It is difficult to talk about police without talking about politics. After all, they share the same first four letters and a total of five letters in common. And even if you manage to avoid politics, the talk will inevitably be political. And if using five-sixths of police seems somehow incomplete, switch political for polemical and you suddenly have morphed an even one hundred percent of the word into another, more accurate descriptor of the conversation.
For a variety of reasons, we find it difficult to discuss the police. Even harder to relate to them. We assume that their position of power and possession of weapons makes them somehow completely alien, a different species that manages to hold excessive force and a presumed dearth of intelligence and compassion in a rather humanoid shell. How can they look so similar to us but feel so much less and face so much more?
And yet, we refuse to regard firemen or soldiers similarly. Somehow their equally selfless and stoic service of the cowardly masses is easier to reconcile. Perhaps because they don’t hand out speeding tickets.
Of the many things that concern me deeply about my generation, our utter lack of gratitude is near the very top. This extends to everything from not recognizing our fortune for receiving so many things for free—speech, healthcare, lower projected incomes than our forefathers—to the way in which we are capable of taking synecdoches and demonizing the wholes these parts represent with sweeping ruthlessness. We use the freedom of speech to abuse that very freedom as well as the many who protect it.
I cannot begin to claim immunity to blink-reaction rage at some recent news-worthy trials. But this is not about politics. Or polemics.
I can claim that I’m willing to consider realities in light of the sweeping generalizations made by feel-good-angry crowds. We comfort ourselves in all of our unsureities by believing that things are black and white (pun intended(?)) because we have abandoned a longstanding source of understanding. Good and Evil are no longer things we read about in Books but things we decide on a case-by-case basis. Once the frothing masses have reached a flash consensus, it is bigotry to dissent and uncomfortable to consider the facts. Or admit that accidents happen. Because with no sense of Cosmic Organization, accidents are a fearsome topic. If there is no eternal justice, there is no justice, there is no peace. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind, but we’ve gotten awfully good at building bionic eyes of late. That leads to a certain lackadaisy. And when accidents happen, the survivors must find their own way to make peace with them.
One of our great follies is the presumption that we know anything, or that we can pass judgment from our couches, or anywhere else for that matter. But this has only recent history in common with the police. Let us consider the notion of a uniform.
In peacetime, shooting a man in plainclothes is murder. In wartime, shooting a man in the uniform of the enemy is called heroic. The lack of uniforms is one of the messiest aspects of the endless war in the Middle East.
At a fast food restaurant, uniforms reduce fellow humans to servile automatons, who are forced to respond “good” when we formulaically ask how they are in exchange for their feigned interest in us. They are likely far from “good,” for they are humans at work with limited upward mobility, but to admit as much would be to break the unwritten rules of the uniform. We do not want to be reminded that our servers are capable of being anything other than good.
The Men in Black?
So when we see men in blue (or black, or khaki, or any number of other police uniform colors), we see uniforms. Symbols of frustration at college parking tickets and high school party bustings, of an allegedly rampant assault on our justice and peace. While the severity of punishment for exceeding an arbitrary velocity or swilling Keystone Light and rum-and-Coke at too young an age are indeed up for debate, the fact that we are safe enough to complain about such things is not. And the idea that we are fundamentally at odds with The Police, a conspiratorial entity that has nobody’s best interest in mind is more infuriating than that 76 in a 70 ticket I got in rural Texas a few years ago. To say nothing of the dozens of beers and bottles of wine I had in my trunk during that traffic stop before my twenty first birthday. About which, the Trooper said nothing.
The Police are indeed people like us, who must work to make a living, who have long since conceded that universal truth, but who, unlike most of us, have decided that their job will be a valiant and thankless one. They are intrinsically hated for the acts of distant men in different uniforms from a different time and place. We don’t begrudge Whataburger employees for the acts of a rogue In-N-Out server a decade ago, but we do hold police officers up to this standard. We don’t even engage in faux pleasantries with them as we share a space, as they keep us safe. We giggle and cheer as we anthemically repeat N.W.A.’s seminal hit, Fuck Tha Police under our breath as we drive by them. The distant injustices of a few are worn as badges of honor by the many. I have no business identifying with men who came straight outta Compton to rap superstardom, but I do. Because it has a catchy beat. The sentiment was of a time and place, but we call it universal. Fuck tha police. A vapid incantation of a post-Rodney King, post-Compton generation that holds chips on its shoulder in an accidentally ironic sign of solidarity. Fuck tha police. Why? Motherfuck tha po-lice. It sounds so good when Dre says it.
Most things are of a time and place. Great artists strive to move beyond that barrier, to create The Universal, The Transcendent. Apparently cops can do it by simply responding to the call of duty. Perhaps I am in the wrong profession.
What’s in a uniform?
We use them to identify, to allow ourselves to approach the guy wandering the aisles at Home Depot without trepidation or to know that the men in the red coats are here to prevent us from obtaining Freedom. We use them to recognize teammates. They ensure uniformity in a sea of anonymous conformity. Amid countless, anonymously unique outfits, uniforms stand out. What felt oppressive in grade school is now a subject of much philosophical consideration and reverence.
