Theater of the absurd: Police detail at a protest of none

Theater of the absurd: Police detail at a protest of none

Since June 24th, approximately 1,200 gas workers for National Grid have been locked out of worksites throughout Massachusetts. They’re union, the United Steel Workers, was not able to reach an agreement with the company for a new contract, in which National Grid has tried to reduce retirement and health insurance benefits. Though the gas workers wanted to continue working as bargaining was underway, National Grid has locked them out, hiring contractors who lack experience and proper safety protocols.

In front of a National Grid location near me a few miles north of Boston, the police have had a perpetual presence since the lockout began. They are there at 3am and 3pm, whether there are no workers demonstrating or 2-3 protesters. During the day, there are four to five police outside the Grid building; and a few blocks away, there are two cops who wait by a new apartment complex at the end of my street, either taking a break or waiting for their detail to begin. Overnight at the Grid building, two cops hold fort. Like most police details, they watch traffic pass, chat with each other or stare down at their smartphones.

The futility of this police detail is remarkable. Not since late June have there been more than 7-8 demonstrators, who don’t show the slightest inclination towards public disorder, and even less towards violence or trying to break into the Grid office. Usually there are no protesters at all or 2-3, max. On the first day of the lockout, approximately 30 gas workers marched down the sidewalk, chanting and holding signs. Ever since, it’s been extremely quiet.

Walking or driving by the Grid building, I’ve usually observe the mundane – one or two protesters standing with signs or sitting under an awning and cops idling about. Occasionally, it’s been a little more interesting.

One time recently, I was walking on a bike path past the lockout workers’ small awning, under which a gas worker sat on a chair with two 24-packs of water at his side. He was talking to a group of five cops not far away.

“You see that dog over there?” a cop asks him.

He turns and looks towards the adjacent cemetery, “Neah…”

“Over there, behind the bushes.”

“Oh – yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah!”

“I’ve seen him over there for a while.”

The cops start calling the dog, whistling and so forth, and the gas worker joins in.

“He looks like a hot dog,” the Grid worker observes.

Another time, I was driving home at dusk. A car stopped, with emergency lights flashing, at the street’s edge, right in front of a group of four policemen, who were apparently preventing havoc from letting loose on a zero-protester night. A large, overweight brown-skinned man got out of his car, with a couple boxes in hand. The cop he walked towards momentarily put his hand cautiously over his gun. He soon realized that their dinner had been delivered.

Nearly two months after the lockdown began, with long-fizzled protests outside the National Grid building, police continue to guard the site. They look as useless as ever, like Monty Python guards at a forgotten, remote, medieval fort. But, it’s really not the cops’ fault – not this time. Municipal policy, catering to corporate residents and police unions’ longstanding demand for police details anywhere and everywhere are the real culprits. It’s compounded by the American public’s pervasive sense of fear that the outside world is dangerous, terrorists lurk everywhere, child molesters wait around every corner and crime poses an existential threat to neighborhoods. Perhaps, most worrying, is Americans’ knee-jerk disdain for protests, unless they wear pussy hats. Workers protesting slashed benefits and football stars kneeling during the national anthem have no room under the First Amendment. That is reserved for big moneyed ‘speech’.

As for me, perhaps I was a bank robber in my past life, or maybe I like public spaces devoid of monitoring, but I’m not too fond of police detail at the end of my street every day. I’d rather they return to the station, await a call for help, than unmeaningfully (in this case, at least) conduct surveillance on main street, and as they await their detail, at the end of my own street. The overtime salary from nearly two months of 24/7 police detail has cost the city taxpayer dearly – and all to monitor a protest of virtually none.

It’s really a theater of the absurd.

The Online Lynching of a Lynn, Mass. Coffeehouse

The Online Lynching of a Lynn, Mass. Coffeehouse

While a bit less vaunted in American public esteem than the military, the police forces are also held in the highest of regards. Though this may be contested among some in the minority community, and on the far left and the social libertarian right, the desire for security in a spuriously-perceived dangerous world elevates police to such a prominent status. Unlike the military, the contested status of the police has reached mainstream culture through Black Lives Matter protests in the recent years and some journalists’ questioning their legal untouchability.

Nevertheless, one recent instance in a Boston North suburb has been illustrative of the extreme adulation that mainstream American culture still displays towards cops.

