When my grandfather died, we buried him on a smoggy hill overlooking Inglewood, California. The memorial service was in a chapel there, and I remember being surprised by how many people showed up. He’d been sick in a way that repelled human connection — alcoholic and agoraphobic, he spent most of his time growling from behind the closed door of his bedroom. Most of his mourners felt like a formality that had nothing to do with him.
This dynamic can probably be found at the remembrance for any difficult 89-year-old. But it got especially weird when the soldiers showed up.
I don’t know much about my grandfather’s time in the military other than that he drove a Jeep in France during the Second World War and never wanted to talk about it. I do know that I never saw him evince the slightest pride or affection toward either the United States or the armed forces, both institutions that, for all I know, he might’ve hated. That’s not to say he wouldn’t have appreciated the gesture — the decision, made by one zealous and jingoistic family member, to call in the favor to which every dead veteran is apparently entitled: a salute and send-off by other soldiers. It’s just to note that, while those soldiers were folding the American flag to tuck into my grandfather’s casket, it was extra clear to me that even the most hallowed ceremonies have no obligation to reflect the thing they’re supposed to be honoring — in this case, a man’s dedication to his country. This primes such ceremonies nicely for cynical misuse.
There’s a lot I saw this week that made me think of that memorial service. The ongoing resistance among cops to getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is often justified as a matter of privacy and intimate personal choice. But one of its main legacies will be the memorable images it has produced. They haven’t all been intentional: The NYPD officers who got filmed shoving a guy through the emergency exit of the 8th Street subway platform because he confronted them about not wearing masks, in defiance of city and department policy, wasn’t even about vaccines per se. But in the last few days, that video has come to symbolize a brewing fight between some New York cops and Mayor de Blasio over coronavirus precautions, which is heating up after the administration announced that all public employees had to get at least one vaccine dose by October 29.
Other examples have not only been deliberate, but purposely and even hysterically theatrical. At least 74 troopers with the Washington State Patrol lost their jobs this month because they didn’t comply with Governor Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate. Videos of officers crying into their smartphones about purported tyranny have become a common sight on social media.
The latest example was a demonstration carried out by a handful of these now-former troopers on the steps outside the Washington State Capitol. About ten of them got together on Tuesday for a ceremonial laying of empty hats and boots, which they arranged in neat rows and aimed accusingly at the building’s front door. The setup was meant to “represent those lost because of the statewide vaccine mandate,” according to a KATU News reporter who was there. It was a striking tableau, largely because it was meant to evoke death where nobody had died — a memorial to the “lost” who were not lost but rather had chosen to forfeit a job where beating and killing people in the name of public safety is an accepted norm, but risking mild side effects from synthetic antibodies is, apparently, a little much.
Police institutions in the U.S. are fixated on death in peculiar ways. This is clear in both the iconography around it and the pomp with which they commemorate it — the memorial funds to support the families of slain officers; the lovingly designed web pages that tally on-duty deaths; and those moving and militaristic funerals, which are supposed to give the impression that cops are soldiers at war. The ostensible reason for all this is also the message we’re given about why the police should be revered: Their job is to protect human life, something they have a unique appreciation for.
But in the last few years, Americans have gotten a front-row seat to how the police manipulate these symbols and ceremonies. In many cases, they invoke the mortal peril of their work to quell dissent and avoid accountability. Funeral services for slain officers become forums for protesting civic leaders who have the temerity to propose police reform. “That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall in the office of the mayor,” said Patrick Lynch, head of the Police Benevolent Association, after NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were killed in 2014. The mayor had nothing to do with these deaths — a random gunman snuck up behind and shot the officers — but his past criticism of the police was said to undermine and thus endanger them. Hundreds of cops turned their backs on de Blasio in symbolic protest when he spoke at the funeral for the murdered officers.
The real or imagined threat of getting killed at work is used to justify hair triggers. When an officer shoots someone to death under dubious circumstances, the familiar narrative they hide behind doubles as the basis for their exoneration. Police unions and their flacks in punditry and politics would have us believe that the world cops inhabit is apocalyptic — predators lurk behind every door, and every traffic stop is a potential bloodbath, so that anyone an officer kills, with few exceptions, could reasonably have been considered a lethal threat. This story swirls around every investigation into such killings, which usually find that the police acted reasonably. How could they not? Violent crime in Black communities especially is characterized as so endemic that a hail of gunfire is seen as a justifiable response to any furtive gesture or sudden movement that happens there.
It’s a dizzying pattern of mythmaking for a profession with a lower rate of on-the-job deaths than farming. In the last 20 years, six Washington State troopers are on record as having died in the line of duty. Half of those were from health issues. This year’s only fatality was from COVID.
So when a group of police puts together the type of memorial shrine usually reserved for the dead as a tribute to their lost jobs, which they only lost because they chose not to get vaccinated, we can regard the gesture as overly dramatic but also as part of a tradition. It’s amusing in the same way that any histrionics from a coddled and entitled person can be. It’s also a reminder that for too many the sanctity of death is conditional, and the tribute just a proxy for something they don’t like.