A video out of Columbus, Ohio began circulating the internet recently, this one showed a white police officer punching a black male resident in the face, without warning, without provocation. As Twitter joined forces to identify the officer, disappointment set in once it was discovered that the officer was somewhat of a local celebrity.
Officer Anthony L. Johnson, the same officer seen striking the unarmed Columbus resident in the viral video, gained notoriety as the “dancing cop”, a self proclaimed peace officer who used urban dance moves and music to connect with inner city residents. As his dancing videos circulated news stations, Officer Johnson received public praise for his exemplary community policing, ultimately resulting in his invitation to Harvard University, where he participated in a Q&A on impactful policing with undergraduate public policy students. Officer Johnson went on to share his story with the world, using his bad boy gone good cop image to gain the trust of communities he’d otherwise have no access to. And all Officer Johnson had to do was do a little dance.
But dancing cops are still cops, are they not? Since when has a little rhythm righted centuries of wrongdoing? We could be talking about Black churchgoers in Mississippi or West African dignitaries in Ghana, but there’s just something about a rhythmic Caucasian hand clap that causes black people to lower their guard, no matter how many times it bites us in return. But it’s cops in particular whom we desperately want to take a more invested role in our reality, but why is that?
One theory is that humans are simply hardwired to seek out allies, and that natural inclination increases exponentially when a community of people perpetually exist in a targeted state, which we know Black people do. And so it’s said that we subconsciously search for individuals exhibiting some form of cultural commonality, operating under the assumption that someone who behaves like us will be less likely to act threatened by us. And that idea, in and of itself, is far from flawed.
But it is flawed when it assumes that because someone fancies various facets of a culture, that they, by default, also fancy its’ people. Particularly when that someone is part of a population of people notorious for putting on others people’s cultures like costumes. You can be familiar with a culture, even fancy the fun it affords you, all while hating the people who call that culture home. There is is a difference between cultural familiarity and cultural competence. Someone who is familiar with a culture can mimic its expressions, they can demonstrate dance moves and pop out lyrics to popular songs, but understanding how and why said expressions came to be symbolic of said culture is a level of connectedness that music and dance alone cannot forge. That requires actual emotional effort.
Is community policing even what we need? Where did the idea originate that the more familiar an officer was with his residents, the less likely he would be to do his job, or have we forgotten what an officers’ job is? The purpose of the police in this country is and has always been to enact and enforce the systemic subjugation of communities of color, or have we forgotten how the force got it’s start? To not stereotype Black men and women, to not over-police minority neighborhoods, to not carry a casual disregard for Black life, would almost be like not being an officer of the law at all, after all, we do know that that is what these men and women in uniform have been unified for?
The physical and mental oppression of Black people is forever sewn into the fabric of the fraternal order of police in this country, denial doesn’t change that, neither does the Nae Nae. The myth of the police as public servants is a re-encryption of history. No where in the history of police officers do we see these public civil servants bettering communities and doing so in collaboration with its’ residents. We don’t see that in the history of police on the east coast, who got their start as private business security, and we certainly don’t see that in the slave patrolling south.
Which is why the good cop vs bad cop narrative hurts us far more than it helps us. It dismisses the fact that whether good or bad individually, collectively under the umbrella of their institution, they are all one in the same. The expectation that the same trees used to torture our ancestors will eventually bear unbiased fruit traps us in a cycle of phantasm that puts the burden of our humanity on us. It makes Black people responsible for, once again, reaching across the aisle, and exchanging parts of our culture for pieces of our humanity. And haven’t Black people been on the chopping block, living in perpetual surrender long enough?
Before I pursued writing as a career, I worked in Human Resources where job eliminations were regularly a part of the routine. A job elimination occurs when a company terminates a person, position, unit or department for reasons including, but not limited to, performance, budget, closing, relocation, or any other organizational adjustment or change. Now individual eliminations are the most common occurrence, but occasionally, it occurs to management that it’s not just the individual causing more harm than good, it’s the entire entity.
Make no mistake, prior to uprooting an entire unit, a company will exhaust all hiring, training and restructuring options to ensure that the elimination is essential and undeniably necessary. But ultimately, the goal of Human Resources is to protect the best interests of the company and if any extension of the company impedes their ability to do so, that entity becomes expendable. So if we look at cities as companies and local police departments as units under their operation, how much more unproductive do these departments have to be in order for management to find them fundamentally flawed? What amount of adjustment on the part of the citizens counteracts a lack of adjustment on the part of the organization? How much dancing will that take to correct?
Far too much. And it wouldn’t matter anyway because artistic expression and cultural competence aren’t one in the same, does the name Justin Timberlake ring a bell? When we don’t know the difference between the two, we cheapen them both, allowing anyone capable of mimicking our art into our actual communal spaces, where cultural competence is a matter of collective mental wellness. It takes more than a convincing rendition of the hora to gain access to the Jewish community and its’ rich culture. It wouldn’t even be enough for a Jewish person to master these ceremonial dances, if they hadn’t also demonstrated a thorough knowledge of Jewish history and tradition through the designated channels.
We’ve got to stop selling ourselves short, stanning for every white guy who can wiggle. That is not what constitutes ally-ship and it’s us who need to make that clear. Dance moves don’t demonstrate a commitment to community nor do they roll over into cultural respect, have we forgotten that mimicking Black people was once a respected art form? Not to mention, the white rhythmic sacrifice, while eerily entertaining, serves no long term purpose. Officer Johnson is painful proof of that. So again I ask, how does a cop who can conga repair systemically racialized community policing? He doesn’t. Not while being a part of the problem.