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The Uncivil Servant: The Crime of Dancing in the Street

Mitchell Abidor
January 10, 2015

by Mitchell Abidor

A COUPLE OF THOUGHTS about the NYPD’s actions over the past few weeks:

5363865Though they are quick to blame Mayor de Blasio for fostering an anti-police atmosphere that they say, on the basis of no facts, caused the killing of two officers, police never seem to look at their own conduct. Nothing is more foreign to a cop, not only in New York but, as we have lately seen, almost anywhere, than self-reflection.

A clip has been circulating that is in many ways as horrible as the filmed killing of Eric Garner. For an Ellen DeGeneres-inspired stunt, a self-described “prankster” named Alexander Bok started dancing on the street next to a police van. In response to this crime he was cursed, roughed up, and thrown on the ground, all of it caught on video. The sheer and utter arbitrariness of police power has seldom been more clearly demonstrated. Eric Garner was guilty of the crime of selling loose cigarettes, a ridiculous crime but one that is at least on the books. In Bok’s case, just because the cops objected to the dancing and thought Bok was an “asshole,” they decided the dancer should pay. And they know that nothing will happen to them. To paraphrase a line of McNulty’s on The Wire: Nothing is more like a dictator than a cop on the beat. People might fear dictators, but for the most part they hate them. That cops feel that they can toss a man around for doing a tap dance says all we need to know about how correct McNulty was. Who would ever have thought that Martha and the Vandella’s “Dancing in the Street” would be a revolutionary anthem?

Add to this their work action, which has virtually put an end to arrests, moving violations, and parking tickets since Christmas. There is nothing humorous about this: While they are hunkered down in their precincts with armed guards outside the doors (I thought cops carried guns, so why do they need to be protected by people with guns?), things could have gone terribly wrong on the streets of New York that they have not been protecting. It appears, though, that crime has gone down, which leads to an interesting conclusion. Just as crime went down despite the curtailing of stop-and-frisk, proving that unconstitutional strategy to be not a factor in the drop in crime, so does the police slowdown show that perhaps they are not the main factor at all. Maybe the real credit belongs to New Yorkers; maybe we have had enough of crime and that this has become a less dangerous city because we New Yorkers are less dangerous because we simply became fed up with the horrors of the 1980s and ’90s. Maybe it’s time to pat New Yorkers on the back, instead of the cops, for turning around our city.

Cops are unhappy? Too bad. When they were happy we had Abner Louima being sodomized in a police station and Amadou Diallo killed in his doorway. Given a choice, I think most people would prefer a city where the cops are unhappy and we’re safe and unhassled to a city where cops are happy and people die for the crime of walking while being black.

In their hurt and unreasoned anger, the police have embarrassed themselves and, as the mayor has said, shown disrespect for all of us. I look forward to passing a cop sometime soon and stopping and turning my back on him or her. What do you want to bet you’ll see the beating I receive on Youtube?

Mitchell Abidor is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his forthcoming translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His Anarchists Never Surrender, an anthology of anarchist writings by Victor Serge, is about to be published.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.