There are good people wearing police uniforms and there are bad people wearing police uniforms. More to the point, however, people in police uniforms have willingly chosen to take a job in which they act, at best, as enforcers of laws passed by government officials — and often as agents of the whims of those officials. So it really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody that the proprietors of the Red and Black Cafe, an avowedly anarchist establishment in Portland, Oregon, asked Officer James Crooker to take his business elsewhere. If you don’t like governments, why would you want to serve people who willingly work for them?
That gut-level, ideological opposition to the role of police officers likely explains the seeming inability of cafe co-owner John Langley to articulate a clear reason he gave the officer the boot at the time of the incident. Crooker is a cop; in Langley’s mind, that was probably reason enough. Langley’s early lack of clarity has been seized upon and mocked by police supporters — generally in poorly spelled and badly reasoned comments that default to mantras about cops being the thin, blue line that stands between decent folk and howling barbarians, even as they threaten arson against the cafe, urge officers to take their time responding to incidents there, and call for the city to have a politicized look at the cafe’s compliance with all rules and regulations.
If you’re an ideological supporter of government power, it’s easy to fall back on unreasoning support for the state’s servants (and, ironically, validate objections to government power in the process).
Given time to ponder, Langley came up with clearer articulation of his concerns:
I don’t have anything against this particular officer and I don’t know anything about him…A police officer in uniform makes people feel unsafe because of previous experiences…
We’re gonna value the people that have been victims of police violence. Some of them have talked about having their belongings being taken away or sprayed with water. It is exacerbated by the situation in Portland right now. The response to the mental health crisis is shooting people and beating people to death.
The anarcho-entrepreneur didn’t pull his reasons out of thin air. Less than a month ago, after a series of police shotings and complaints about the official response, Portland Mayor Sam Adams booted the city’s police chief and took direct control of the police department. In a press conference, he said (PDF), “Despite the extraordinary efforts of the courageous few who wear the badge, the relationship between the citizens of Portland and their police officers is not what it needs to be. Too many Portlanders express concern about their own safety–not because of crime, but rather fear of their own police force.”
Less dramatically, police are clearly working these days less as a thin blue line against crime than as tax collectors who selectively enforce laws with an eye to maximizing revenue for the government. In 2008, the Detroit News found that Michigan police departments were stepping up traffic enforcement solely to increase the money they collected.
“When I first started in this job 30 years ago, police work was never about revenue enhancement,” Utica Police Chief Michael Reaves said. “But if you’re a chief now, you have to look at whether your department produces revenues. That’s just the reality nowadays.”
Officials elsewhere are equally open about their roadside revenue-enhancement efforts. It’s difficult to see a public safety aspect to the use of laws as means for mugging the public. If there’s a thin blue line, it leads directly to people’s wallets — and tags police as, too often, nothing more than agents of state power, for any purpose, good or bad.
Yes, police can do good deeds and often play a legitimate role in responding to crimes against people and property — maybe the critics will be right and John Langley will someday wish a cop were present to deal with a stick-up artist. But he and his colleagues have good reasons, ideological and practical, to object to the presence of a police officer in their place of business.
At least a few people agree with the Red and Black Cafe’s stance — business is reportedly way up since the incident.