Jarrod: A recent New York Times headline sums it up well: “Facing Protests Over Use of Force, Police Respond With More Force.” Even as America’s cult of cop worship implodes before our eyes, it is clear that many cops across the country have no interest in playing nice for the cameras. Rayshard Brooks was murdered in Atlanta by a cop who knew the eyes of the world were on American policing. The entire riot squad in Buffalo resigned, in solidarity with their comrades who brutalized a 75-year-old man and fractured his skull. They must have known this would be a widely-publicized political statement. Additionally, wanton brutality at protests across the country generates new footage on a near-daily basis, pushing more traditional liberals into the camp of wanting to defund and even abolish the police. Meanwhile, recent wildcat actions by cops, including sick-outs in Atlanta and a “blue flu” sick-out planned for New York on July 4th, indicate a revival of rank-and-file activism inside and outside police unions. In short, many cops in the US have no interest in winning hearts and minds. They want to flex their muscles against civilians, politicians, and whoever else might cross them. This is not the first time the US police have rebelled. Tell us about New York in the mid-1960s.
John: Let’s begin at the beginning. As hard as it is to imagine a time when cops did not have much power in the halls of government, that was the case in New York City until at least the middle of the 20th Century. The police commissioner was more or less the tyrant in charge and he seldom even had to answer to the mayor. The cops had had enough and the time was ripe for rebellion. At the end of 1965, John Lindsay was elected mayor of New York City, mostly on the basis of a promise that he would bring fresh air to the very stale city government. What I remember of the Wagner administrations, when I was a kid and teenager is absolutely nothing—it was like drab wallpaper. That view was, I think, widely held. Lindsay’s administration, headed up by a group of overly confident young upstarts, came in like a storm. The first battle they fought, which is separate from the story you want to talk about, was a strike in January of 1966 by the city’s transit workers. Led by the somewhat legendary Mike Quill (who was locked up during the strike), they defied Lindsay and endlessly mocked him. At the end of the day, they won almost unimaginable wage increases. Somewhat ironically, their victory may have emboldened the police union. Soon after the transit strike ended, Lindsay fulfilled a campaign promise to establish a Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) to investigate charges of police brutality. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), the cops’ union, went ballistic and promised that it would fight the Board by any means necessary. It soon found the necessary means in an alliance with the Conservative Party and, together, they garnered enough signatures to force a referendum in November of 1966. The vote was a bit upside down—if you wanted to preserve the Board, you had to vote no and vice versa. As it turned out, the vote defeated the Board and the police union was triumphant.
Jarrod: I’m glad you emphasized that police were hardly the autonomous political actors they are today. My generation only knows NYPD cops as being able to stand as equals with the mayor on the city stage. The mid-1960s were a watershed in that regard. It’s also worth emphasizing that the CCRB was a demand pushed by civil rights groups and other activists, including a lot of communists, who had been fighting against police violence and white supremacy for decades. Getting Lindsay to agree to a CCRB was in itself a victory for that movement. In planning their response, the rebellious cops were clearly paying attention to the 1966 transit strike. But they had been organizing against civilian review already for at least a few years. Through militant protests of their own, they had forced the City Council to table the issue in 1964, and Mayor Wagner was happy to kick the can to his successor. Simultaneously, they were also ready to test the limits of the legal status Wagner had given cop unions. City unions, and “benevolent associations” like the PBA, had existed for a long time, as pools for burial expenses and such, and also as backroom lobbyists. But until the 1950s, they were not legally recognized as unions, and therefore needed to line up behind a politician to negotiate with the City. Under Wagner, this changed. I would go as far as to say that the defeat of the CCRB was a coming-of-age for the cops as an autonomous power in New York City, in explicit response to the civil rights movement and post-war liberalism itself. Think about it: PBA president John Cassese was an ordinary patrolman, going toe-to-toe with Mayor Lindsay, Robert F. Kennedy, and Jacob K. Javitz, and saying some very incendiary things in defiance of these celebrity politicians. And he won! What do you attribute to this upset victory?
John: Let me begin with an aside. I don’t know if it was Cassese but I remember reading about one PBA official who recalled that, after a few years on the force, he was encouraged to take the Sergeants’ exam so that he could be promoted and earn a lot more money. After thinking about it, he decided that he would instead run for PBA delegate—as an alternative route to career advancement. Once on that road, you only have two choices—become a loyal supporter of the regime leadership or take a chance on the wild side by challenging it. Or do both and successfully set yourself as the new supreme leader—which is what Pat Lynch, who runs PBA today, has done.