The now defunct White Rose Coffeehouse in Lynn, Massachusetts had offered a space for the city’s poor, often minority youth, to engage with the arts, through offering open mics and featuring local artists’ works on the walls. In an economically-struggling community, the coffeehouse was an uplifting force. It also was frequented by artists and musicians from nearby communities, including several patrons from the more middle class and artsy, college city of Salem. However, the café’s fortunes would soon take a downward spiral.

Owner Kato Mele had recently decided to have her café engage in the national ‘Coffee With a Cop’ event, likely because she felt the important of bridging the community she served with the police. In response, her daughter and café manager ‘Sophie CK’ issued a Facebook post on the White Rose FB page in opposition to her mother’s decision, saying she would never allow the event to take place. Her reasoning was that, “at best” police collect “legal slaves” for the state and are “at worst, murderers.”  Before long, this post went viral.

In turn, the coffeehouse was attacked for being anti-police and the manager Kato Mele released a statement that she had fired her daughter and did not condone her Facebook post. Defenders of police deluged online reviews of White Rose with 1-star reviews, denigrating the café in every conceivable way. The post-controversy reviews by pro-police Internet trolls could hardly be more antithetical to the shining reviews of patrons prior to the controversy. For example, one reviewer writes, following Sophie CK’s post, “Absolutely the worse customer service I’ve had in the past years. Staff was rude and the coffee tasted strong of bleach. I will not be back.”

Yet most of these pro-police Internet warriors masked the real reason they disparaged the coffeehouse. Reviewer Adam Gold offered no such masking, “The owner’s daughter is a disgusting human being and is very anti police. She needs to be educated on the errors of her ways and learn that she has been baited to think that way.” In contrast, the Google ‘local guide’ Samantha Brand wrote in a review, over a month before the controversy,

“Great coffee, swift service, quiet jazzy atmosphere, and art for sale on the walls. During the day, it’s quiet and cozy, perfect for reading a good book with a hot cappuccino, at night there’s live intimate performances and spoken word poetry readings, great for have a [likely alcoholic] drink with friends or colleagues and enjoying some natural nightlife.”

Prior to the controversy, the latter review had been the mainstay.

Following her daughter’s post, Mele had written a letter of apology to the Lynn police department explaining that she had fired her daughter for her “hateful” and “biased” post. She invited Lynn police to come to her café and have a conversation with her, to help ease their mind that the establishment was not anti-police. There was no police response. In the coming days, Mele received several death threats and several media inquiries requesting interviews. The next week, death threats and other harassment had accumulated to the point where to escape them, Mele closed her coffeehouse.

The White Rose controversy is inundated with a vast array of contemporary issues, including viral social media posts, free speech, Internet behavior and the unprofessional nature of a public service sector, the police. Most striking, though, is the high status of the police on American society’s hierarchical totem pole. When they were lambasted on a private business’ Facebook page, some of those who ‘liked’ the page came to the police’s defense. The first couple FB responses offered civil criticism to her post; in this sense had it remained as such, it would have been an embrace of free speech and social discourse.

However, much the opposite occurred. Sophie CK and her mother were issued death threats and other harassment and the café was severely belittled by Internet warrior trolls. When the owner issued an apology to the community, it did little to cool the temper the police-worshipping Internet trolls. Additionally, Mele’s letter of apology and request for dialogue with the police fell on deaf ears; despite their duty as public employees to engage with community members upon request, whether the police personally liked them or their (and/or their daughters’) political views. Death threats and harassment continued to the point where the only remedy for Mele was to close the café. According to a friend of mine who is her acquaintance, Kato Mele recently sold her condo within a day after putting it on the market, changed her name and went into hiding. Thus, the briefly-contested pedestal on which police sit was restored and a community-minded coffee shop, which helped bring the arts to a poor, minority-majority community, was snuffed out of existence. And a woman who tried to bring the arts to a less fortunate community now lives like a witness to a mob hit.

The implications for the national community at large may indeed be more than the exalted, unassailable status of the police. It may suggest two other social phenomena: Poor, minority-majority communities should not have/do not need an arts space where creativity can be fostered. It also highlights the general military/police esteem structure, and a militarism deeply embedded in present-day American culture, that hold little regard for the arts.

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