Is This a Community?

Protesters face police in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota.
Protesters face police in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. Photo: Joshua Lott/The Washington Post via Getty Images

During a Monday press conference the day before he resigned as Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, chief of police, Tim Gannon used the word “community” half a dozen times. He was trying to project a sense of shared investment between his officers and the people whose streets they patrol. He wanted to show that everyone was in this together after the killing of Daunte Wright. His officers seem to feel differently.

The term “community” is nebulous enough to fit many definitions, but Gannon’s usage suggests something specific. “I’ll make a short comment about what happened last night to our community, a community that I’ve been a part of for 27 years,” he said on Monday. “I’ve seen some of the worst damage to the city I’ve ever seen in those years. Again, peaceful protesting, expressing yourself. We fully support that, but the ravaging of our businesses, the looting of our stores, the destruction to our pharmacies, we cannot tolerate that.” The previous day, officer Kimberly Potter shot and killed 20-year-old Wright, a Black man, in what authorities said was an accident — she seems to have discharged her firearm unintentionally during a traffic stop, thinking it was her Taser. That night, hundreds of people gathered in protest, some pelting riot gear–clad police with projectiles, others looting stores in a local shopping center. Police have fired stun grenades and rubber bullets into crowds and blanketed them with chemical agents. Four days later, the protests go on.

“Community” as Gannon describes it means a particular geographic location — in this case, the city of Brooklyn Center — and an accompanying sense that living within its borders confers a sense of shared ownership: our stores, our pharmacies. It also suggests that mitigating harm against its members is a collective responsibility, enforced by an agreed-upon compact among stakeholders. Wright’s death is a source of shared pain because, at the end of the day — in Gannon’s telling — the ethos underpinning the relationship between the police and Brooklyn Center civilians is partnership.

This formulation is dubious. In reality, Gannon’s vision fails on its own terms because the police have deliberately telegraphed to Brooklyn Center residents that they don’t consider themselves part of the same community. None of the officers live in the city, opting against the very geographic proximity on which the whole notion is predicated. “As of this moment I don’t believe even one of our [49] officers live in Brooklyn Center; that’s something we are aware of,” said Brooklyn Center mayor Mike Elliott on Tuesday. “I do feel very strongly that you need officers to be from the community.” And the day after Wright took his last breath, footage of the Brooklyn Center police station showed a pole flying the United States flag out front, as is customary, and a black flag with a blue line running through it directly below. (The blue-line flag was removed later that afternoon at the mayor’s request.)

Taken together, these facts reveal how much a part of the community of Brooklyn Center police actually feel themselves to be: They live in a different place and fly their own flag that doubles as an unambiguous demand for submission from everyone else. The different iterations of the “thin blue line” banner were mainstreamed after protests against the killing of Mike Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. It rebukes the criticism implicit in the suggestion advanced by protesters that the police should not be able to kill whomever they want, whenever they want, without consequences. Instead, the flag calls for unquestioned obedience on the basis that officers form a “thin blue line” protecting civilization from savagery. Violence awaits transgressors. Dissent is intolerable. Murder is excused with a hand wave: “He should have obeyed.” None of this is extraordinary. Police departments nationwide are bastions of anti-democracy, as are the unions that protect their officers who kill or abuse civilians. (Potter, who resigned along with Gannon, was head of the Brooklyn Center police union.)

But if this is a community, then it is a curious sort marked by relationships that more closely resemble those between occupiers and subjects. This is not an uncommon dynamic between police departments and civilians, as testimony from places like Ferguson and Chicago’s segregated ghettoes, supported by Department of Justice investigators, can attest. But it does show the cynicism of police officials evoking “community” as a way to pacify people they have little interest in being in community with. It makes Gannon’s proclamations absurd even as aspiration. The clashes in Brooklyn Center are not a testament to the fracturing of community, but to active commitment by police to avoiding it.

Is This a Community?