It was somewhat disconcerting for my cousin, a cop in Washington, D.C., to attend my book event at Politics and Prose in March. Not really for me, since I knew he was coming. But when he walked in towards the end of my talk—in full vested, booted and armed cop gear—the atmosphere shifted, and I watched the (mostly black) audience, who’d been, to that point, watching me, watch him; all with the same question on their faces: “WTF is he doing here?”
I was tempted to speak on his presence, to assure everyone that he’s my fam. The implication being that since he’s my family, you don’t have to worry about him. He’s cool. (In hindsight, I probably should have.) But even now, I’m not sure how alleviating that would have been, because I don’t know if they would’ve believed me. Not that he was my cousin; but that they don’t have to worry. That he was cool. And, well, I’m not sure if I believed that either.
Of course, I want to believe that my cousin is one of the cops we don’t have to worry about. One of the cool cops. One of the good apples. And I feel the same way about my three other cousins in law enforcement. They’re my family. My people. My blood. I’ve shared chili dogs, sleeping bags, and summers in New Castle, Pa., with them. I was a groomsman in one’s wedding 11 years ago, standing seven feet away from him as he married another cop. I still remember attending another’s high school graduation party 27 years ago, and how sore my toes were at the end of the night from standing on them during all the group family pictures.
But I’m sure Amber Guyger has cousins who love her, too. I’m sure the officer who shot Atatiana Jefferson through her window and killed her has cherished memories of family reunions and wedding receptions, too. And I presume that each of them has family who’d consider them to be cool too. “Oh, I know she’s a cop. But she’s my cousin. She’s cool.”
Does it matter that the cops in my family are black, and is it true that this blackness makes them safer to the rest of us than white police officers are? I used to think so. I used to believe there were clear distinctions between black cops—and not just the ones in my family, but the ones I’ve hooped with, the ones who frequent the same coffee shops I do, the ones who work the door at Whole Foods and know my name—and the ones who are legitimate dangers to us.
And I still want to believe that.
But I’m actively endangering the lives of other black people when I ask them to be less skeptical, less cynical, and less guarded around cops; even the ones I happen to personally know and love. Because considering them to be good apples—and asking other people to share that consideration—requires a level of cognitive dissonance that asks that we (that I) consider one set of insignificant and insufficient data (I happen to know them) and ignore the rest. It is safer, it is smarter, it is right to be wary of all in uniform. To be suspicious of all in uniform. To consider all in uniform to be bad apples. This doesn’t mean that they’re bad people; just that, as long as they’re in uniform, as long as they possess the power and privilege to shoot and kill us, as long as Atatiana Jefferson and Botham Jean and Sandra Bland and Antown Rose and Mike Brown and Tamir Rice are dead, it doesn’t matter.