When a great city struggles for its soul, then strange things happen. Sept. 11th, 2001 was surreal. Watching the buildings fall. It is fitting that the effort by citizens to regain our balance, after five militaristic Republican mayoral terms - will be strange, too.
This is how strange. I shouted "Black Lives Matter" a few times in Grand Central Station and police rushed at me like I was a fiend. Before us were the names of the unarmed police-killed citizens, on placards on the floor. Later in the downstairs jail, I asked the police why the upset about a little protest. And why disrespect the dead. A thoughtful sergeant posed the question, "Where will it all end? You can't shut down the Grand Central the way you shut down the bridges and highways." There's the problem. They don't see the defense of my right to speak as their work. They won't admit that they will consider the lost lives and their families.
No - they consider me a leader of an opposing cult. They are territorial. They think of the Brooklyn Bridge as a famous symbol that they lost to a rival group, with an international audience watching. They see Grand Central that way. But, of course, we are not a rival religious group. We pay their salary. The police are bound to protect and serve us, and to enforce the laws of the land. as set forth in the United States Constitution. After 20 years of these Republican mayors, New York police never talk of the 1st Amendment as something that is tangible to them.
The police in our city have a notion of their 40,000 officer community that is cult-like, and they are quite unconscious about it. They are grandiose, afraid, disconnected, and easily led by demagogues. And they carry loaded guns. And yet, last night in The Tombs, I was engrossed with their conversations about the insensitivities of a liberal mayor, about their replays of the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. They are surprisingly caring when they don't think anyone is listening.
Strange: The NYPD work slowdown leaves the local jail almost empty. They have pulled back on their arrests by up to 94%. So I was sitting for the first time alone in my cell, instead of 40 men to a cell, usually so crowded that we use each others' shins for pillows. However, in the midst of their arrest slow-down - they find the time and resources to arrest me and a few prisoners charged with felonies.
Ironically, The Tombs are usually packed with poor people of color who are pulled in by the harassment laws, like open bottles on the stoop, or the repository of subjective police abuse: "Disorderly Conduct." That's one my charges, too.
The cops can be reached and changed. That must happen. It will come from black lives and white lives being unafraid to talk to them in public space. That was always how it was. We have to bravely go to them and change them - and that is a strange transfer, like wrestling with very old culture. Sojourner Truth did it, and Lucy Parsons, and Emma Goldman. They were abused by cops but they teach us how to change them.
When I was sitting in that empty cell for all that time, freezing on that bench, it was my jailer I had to think about. I would shout for some water. Most of the night my jailer was a black man who was as funny as Chris Rock. I would preach back at him and we both laughed a lot. But the conversation that we had that might have changed both us always started with our children.