Last week a group of comedians gathered at the Creek & the Cave, a comedy club in Long Island City, to voice their opinions and open up a dialogue about race, the police, and the recent non-indictments in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, NY. The show/event was called Black Lives Matter, after the hashtag (#BlackLivesMatter), which has become the rallying cry for the protests and demonstrations throughout the country.
Since I’m a retired NYC police officer and have been sharing my thoughts on these current events on social media daily, I was asked to be part of the panel. I have to admit that at first, I was honored and enthusiastic about the possibility of giving some true insight into how and why the police act and react the way they do. But then something funny happened on the ride over to the Creek & the Cave that cold, rainy December day: I started getting nervous…really nervous. It wasn’t the butterflies in my stomach that I usually get before I hit the stage. This was anxiety — the type of anxiety I used to feel way back when I was a cop in uniform in the Queens Task Force, a unit that specialized in dealing with large unruly crowds and civil unrest.
It dawned on me that I would probably be the lone law enforcement representative at this event, and that it was probably going to get rough. I even thought of turning my car around and going home. “Who needs this?” I asked myself. Before I retired, I often joked with my colleagues about the day when I could “live in a bubble,” unaffected by crime and the New York City Police Department. But here I was, driving myself to the den.
When I arrived at the Creek & the Cave, it felt different from my usual gigs. My friends and fellow comedians greeted me warmly but, this time, they had a different look in their eyes…like they were sharpening their knives, and I was the turkey they were going to carve!
We were asked to take our seats, and I grabbed a chair so far stage right that was completely out of the spotlight. Maybe I could go unnoticed. As the co-host and moderator, Ted Alexandro and Jeffrey Joseph, gave their introductions and opening thoughts, I fidgeted the way a prizefighter bobs back and forth in his corner before the opening bell sounds.
Then they opened the floor to the panel and asked them each to tell a story of an encounter that they’d had with law enforcement. One by one my fellow comedians told stories about being harassed, assaulted, and unlawfully detained by the police. Some cried. Some got angry.
I had come to this event prepared for a battle. I had rehearsed my thoughts and opinions so I would be sharp when I was attacked. I sat in the hot seat on the defensive. But as they were speaking, I began to really hear and visualize their stories. These weren’t thugs, drug dealers, robbers and rapist talking about police brutality. These were comedians and entertainers…funny and non-aggressive people with dreams, goals, and aspirations. I was truly moved. But before we would all join hands and sing “Kumbaya,” it was my turn to speak.
As I introduced myself to those who didn’t know me, and announced that I was a retired NYC police officer, the mood quickly changed. It was as though I could read their collective thought bubble, and it said, “Aw shit, it’s about to go down!”
To their credit, I was given the opportunity to share my thoughts and opinions, but once I was done and the floor was open to questions, it got a little rough. There was some yelling and a lot of talking over each other, but the moderators did a fantastic job of regaining control and reminding the audience that I was not a hostage; I was there by my own free will.
There was a lot of pain and frustration that night, but also a feeling of hope for progress. I had gone to the Creek & the Cave to educate the diehard liberals who don’t live in the real world…to humanize the cop who’s working the protest. Yet, while I tried to take a bullet for my brothers and sisters in blue, I came away with a sense of urgency that the police really need to reconnect with the neighborhoods they are sworn to protect and serve. Now.
Back in the day I worked many, many protests: From Al Sharpton, to the death of the Grand Ribbi. Each and every one of those demonstrations were stress-filled, and both mentally and physically draining. It’s a feeling I will never forget. But the people who are protesting are out there because they are hurt and angry. They are frustrated and are demanding a change.
Gatherings like this are vital to repairing broken relationships. This meeting at the Creek & the Cave was just a tiny step in the right direction, though. Police departments throughout this country need to open up a dialogue with underserved communities and really learn to listen.
By the way, as the meeting ended, we did end up joining hands in prayer (yes somebody actually held a “Pig’s” hand). It was a good feeling, and I think we should all do that more often.