Gotham’s thin blue wall is fracturing from all sides. In recent months, New York City has been rocked first by protests over police brutality, then by harsh tensions in the wake of two police slayings, and now an apparent unofficial “job action” by the police. Despite denial from union brass, there has been a steep drop in police activity, summonses down roughly 90 percent and more serious arrests declining by over 50 percent, compared to the previous year.
If this is indeed a coordinated rulebook labor action, it may prove oddly popular with the public: as long as their everyday lives aren’t too disrupted, some people may feel relieved by fewer encounters with law enforcement and “quality of life” penalties (though if we aren’t missing their presence, the defiant cops may fail to make us value them more by withholding their labor). And the inflammatory speechifying of Pat Lynch, head of the NYPD’s largest union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), hasn’t quite charmed the masses into rallying around the cops.
Whether the police slowdown marks an organized insurgency or just individual expressions of frustration, the “depolicing” phenomenon raises tricky questions about the role of the police in society and in the labor movement.
Cops are workers. They’re employed to do a job, albeit one that sometimes involves racially profiling or shooting our neighbors, or squandering our tax dollars on paramilitary swag. It’s difficult to argue against police unionization in theory, if you adhere to the principle that everyone who works has a right to organize.
But what to make of a union of workers who have historically been charged with breaking strikes and protecting the property of corporations? As pivotal cogs in the machine, cops may suffer from poor working conditions or job insecurity. But when they’re arbitrarily arresting kids or tear-gassing protesters, they are complicit, and instrumental, in a system that’s in many ways inherently corrupt and anti-democratic. The boys in blue, as historian Sam Mitrani puts it, have throughout the modern era been designed to “use violence to deal with the social problems that accompanied the development of a wage-labor economy.”
Policing in practice is politically complex; public opinion remains ambivalent on the overall value of police, often depending on your background. In a segregated urban landscape, views of the cops may be colored by whether your community is white and affluent, or a “high-crime,” “broken windows” area patrolled by cops from Long Island. And individual police can’t be seen as the principal actors of a hegemonic social order they enforce. Our militarized “civilian” police force can’t be “reformed” until we move toward a society that ultimately demands less (and is hence less dependent on) policing.