By Alec Pruchnicki
The dramatic, and sometimes deadly, confrontations between civilians and the police reminded me that growing up in The Bronx we also had a set of rules of engagement when dealing with police. I came from a working-class area, Arthur Avenue. We had no particular love of the police, and they returned the feelings. But we did fear what they could do, and so over the years we developed these rules.
First, do not argue with the police. Any argument should occur in the courtroom and not on the sidewalk.
Second, do not threatened the police either physically or verbally. During anti-war demonstrations I was warned to never let them see you looking at their badges, because if they think you are doing it to file a complaint, they will arrest you on some charge or another to neutralize your accusation.
Third, if arrested do not physically resist. There is a corollary to this rule in that if you do physically resist, they will assume ever word out of your mouth is a trick to escape. I can’t breathe, I’m having chest pain, I’m having a seizure, I’m having a low blood sugar attack, the handcuffs are too tight, I have to pee. They won’t listen until you are under their complete control either with handcuffs or in a cell at the station house.
These rules are universal and don’t involve race or politics. All of us teenage trouble makers were white as were all the police. And when we hung out in a playground after hours drinking Colt 45 or smoking weed, we weren’t doing it as a political statement in the early 60s.
What was not universal, then or now, was the punishment for violating these unstated rules. If you were white, privilege or empathy by the police could result in them ignoring your transgression, or belting you with a night-stick, or a simple arrest. We see from current events that for minorities there can also be a free pass, or assault, or arrest, or death. Also, violating these rules doesn’t justify police brutality up to and including death. This is just how things are, not how they should be.
I thought these rules from my teenage years were somehow unique to my working-class neighborhood. But a few years ago, when Keith Wright was an Assemblyman from Central Harlem, he had a website which included a set of rules for surviving a police encounter. These rules were there, along with a few others (don’t say anything, get a lawyer, etc.).
From various talk shows I’ve heard parents of African-American children describe “The Talk”. This is when the parent must sit down and explain to their kids how to react to police. These brief descriptions in the media don’t make me an expert on raising minority, or any other, children. But the principles of being polite, don’t argue, don’t fight, etc. were frequently mentioned.
During the course of a heated demonstration, individuals will sometimes ignore these rules. Perhaps this is due to the justness of the cause, or perhaps it is lack of knowledge of these rules, or maybe just the feeling that these rules don’t apply to me, and the police will have to treat me in a manner that I believe is appropriate. Don’t bet your life on it.