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Cops out of uniform can’t stop being cops

April 12, 2018

Last night I was invited to speak at a church about the issue of immigration. A small group within the church meets weekly to discuss and hear from people working on a variety of social justice issues.

I spoke briefly about the history of US immigration policy from the founding of the US through the current Trump administration. In addition, I spoke briefly about what Cosecha GR is doing and how they are the real leaders of this issue in West Michigan, since Cosecha GR is immigrant led.

Lastly, I addressed the work of GR Rapid Response to ICE and the realities of state repression in West Michigan that targets immigrants.

The conversation was lively and people seemed to be very interested in the information shared as well as participating in the Rapid Response to ICE work and looking into what it would mean to be a sanctuary church.

Just before the end of the conversation, a white male, roughly 30 years of age, said he wanted to end the conversation on a positive note, specifically about police. At this point he revealed that he was a cop in the Wyoming Police Department. He then went on to say that the Wyoming PD did not ask immigrants what their status is and that the GRPD didn’t do the same. He said they try to get people to trust them and that they are only interested in arresting people who commit crimes. At one point, this police officer said that he understands that immigrants might be afraid of cops, because in their countries the police repression people, unlike here in the US.

The session was over at that point and people quietly left the building. I thought about what this cop had to say and decided to respond to his claims. There are several points to make, in unpacking what this police officer did and said.

First, I object to his point that he wanted to end the night on a positive note. While we were talking about the level of state violence against the immigrant community, we also discussed all the amazing things that immigrants contribute to this community, their courage and the fact that there is this powerful immigrant-led movement in West Michigan. In fact, most of what we talked about was positive and empowering.

Second, what the police was really saying is that he was uncomfortable with all the discussion about local law enforcement and how immigrants often end up in detention, because if they are processed into the Kent County Jail, the Sheriff’s Department lets ICE know that an immigrant was picked up. Kent County does this because they have a contract with ICE to inform them if immigrants are being held at the Kent County Jail.

In the police officer’s mind, when cops enforce the law, they are not doing harm to immigrants. However, the reality is that if someone is pulled over for a traffic violation or a tail light that is out, and they are undocumented, they won’t have a drivers license, since the undocumented community can’t get a drivers license. This may not be overt state repression, but it is state repression, since it results in people being separated from their families, put in detention and possibly deported to their country of origin.

Third, the cop made the claim that the Wyoming and GRPD do not ask people of their immigrant status, he was just flat out wrong. In fact, the City of Grand Rapids made it clear last November that the GRPD are excluded from a city police barring employees from asking people their immigrant status.

Fourth, when the police officer made the point about how he understood that people from other countries don’t trust cops, because there they repress people, but that isn’t the case in the US, he was essentially deny that police all across the US are not killing black people, engaged in surveillance of communities of color, arresting and incarcerating black and brown people. How can you say that cops don’t engage in state repression here, when the US has the largest prison population in the world.

Lastly, this police officer did what he was trained to do, which is to try to convince the public that cops are necessary for safety, that they protect and serve the general public. What this police officer was doing was engaging in Copspeak.

According to a new book entitled, Police: A Field Guide, “Copspeak is a language that limits our ability to understand police as anything other than essential, anything other than the guarantor of civilization and the last line of defense against what police call savagery.” The reality is that Copspeak is about pacification, not transformation. Even when they are out of uniform, cops can’t stop policing the rest of us.

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