger that fed the fires in Ferguson and ultimately led to the burning of Baltimore.”
Just as the military always floods the airwaves with images of soldiers handing out toys or food to desperate kids suffering in the throes of war, these stories play on the desires of white America to see the police as sources of stability. But the idea that American police genuinely believe that #BlackLivesMatter obfuscates the genocidal potential of white supremacy.
Some people celebrate these benevolent gestures as the essence of community-based policing. Discussing this approach in Camden, N.J., Chief Scott Thomson notes, “By having officers out of their squad cars and walking their beats and riding bicycles, there is an enhanced level of human interaction between the officer and the residents. The by-product of that is enhanced relationships, and it sets legitimacy and trust.” But a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that the vast majority of black people don’t trust the police and believe that their communities are not treated fairly by the police or in the courts. The whole reason the police need to showcase their good deeds is because of how little trust they’ve earned in communities of color.
The deaths and brutality, the militarized occupation of black and Latino communities aren’t changed by officers reading “Good Night Moon” to children. Sure, such programs could address distrust and tensions, but something else would have a much more significant impact: ending daily harassment, thwarting violence and creating a culture of accountability.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement and those demanding racial justice are not asking for groceries, hugs and other kinds of paternalistic acts. It is demanding that the epidemic of police violence stop. Doling out candy and taking kids to a dance is not justice. None of this will solve systemic issues — broken windows, municipal fundraising, the school-to-prison pipeline, racial profiling, mass incarceration and police brutality. Fixing flat tires and handing out ice cream does not address the longstanding structural inequalities that persist in cities like Baltimore, Ferguson and Cleveland.
These feel-good stories are a tool of mass distraction. They tell us to look away from all those dead bodies and non-indictments. Instead, let’s have a collective “Ahh” moment; we can cry those happy tears instead of accounting for the sadness and rage resulting from the murders of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and, and, and . . .
So don’t believe the hype. The police are not your friend. Books and dances or no books and dances, the baton, handcuffs and the gun remain their primary tool of interaction — particularly within communities of color.