At a press conference Tuesday, Mike O’Meara, the president of the New York Police Benevolent Association, offered an angry plea to anyone who would listen. “Our legislators are failing us. Our press is vilifying us,” he said, calling for empathy for the police. “Stop treating us like animals and thugs and start treating us with some respect. That’s what we’re here today to say. We’ve been vilified. It’s disgusting.
“I am not Derek Chauvin,” O’Meara said, referring to the officer who put his knee on George Floyd’s neck. “He killed someone. We didn’t.” Three times in his speech, O’Meara asked reporters to look at the numbers: Out of the 375 million interactions with the public every year, he said, he couldn’t understand why there isn’t more focus on the ones that didn’t end in violence.
What can I say, Mike O’Meara? I relate. I bet tens of thousands of protesters do, too. I’m a Muslim American man who turned 11 just before 9/11, around the age when many people—and especially the police, in my experience—began to see me not as a child but as a threat. I haven’t planned any terrorist attacks. But I learned early that it doesn’t really matter what I, or any black or brown person, has done as an individual. It’s about how other people see us as a group. We were all taught this through our experiences with authority figures who allowed their impressions of us—from the media, from politicians—to form their opinions of who we are.
“We’ve been left out of the conversation,” O’Meara complained Tuesday. Yes, exactly. Muslims have been saying this for years. Nightly news conversations about Islam and violence rarely ever include Muslim voices. Yet those discussions in many cases influence policy. Fourteen states have adopted anti-Sharia law bills, even though not a single Sharia court exists in this country. In a speech widely panned by Republicans, freshman Congresswoman Ilhan Omar pointed to the pain many Muslim Americans feel for being constantly falsely associated with terrorists. We know this feeling.
And, well, I don’t need to tell you that people compare Muslims to animals.
Before the NYPD formed a unit to surveil Americans who were Muslim, deploying spies to watch us eat, watch us pray, and even watch us study, did the police not wonder how this would villainize the entire community? The program yielded zero leads and wasted police resources that could have been used to chase real threats. Still, the city bragged about it. And our communities still question whether unfamiliar faces are undercover cops.
During that time, I was arrested for climbing to the top of a New York City bridge to write a story about the landscape photographers who trespass to capture impossible vantage points. I had no criminal record, but detectives questioned me about terrorism, where I prayed, and if I was willing to give them any information about any upcoming attacks. I had no such information to give. I wanted so badly for the detectives to see me how I saw myself, a young journalist who got carried away. But they looked at me and saw something else.
Watching O’Meara’s rant, I felt a kind of relief. Maybe some law enforcement leaders do understand what this is like, or at least they think they do. The Minneapolis City Council is considering ways to reform the police to prevent another killing like George Floyd’s before they happen, and Democratic lawmakers are beginning to suggest their reforms as well. O’Meara accused those legislators of unfairly targeting law enforcement, saying that the majority of cops are good cops and therefore are being collectively punished for the actions of a few. This is not true for a lot of reasons. But maybe the misplaced rage at the protests many police officers clearly feel right now can help them understand what they’ve been doing to communities like mine for decades.
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