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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 9/22/11

The Racial Scoop on NYPD Officers' Dirty Dancing

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My friend sent me this Huffington Post article link on facebook.  "Curious what you think of this," she writes.

The article's teaser is

For the uninitiated, the dance move you're about to see is called "daggering" (watch this Major Lazer video for a full introduction) and although we're pretty sure "daggering" may violate some NYPD standard of conduct, everyone in the crowd goes wild and loves it. So, whatever.

The video clip shows scantily dressed Black women who are taking part in New York's West Indian Day Parade grinding against several White on-duty NYPD officers who join in the fun by simulating intercourse. The women are laughing. So are the police officers. The crowd cheers them on.  Everyone's having a good time. "So, whatever," says the Huffington Post.

Other progressive commentary adopted a similarly flippant posture.  Here, for example, are the Young Turks:

For those of you who don't want to or are unable to watch the video, the Young Turks carefully distinguish the dirty dancing in this clip (shown for several minutes) from the "more serious" case when a police officer was caught having actual intercourse in public. Here's some of the commentary:

They're celebrating the West Indies. It's a neighborhood parade in New York. These are the beat cops that are on that beat, that are assigned to that parade that day. It's ridiculous. I mean they're having a good time.  It's fun. It's funny. What do you want out of your police officers? This looks like everyone is having fun. The people are not afraid of the cops. The cops are playing with the people. Everyone goes home.

"So, whatever...What do you want out of your police officers?"

Ummm, how about some professionalism? The police officers are on duty.  What they're doing is unprofessional and (I'm quite sure) in violation of their code of conduct. The fact that the women are clearly initiating the "dancing" is completely irrelevant to the fact that the behavior of the officers in duy is in violation of their professional standards. 

Apparently, this incident didn't end badly. But what it it did? What if someone's boyfriend took offense? What if a playful push was misinterpreted as aggression? There are too many things that can go wrong when people with guns start to play. I'm not referring to theoretical possibilities. I'm talking about events that have actually happened.  There is a reason police departments have rules of conduct and parades, with their large crowds and frequent consumption of alcohol, are times to be more careful and more professional, not less.

This is not, however, just about professionalism.  In terms of gender dynamics, one can hardly fail to notice that the women are, well, asking for the "daggering". This isn't a polite way of putting it, but then there's nothing polite about what they're doing and shaking. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I see women as sexually liberated beings who have the right to express themselves sexually in whatever way they want as long as it is either alone or with consenting adults, which the police officers clearly are.  On the other hand, I think they're targeting the police officers because I think they know police are supposed to be off limits.  I have no evidence of this, but my guess is that some of them might be trying to get the officers in trouble (turn-about is fair play) and no doubt are enjoying their own sexual appeal and power.  

But here's the thing: Just as there is internalized racism, so there is internalized sexism and sexual objectification. It's not clear to me to what degree these women are making informed choices about how to express their sexuality (which I support) and to what degree they are just internalizing the sexual objectification of our society (which I do not).

Consider as well the racialized dynamics. These are less obvious, but also very present. White men "keeping order and control" over Black women's bodies, while at the same time using those same bodies for their own sexual gratification has a long and painful history in this country.  Are the women and police officers in this video aware that they are playing out the slavery script? I'm guessing they don't, but that doesn't make watching the show any less painful.

There are other racialized dynamics too, most notably the stereotype of unbridled, hypersexual Black sexuality. And there's also a subtle double-standard in play.  If you're entirely comfortable with the dancing, try flipping the script: Imagine the police officers were Black and that the women were White women walking in an Oktoberfest parade?  Does that feel equally comfortable?

I hear that the NYPD is investigating what happened? I want to be clear that I'm not hoping for any punishment.  To the contrary, seeing these particular "beat cops" punished is the exact opposite of what I would like to see happen.  Instead, I'd like to see the NYPD Chief (and other police chiefs) work to create a culture of professionalism and sensitivity to gender and race dynamics. We're not looking for police officers to act like the Secret Service.  We want them to be fully human -- to smile and laugh, to joke and even physically (but not sexually) interact with the community. There's a way to do all of the above while remaining professional...and sexually and racially sensitive. That's what we want out of our police officers, and the NYPD could lead the way.

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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a teaching associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity and courses on restorative justice.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been studying and working with conflict, particularly via Restorative Circles (a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and associates) and other restorative responses to conflict. Together with Elaine Shpungin, he now supports schools, organizations, and workplaces in developing restorative strategies for engaging conflict, building conflict facilitation skills and evaluating the outcomes associated with restorative responses via Conflict 180.

In addition to conflict and restorative (more...)

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