Friday, February 20, 2009

Fear is Fifteen Cops With Hands on Their Guns

As I sit typing a post about some blooming witchhazel, I notice some shouts outside. My desk is by the window, our apartment building isn't insulated, so that outside noise is practically inside noise. I look out the window and I see about 7 police officers looking in my direction. Shouting, spraying mace, toward the landlord's driveway -right outside the window. I hear "put down the mace!" (I think) and then as more officers arrive, I hear "Put down the knife! Its all over!" They're screaming at the guy. I see him, can't tell his age, he's got a baseball cap on (maybe, its all happening so fast). He's just standing there in front of my landlord's pole-setting truck. They're continuing to spray mace. He seems to have a green leaf on his eye, maybe used to wipe the mace, maybe pulled from the english ivy on the neighbor's fence.

Reinforcements come in. Now there's at least 10 cops and one guy with a knife (maybe). Everyone's agitated. More cops are coming on to the scene. They're still yelling, "put it down, its over. Where's the tazer?" More spraying of mace. At this point their hands are resting on their guns. A blonde female officer arrives shouting to the man in the least calm manner, "calm down dude, its okay. Put the knife down, dude. Calm down!" Is she the negotiator?

I have two fears: I am going to play a part in a man getting shot to death by the police of the City of New York. I don't want to be a witness to this, yet I can't call the police! The police are Asian, Black, Hispanic, White, male and female. The man with the knife, a black man. I am aware of this despite my agitation. My second fear -in the rain of bullets my 1st floor apartment will be pierced and I will be hit. I leave my office area and go to the kitchen, 25 feet from the focus of the police. Over-reaction?

I put on shoes and head to the front door. By the time I get out to the stoop, the police are wrestling the man on the ground, trying to get him to give up the knife, I think. There are a lot of police now. A lot. I brought my camera because I feel I should somehow record what I am witnessing and at the same time as I sense the police don't want that. An officer (who happens to be my upstairs neighbor's son!) chases a man with a telephoto lens off my stoop, saying "Its private property, get off!" I feel how the agitation of the moment affects your memory, affects your perception. The camera resists that to some degree. How did this photographer know about this - a radio scanner?

Questions pour in. What if he dies? What has he done? Why are they chasing him? Why won't he drop the knife? Does he have a knife? A gun? He is surrounded, he doesn't have a chance. Is this a last stand? Is he mentally disabled? I have no answers, all I see is a sea of blue. I see the humanity in the police, the lack of clear structure, the rattled officers' attempt to keep procedure. "Where is the sergeant," I hear. It is chaos, but everyone knows who's side their on. It is a strategy of overwhelming force, really overwhelming. One man, 40 police. Most could do nothing but watch. Their discomfort, their agitation, they are on edge -those on the front line. So am I, just a witness, a bystander. To their credit, I never see a drawn gun.

I believe they tazer him. They carry him to the intersection. Cops laugh, those on the sidelines, complain of shit on shoes (welcome!). An officer is aggressive and told to calm down as they hold the revived man down on the hood of the police car. Finally the FDNY EMT arrives, then must have sedated the man, placed him on a stretcher, strapped him in, rolled him off to the ambulance.

What happened here? How did this happen in my front yard?

The second wave of police officers arrive at the scene. Notice the placement of some hands

The blonde officer arrives shouting, "calm down" and "dude"

I believe the yellow thing in the female officer's hand is a Taser

After tasering, the officers cuff him, relax a little

Now they carry him to the intersection

At the intersection they hold him on the hood of the car

You get a sense of how many police officers, detectives are present (no bystanders in this shot)

But now, sedated and strapped in a stretcher, only two cart him away.


  1. Oh my, you've left with an image for a very long time.

  2. Wow. Yes, why so many?

    I have been thinking for some time about the police, having just read a book by a police reservist in SA, who is also a fiction author and advocate (Andrew Brown).

    I am unnerved by many attitudes here which lead to calling police pigs (often by well heeled white boys)- I can't stand it, finding it a very spoiled reaction to a poorly understood and stupidly reviled job. And yet, the well publicized brutalities cannot be ignored.

    So I will haul out the book to find its most useful and succinct quote, with which I agree.

    And you did well to back off 25 feet. I don't think an over reaction!

    I might have lain flat :-)

  3. "The humblng thing about spending time with policemen and that even the worst among them, the ones who spend large portions of every day working the angles and pocketing what they find on people they search will, in the course of a typical year, do more good for people who are strangers to them than will the average research/writer throughout his life. Policemen, it transpires, do not have to be supermen to do good. All they have to do is show up for work."

    "The Dirty Work of Democracy", Anthony Altbeker. Quoted in Andrew Brown's "Street Blues" (Zebra, 2008).

  4. I definitely don't want to disparage police here. Mostly, I have little interaction with them, and often I understand their methods even if I do not like them. I just really thought, how did this transpire on my little block, with so much presence?

    I'm glad the man was apprehended without tragedy, but I also understand the institutional racism that leads to over-reaction to black men. I have no idea what this man did, but sure as hell were a lot of police out there for one guy without a gun. Of course, they probably didn't know much about him either. And I'm glad they kept their guns holstered and cooler heads prevailed. Sometimes it seems the uniform masks their humanity, often necessary to do the job, sometimes to detriment.

    I'm glad they show up for work.


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