As I recall the review board campaign, the liberal forces ostensibly fighting to preserve the board bent themselves into pretzels insisting that they were not anti-cop. They argued that there was no real need for an independent review process (because there were few instances of brutality) but that having a board would demonstrate that there was not much to really complain about and there were many misperceptions of how allegations of violence were handled. When they heard these kinds of lame arguments, the cops must have seen the writing on the wall and understood that their liberal antagonists were spineless. In retrospect, it’s clear that the defeat of the review board and then, two years later, the crushing of community control of schools by the teachers’ union (UFT) paved the way for an extraordinary consolidation of union strength in both cases. Soon enough, the good contracts would be put in writing. Perhaps worse still, the two events created a conducive environment for the consolidation of a new “white” community — bringing together religious and ethnic groups in the city (the Irish, the Italians, the Jews) that had previously viewed each other warily.
Jarrod: The white surpemacist component in both the CCRB fight and the 1968 community control disaster is undeniable. In studying this period I have found remarkable affinity between Northern police in liberal cities like New York, and the Southern police fighting on behalf of Jim Crow. NYPD had to ban “[George] Wallace for President” stickers from their cars. I even stumbled on the history of a short-lived proto-fascist organization called the Law Enforcement Group (LEG), which was a particularly belligerent expression of the general feeling of most white cops and their supporters. Surely the cops in the North and South faced common enemies, especially the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which moved the focus of its activism to the North in the mid-1960s. Moreover, the advent of the Black Panther Party drove the NYPD to demand leverage for more brutality, at the exact moment opposition to “police brutality” was becoming a mainstream issue. I talk about this in the article about LEG, and try to depict how at certain moments of great political decision, the police and the left get locked in this dynamic where they radicalize the hell out of each other. But in a more basic sense, the cops in New York who were fighting against the so-called Procedural Revolution of the Warren Court—which gave us the mythic Miranda rights and all the rest—found considerable common ground with cops in the South who were fighting against federal encroachment on their ability to run their towns and counties in the interest of upholding Jim Crow.
Beyond enforcing white supremacist order, which the were both most certainly out to do, a more basic common denominator here is the ability of the police to do their daily work as they see fit, even if that includes violence or the violation of civil rights. Autonomy at work is a desire that just about everyone can relate to, but in the case of the police (and prison guards), it assumes a demonic form. The reason for splitting hairs here is that while this enduring demand for police autonomy has roots in ideological white supremacy, it has also demonstrated versatility as departments like NYPD have become remarkably “diverse.” Thus you have the phenomenon of non-white cops upholding white supremacist order, but very likely carving out a niche for themselves in the process. I have tried to make sense of this same phenomenon in the Department of Correction, where a guards’ union with over a quarter century of black leadership has defined itself with the demand for unlimited violence against the mostly-black prisoners they guard. This is an issue deserving of more attention, and I don’t pretend to have it all figured out. Returning to the mid-1960s, it’s worth emphasizing that interplay between police and radical movements acted as an accelerant, radicalizing both sides. Thus the cops’ victory in 1966 set the table for the growth of a concrete political coalition in the city arrayed against the radical left and the racial liberals like Lindsay, under the banner of law and order.
John: The PBA victory in 1966 also paved the way for a mass exodus of white cops from the city to the suburbs and allowed the union that represented them to become a powerful interest group in suburban and New York State electoral politics. That power remains intact to the current moment. That move to the suburb also enabled the cops to become seen as the most reliable interpreters of “what’s really going on” in the city’s black and brown communities (meaning, more or less, that it was a jungle out there) and that they were the only thing standing between the dangerous city dwellers and the secure safety of white communities (inside and outside the city’s borders). Probably, most of the time, they didn’t go into the gory details—except among themselves. I have written elsewhere that I believe that cops know how much harm they have inflicted and are terrified that, if and when black kids get a chance for revenge, they will take advantage of it. That’s why they resort to calling for massive reinforcements whenever there’s an “incident.” I sometimes think that most cops in patrol cars spend most of their time just waiting for a radio call to rush to the scene.