Shit Triathletes Say
In my most recent triathlon, a half-Ironman in Palm Springs, California, many participants wore uniforms. Some were triathlon clubs, the Bakersfield Tri-Spokes or the Inland Inferno or the UCSB triathlon team (conspicuously, the only college team represented). Others were a bit more tongue-in-cheek, the ubiquitous “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner” crew and the guy in the tri onesie with the tuxedo pattern on it. One uniform caught my eye as we weaved our way through the arduous course of out-and-back bike rides and runs. LASD. I knew it was some sort of Department, but neither fire nor police start with S. It wasn’t until I started my run way faster than I should have that I got a close enough look at one of the tan and green tops to decipher the vaguely official acronym. Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. This in the days after protesters were lying prone and prostrate on the 101 Freeway in downtown LA, this just two weeks before two NYPD officers and one Florida cop were assassinated simply for wearing a uniform.
The man I caught up to was a triathlete. He was cruising comfortably, warming up to the 13.1 miles ahead of him. He was a sheriff by profession, but we’re all something by profession. As we neared the first aid station just over a mile into the run, we fell into stride and chatted a bit.
“So all of ya’ll are active duty sheriffs?”
“Yeah, man, there’s four of us out here racing. We have a nice little crew, we train together and race together whenever we get time off work.”
“Wow,” (At this point, one of his fellow LASD Triathlon Team members ran the other direction at an enthusiastic clip. He was a full six miles ahead of us.) “That’s a thankless job ya’ll do. Your buddy is killin’ it! (‘Was that a poor choice in figure of speech?’ I’d later wonder.) Thank you for your service.”
“You serious man? Wow. Thank you. I don’t hear that very often.”
I’d like to blame our pace and my thirst, but I was rendered speechless. I offered him a sweaty pat on the back as we tossed out paper cups of HEED (a supposedly more specialized version of Gatorade) in perfect unison.
“You planning on keeping this pace the whole time?” I asked by way of conversation. The nice thing about hobbies is that you have a lot of unspoken understanding with fellow hobbyists. And plenty of nuanced jargon.
“Yeah, I got injured earlier this year so I’m really just feeling it out, but I’ll definitely speed up in a minute. This is just a fun race for me.”
“Dang man, no need to make me feel bad!” He laughed. “Go for it, brother, I’ll see you at the beer garden.”
In this comfortable BS was a deep understanding. There always is. We both spend way too much of our lives on grueling bike rides, running right after those rides, driving to lap pools to make our strokes more efficient. We both live for achievement that exists independently of everything else. We both make sacrifices to participate in the sport we love. We both love a good feast and a nice beer after putting ourselves through 70.3 miles of voluntary torture. This guy is not a pressed uniform or a holstered pistol or a badge. He’s a fellow triathlete who has a job that’s a hell of a lot more dangerous than mine.
Some uniforms are made for specific tasks. Whether it’s flak jackets or logoed aprons, form follows function as often as the inverse. When a fireman dons his uniform to identify himself as uniquely qualified to run towards dangerous situations, he is augmenting his innate bravery with sixty seven pounds of protective gear. From a five-pound helmet to a twenty-seven pound air tank, all of this protection adds a certain gravity to the situation firemen and women face.
So as much as I revered the wicked-fast men of the LASD Triathlon Team, there was one participant in the HITS Palm Springs triathlon whose uniform stood above all the rest.
After swimming 1.2 miles and biking 56 more, one participant didn’t simply swap his bike cleats for running shoes. He pulled on his bunker pants, laced up his boots, swapped his bike helmet for a much less aero version, and pulled on a thick jacket. It was 85 degrees and sunny by the time he started the run. In addition to his sixty seven pounds of gear, this participant wore a metal plaque in memory of two friends and brothers in firefighting who were killed on the job.
I found myself lamenting my long, thick hair by mile four of the 13.1 mile run, greedily stuffing iced sponges into my millimeters-thin triathlon top and squeezing them out over my head. Somewhere along the way I passed this hero headed the other way and felt my perceived problems begin to shrink. As I went out for lap two, I thought about the sheriff I had spoken to on my first lap. Though he wasn’t racing in his uniform, he almost certainly had lost friends in the line of duty.
Nine miles into the run, as I reached my final turnaround point, I finally caught up to the fireman. He was walking through the aid station chugging water. It was clear that the weight of his uniform and the intense December heat were taking a toll on his body. Even in a sub-six-pound outfit, shoes included, the race was taking a toll on me.
I caught up to him and read the plaque as I walked and double-fisted water and HEED. In a way, I was positioned to sympathize with his current situation. He was six miles behind me, wearing sixty pounds more gear. That alone was hard to fathom. Then I pondered the depth of his motives. I have my own, but in that moment they shrank into the distance.
“Thank you, brother. You’re truly a hero. Thank you.”
“Oh man, thank you,” he offered instantly in return.
I looked up at him for a moment, debating slowing down and walking the rest of the race with him. The weight of everything I had done and everything he was doing suddenly weighed heavily on me. I’d like to blame the unbalanced endorphins pulsing through my body, but my eyes welled up with tears.
“I’m gonna start crying if I stay here with you, man. Stop it!”
“Thank you. Thank you, man, thank you. Run hard, man.”
I had to pull my sweat-stained sunglasses off my face as I took off from that aid station. We all have our reasons for doing what we do. But we also all do the same things. As I jogged down that penultimate straightaway, I couldn’t tell the sweat from the tears. This wasn’t about me. It never was, but in that moment I was able to relate a little more to some of the truest heroes this world has.
There’s a lot in a uniform, but sometimes we have to take them far out of context to recognize exactly what they mean. A soldier’s camouflage is not designed to help them blend in in an airport. Nor is a firefighter’s protective garb designed for arduous endurance sports. Some uniforms aren’t meant to be conspicuous, but they can’t help it. How different the fluorescent reflections and sterile tiles of airports are from the dusty, war-torn deserts they’re built for.