by Catherine Tan

On the night of April 19th, I attended an event hosted by the Delta Sigma Theta sorority on campus in the Nite Spot of the Union. Finding out about the event called “Know Your Rights” from a friend in my own sorority, I did some research on the organization hosting the event and found that they were founded at Howard University and that they focus on working with the black community.

In a room full of about forty people, a few of the sisters presented a Powerpoint presentation about the relations between the police in general and the community, not limited to the Pittsburgh area. We were each handed a packet that explained in bullet points what to do if you’re stopped by the police. The sisters of Delta Sigma Theta encouraged us to follow the steps outlined in the packet so as to keep peace and respect between you and the officer during an interaction. The packet included information about knowing your rights and how to protect yourself from misconduct. There was also a glossary of terminology that appeared at the end of the packet that was helpful in understanding some of the language that would be used if one was stopped by the police.

A black, male Pittsburgh police officer was in attendance so that he could address concerns that the group had and answer questions. His presence played a key role in the effectiveness of the event. His unparalleled insight of being an African American male in the police force was extremely helpful in keeping the conversation about police to be less one-sided because he could clear up a lot of points of concern that people had. After his introduction, the sisters encouraged us to share positive and negative experiences that they have had in the past with police. Many people that shared their stories had negative experiences. Some of the people had been profiled and mistreated by police.

The police officer served to be a great, positive representative of the police. When the discussion was opened to the group about whether or not the police are bad, he stepped in to argue that we should not generalize the entire police population. He explained that the majority of police officers are good and that there are a few bad apples in any profession. He also proposed that we see from both sides of the movements Blue Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter because it is important to understand both and just as critical to not be pro one movement and against another.

As a group, we brainstormed how to create better perceptions and connections between the police and the communities. We came up with the need for more interaction between the two groups so that both could be humanized to each other. With more interactions with police officers that aren’t antagonizing or authoritative, there would be less tension and fear.

We also agreed that it would be ideal if police could live in the community that they work in so that they could foster relationships in the community and really get a feel of it so that there is a building of trust. There is so much power and potential in the interactions between police and the community across age, gender, race etc. Interactions can help to dismantle stereotypes.

In the graphic autobiography Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, the main character has interactions with other children that represented other factions of thought that were different than hers such as when she spoke to the children of fundamentalists or of war prisoners. Her perceptions of these groups were built off her parent’s ideas and the conversations she had with these children. In the same way that generalizations of any group of people are dangerous, generalizations of the police are unhealthy and can create a hostile environment.

A lot of negativity towards the police has to do with how they are presented in the media. In the media, they do not necessarily get to perform (be seen) in the light that they would want to be seen if the media only highlights police shortcomings or misconduct.

This form of performance reminded me of the women in Jenny Nordberg’s The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan that are negatively perceived because the covering up of their skin objectifies them while they are instead trying to be modest. The covering up of the women in this Afghani society creates hostility between the men who are perceived as savages and the women who are performing to gain respect. This double-edged sword of the performance of Afghani women covering themselves relates to the way that police work is portrayed in the media because both performances create animosity between groups of people.

I found it very interesting and beneficial to sharpening my understanding of the relations between police and communities and the importance of interactions of two groups that have tension between them. As an Asian-American white woman, I had not experienced the same encounters with police as some of the representatives who are black (African-American) had. This fact that I will not be able to fully understand their experiences without having experienced them myself, highlighted the importance of their ability to share their stories. The stories of their encounters were alarming and almost hard to believe but that is why they must be shared because negative interactions with the police can happen to ordinary people going about their daily lives.

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