Jarrod: That’s a great point John. That exodus is another thing we can thank Wagner for. In 1960 he helped eliminate the Lyons Law, which mandated police live in the city. It’s worth emphasizing Wagner’s role in all this because he was perhaps the New Deal scion — his father’s name adorns the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 — and more or less the deus otiosus of Joshua Freeman’s Working-Class New York. The period we are discussing saw the great rise of power for most if not all municipal workers, in keeping with Wagner’s “Little Wagner Act,” but by the 1970s this power had been redistributed mostly to the cops. Rebecca Hill has historicized this shift of power, demonstrating that the police have served not just to fill the gaps left by the dismantling of the welfare state, but have clamored to take the place of social services, receive higher pay than other City employees, and to ensure prisoners and policed people have no rights to protect them from the whims of cops and guards. Central to this analysis is the fact that police served as the enforcers of the Wall Street barons who took over the City, quite literally, during the 1974-1975 fiscal crisis, paving the way for New York City as we love to hate it today: run by the cops, on behalf of the FIRE sector, and fuck just about everybody else, especially if they aren’t white. Again, the fact that this shift was set against the backdrop of black and brown power is significant for understanding not just the history of police rebellion, but the terrain today, when the unfinished business of the 1960s is back in the streets. And as a result of this shift, the political role of the PBA, or perhaps more precisely, its rank-and-file, can scarcely be understated in NYC politics. How many City workers can openly disrespect a mayor as blatantly as so many police have dissed de Blasio — including the Sergeant’s Benevolent Association doxing his daughter! — and hold onto their job?
John: The only one who attempts to humiliate de Blasio with more impunity than the cops is Governor Cuomo.
Jarrod: Ha! It’s impressive how dedicated those men are to their grudge that they’ll keep it going even at a moment when class unity — theirs and ours — is so important. More so, I am interested in the traction NYPD gets with their July 4 blue flu in the middle of all this ruckus. First of all, as a comrade pointed out, this tells us more than anything that the cops have unlimited sick days, unlike most of us, on top of a whole lot of other fringe benefits. Second, this tactic was used during the 1960s police rebellion, as a means of flexing their muscle with the City in their fight against black and brown power, and against civilian encroachment on their turf. This was when police power was ascendant, driven by a militant rank-and-file, and these actions helped build it. Third, when they last attempted a sickout, to undercut the popularity of Black Lives Matter in December 2014, it backfired epicly. I think they really believed the city was going to turn into Mad Max. Instead, life went on more or less as usual, except a little bit better; reports of major crimes went down, as did the ubiquitous phenomenon of cops harassing and ticketing working-class people in black and brown neighborhoods. In the end, the City lost a lot of revenue from the bullshit tickets cops write all day, and that factor alone forced them to call it off.
John: The change in context matters a lot. My guess, for example, is that there are a lot of kids of cops who have been caught up in or affected by the massive protests and what they’ve seen of the cops’ actions. And by the way, I’d guess that this past month is the first time that lots of white folks have “seen” what cops do when they assault or murder individuals or when they attack protesters. Those images may well have an effect like the scenes of southern cops using dogs and water cannons on Civil Rights activists. These shifts may make the cops more hesitant or they may make them more enraged and more determined to fight back. I don’t think that they’re going to win this time the way they won in 1966. On the other hand, they may be able to prevent a win by their opponents. They’re hardly out for the count.
Jarrod: This is an important point: victory for the police is not coming nearly as easily as it has in the past. They are under attack from almost all sides, and reinforcements, if you’ll pardon my metaphor, have yet to arrive. Traditional methods have also seemed to backfire. A Georgia cop’s tearful lament over a delayed McMuffin failed to rally the “Blue Lives Matter” set, but provoked a good amount of well-earned ridicule, as did the completely fabricated NYPD claim of poisoned milkshakes at Shake Shack. More seriously, in Milton, Massachusetts a black teacher was filmed by one of her students stating the obvious fact that some police are in ideologically racist, and was quickly suspended by the school. An ordinary enough American story so far, but this time, the teachers’ union and many parents, including a lot of white folks, stood up for her and she was reinstated that same day! And growing up near this lovely little corner of the universe, let me tell you, it hasn’t always been a bastion of anti-racism. It really feels like the tide is turning. If you think about police ideology, the way cops understand themselves, it is a perennial siege mentality. Everyone is against them, even the elite white people they protect the most. Meanwhile the political establishment is using them as pawns, while just waiting for their first slip-up, to throw them under the bus. After all, while police serve the powerful, they never really earn their respect. (Accordingly, the police possess a perverse kind of class hatred they mostly vent on helpless middle-class student radicals, never the real big shots.) “Nobody is more sacrosanct,” William F. Buckley once told a packed house of cheering New York cops, “than the man who strikes a policeman. No man more guilty than the policeman who strikes a defensive blow.” I never thought I’d say this, but reality might finally be catching up with the wild imaginations of American cops!