Is My Father A Good Cop? Being The Black Son Of A Black Cop In The Black Lives Matter Movement
In this self-reflective piece, Josh Odam seeks to reconcile his work with Black Lives Matter and his experiences as the son of a New York City police officer.
James Baldwin once said, “to be Black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” In my experience, to be the Black son of a Black cop in the Black Lives Matter movement is to be a constant state of disgust.
Author's Note: The piece you are about to read is not an attempt to canonize myself or slander my father. It is not meant to excuse state-sanctioned violence nor argue against the anti-Black ideologies which have shaped contemporary methods of policing in the United States. My goal is to show you how messy and complicated and convoluted the work of liberation and transformative justice can be for some people. I do not seek your admiration. I do not seek your pity. I cannot guarantee you will like or agree with everything I say in this piece and frankly, that is none of my concern. The only thing I can promise you is that every word is honest. As ugly and problematic you may find it, it is unabashedly and unapologetically honest.
A few weeks ago, I saw a video on Tumblr which completely eviscerated the "but there are good cops too" argument.
Vlogger James Kirk compared police violence to sink systems. If the water coming out of your faucet is dirty, you wouldn't say "well, the water is clean most of the time so I'll be okay." No. You would go examine the pipes because something must be wrong with the filtration system for dirty water keeps getting through.
He goes on to say we are supposed to always trust the water coming through the pipes is safe to drink. The same should hold true for police officers. We are supposed to see law enforcement officials and trust them. Period. When citizens have legitimate reasons to be fearful and wary of the police, there is dirt getting through the filter and the system needs to be inspected and replaced.
I quickly sent the video to two of my boys so we could have a conversation about it. They've been half-interested in police accountability and the Black Lives Matter movement ever since I went to Ferguson last October for the Weekend of Resistance. They often ask me questions about my work and they range from the comical (Can you pick me up a pair of Black boots, size 12?) to the asinine (So did you get into any fights with cops?) to the downright ignorant (So why do Black lives matter more than other lives?)
I usually do a good job in not telling them to go fuck themselves when they say wild stuff. But this time, my boy Eddie struck a chord. We were on the phone a few weeks ago and he asked me a question.
'Do you think your father is a good cop?'
I said nothing. I just hung up the phone and ignored his calls for the remainder of the semester.
Truth be told, his question wasn't disrespectful but it was like one of those K.O. blows a boxer doesn't see coming. I wasn't ready for it and it knocked me on my ass.
Working in the Black Lives Matter movement has exposed me to a number of people who have been subjected to police violence in the form of wrongful arrest, unwarranted detainment, asset forfeiture, physical assault, sexual assault, and/or the death of a loved one. The thread connecting all these stories was a failure to hold transgressing officers accountable for their actions. After listening to the trauma and the pain, I felt (and still feel) I had no right to try and argue the existence of a good cop. I personally think it's a similar logic white people use when they tell me 'not all white people are racist' during conversations on white supremacy. It might be true but it's completely irrelevant to the point and does nothing to address the systemic violence taking place every day.
One of my colleagues referred me to this article on Copblock.com entitled 'There Are No Good Cops.' In the second paragraph, the author states:
"Don't email me about your best friend from high school who you swear is a good cop. He's not a good cop. Neither is the cop who lives down the street who has the fun July 4th party every year. Your cop uncle isn't a good cop either. They're all bad cops… If your cop friend has ever ticketed or arrested someone for a victimless crime he's a bad cop."
He continues on to advise readers to "shame your cop friends into getting real jobs and if you're unsuccessful, gradually cut them out of your life completely. We need potential police to know that becoming a cop could cost them friendships and their invitation to the family Christmas dinner."
I read this and thought my dad probably has a bunch of coworkers and friends who would not invite my Black militant ass over to their house of Christmas. If they did, they would probably do it solely on the strength of my father.
I also thought it would definitely be a lot easier to cut a cop out of your life completely when you're not the son of one.
James Baldwin once said, "to be Black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage." In my experience, to be the Black son of a Black cop in the Black Lives Matter movement is to be a constant state of disgust. I'm disgusted with the fact that there is an inherent anti-Blackness to policing in this country and my father is a part of that legacy of violence toward Black bodies. I can't ignore the fact that my father ran for Trustee with Patrick Lynch – the President of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association and the man who stated the blood of Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, the police officers killed in Bed-Stuy last December, was on Mayor de Blasio's hands for supporting the Eric Garner protests.
This is the same man that said New York City cops are in a 'wartime environment' and will act accordingly. My dad ran on this man's ticket and he only lost by a few dozen votes.
At the same time, I'm disgusted with myself for having such thoughts. I love my father. My father is a good man. He has integrity. He has a code of honor. He has never shot an unarmed person. He has never lied in front of jury. He has never tampered with or destroyed incriminating evidence. He is vocal about police misconduct. He has served on the force for a quarter-century advocating for folks in Brownsville and East New York who are in danger of being funneled into the prison industrial complex over minor infractions. As much as I would like to see home take off his badge for good, this is how he provides for me and my family.
My father is a cop but he is a Black cop. He is Black in a white supremacist state even if he has his badge and uniform on. His job has not, does not, and will never protect him from that.
Being in spaces where portions of your identity intersect can feel like you're being drawn and quartered. It has torn me apart on several occasions. It will drive you mad. Over the past eighteen months, I've be trying coming to terms with the fact that I wholeheartedly believe in the tenets of Black Lives Matter yet my father, cousins, uncles, and aunts are agents of the state.
Don't get this shit twisted though. I am fully aware of the structural inequities which keep Black and Brown communities overpoliced and allow transgressing officers to avoid accountability. I'm not going to say policing practices did not evolve from chattel slavery. I can't act as if this week, grand juries did not indict anyone for the deaths of Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice. I can't ride for Blue Lives Matter. These things have not changed.
My point is there is a hell of a lot of gray area in this movement. People are stationed at intersections of identity which you cannot possibly fathom. Those positionalities add more nuance to their worldviews which make questions such as 'is there such a thing as a good cop?' incredibly difficult to answer. Is there such a thing as a good cop? I don't know if I can answer that question. I don't know whether or not my father supports Black Lives Matter. But I do know he supports me.
Again, I don't know what you took from this but keep this in mind the next time you are skeptical when I tell you that I ride for all Black lives. It may very well be the case that I'm working as an informant for the NYPD. Maybe I'm going through a rebellious phase and using BLM just to spite my father. Or maybe, just maybe, I understand that these systems were not constructed with our survival in mind and - son of a cop or not - your liberation is tied up with mine.