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New York City Cops – and a Reflection on the Self

New York based indie rock band The Strokes first released their platinum-selling album Is This It in the UK and Australia on July 30, 2001. Track nine on this pressing was the song “New York City Cops,” the chorus of which repeats, “New York City Cops, New York City Cops… They ain’t too smart.”[1] The record was finally released in the United States on September 25, 2001, but track nine was pulled from the pressing and replaced with another tune, “When It Started.” This action was in direct response to the terrorist attacks in New York City that had occurred earlier that month, as the band did not wish to show any disrespect towards the city’s police force at that time.[2][3] This example demonstrates how public opinions towards police officers can change and shift with time. Temporary Distortion’s Newyorkland interrogates those opinions by focusing specifically on four NYPD officers, using film, soundscape, and live performance to portray how the job has impacted their lives and who they have become. Though the work is highly illuminating about the way police officers may feel about their profession and about themselves, one of the things it does most effectively is stage, for each audience member, a confrontation with his or her presumptions and expectations in relation to police.

The first tool the play engages to do this is its scenery. Onstage is a rectangular space composed of three cubicle-like boxes and a large projection screen behind them. The boxes include elements such as plexi-glass windows, an illuminated Exit sign, several microphones on stands, an American flag on the wall, and many cables and wires snaking in and around them. Though the physical structures remain the same, as the officers stand or sit in the boxes and lighting or sound shifts around them, the spaces can evoke many different images. I thought of the plexi-glass cubicles through which inmates greet visitors in some prisons, a radio DJ’s booth, a witness stand in a courtroom, an office desk, and an indoor shooting range.  Helping to support the last conjured image, in between two of the boxes is a life-sized black and white cartoon of someone aiming a gun, which is very similar to a shooting target but also evokes the aesthetic of video game or comic book graphics. As the play went on, a box could also suggest the inside of a police cruiser (the plexi simulating a windshield). Ambiguity is a major tool in this play. The non-specific nature of the scenic elements allows audience members to see what they want to see, thus revealing their predispositions towards certain expectations of police officers and crime situations.

In the very first sequence of the play, the African-American police officer (later introduced as Officer Sam Daniels) moves into the center box as lively, percussive electronic music plays. Whether it was the intensity of his gaze, his squared-off stance, or the adrenaline created from the music and movement of a film clip of the city behind him, I’m not sure – but I expected him to draw his gun (which he did, near the end of the sequence). After the fact, I questioned this expectation: Do I naturally assume police officers to be violent? Do I expect that a direct confrontation with a police officer will always result in the officer drawing his weapon? When the officer didn’t fire, I felt relieved, but also surprised; again I wondered about what this reaction meant for me.

Other situations depicted in Newyorkland also play on the audience’s expectations, especially some of the filmed scenarios. The integration of film allows for a kind of hyper-reality, as opposed to the more abstract arrangement of images and sounds that occur in the theatrical space. The film clips also can evoke connections to the depictions of police in popular film and television; police officers are extremely prevalent in these forms, seen in everything from long-running TV series like NYPD Blue and Law and Order to countless movies (my favorites are The Town and The Place Beyond the Pines, but there are so many others). Because I drew connections from these pop-culture depictions to the film clips in Newyorkland, I became extremely aware of my expectations for the scenes. For example, a filmed projection shows Officer Ronnie Cervone working undercover to bust a drug dealer. Once Cervone shows his badge, the dealer flees and Cervone pursues him on foot, eventually cornering the suspect on the roof of a building. Though Cervone has called for back-up, at this point he is the only officer on the scene. The suspect raises his arms, and my heart pounded – Hands up, don’t shoot—but Cervone continues to aim his gun directly at the suspect. I saw the anger and bitterness in the officer’s face and feared the worst would happen. But after a moment, Cervone lowers his gun, though not before bluntly striking the suspect with it. The act of seemingly unjustified violence that I had been expecting came, though thankfully it was not as severe as I had feared. I became highly aware of my suppositions in this scenario, probably influenced by the current Black Lives Matter movement and knowledge that many unarmed black individuals have been unjustly killed at the hands of police officers. The suspect in this scenario was not black, but regardless I fully expected Officer Cervone to take unfair advantage of his power, which is a fascinating and somewhat saddening revelation about my relationship to police officers.

In another film sequence later in the piece, Officer Cervone and two other policemen are in a dangerous situation: an extremely volatile Asian man brandishes a handgun and is holding a woman hostage – presumably his wife or family member. Throughout the scene, the man points the gun at his own head, the woman’s head, and at the officers. He is highly unstable and is shouting wildly in another language. When his gun moved to the woman’s head, the officers reacted with severe alarm, and my immediate expectation was that one of them would try to shoot him. Though it could have been dangerous because he was shaking, it seemed possible that one of the officers could have gotten a clear shot to part of the man’s body. The officers could not understand the man, nor he them, so trying to talk him down wasn’t a viable option. In this scenario, I again realized that it was my presumption that the police officers would not hesitate to shoot, and that wounding, and possibly even killing, the unstable man would be their go-to option in this case. I was surprised; Officer Cervone was able to tackle the man and disarm him, so that he was able to be safely handcuffed and taken away. I was amazed not only that he used this method, but also that it was successful. I think of several situations I’ve heard of on the news in which an officer stated that he fired his weapon because he felt he was endangered (such as in the killing of Michael Brown, for example). Though the officers and a civilian were endangered in this scenario, the police officers chose another tactic besides shooting. Again, I was confronted with my assumptions about the behavior of police officers in hostile situations.

Newyorkland is a gripping exposure of the struggles four NYPD officers face in their jobs and how being police officers has affected them as people. The men describe experiences of isolation and depression, and even suicidal tendencies. They refer to the “loss of innocence” they experienced upon becoming police officers and witnessing traumatic events. This is a perspective not often seen or heard, and becomes all the more relevant as it exposes the audience’s own relationships to police and the assumptions each individual may bring to that relationship. Sadly, stories continue to emerge which reveal instances of unarmed black men killed in engagements with police officers – most recently Michael Scott, who was shot in the back by Officer Michael Slager in South Carolina last week.[4] A recent report estimates that more black Americans were killed by police officers in 2014 than by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.[5] This piece feels important as part of the conversation, not as a justification for the violence, but as an insight into our understanding of our own relationships to police officers. If it is possible to have a fuller understanding of how and why such extreme violence may occur, and if we can approach members of the police force as real people, not monsters, perhaps we can come closer to breaching the divide between officers and civilians, and end senseless acts of fear or hate.

Works Cited:

[1] “THE STROKES LYRICS – New York City Cops.” AZLyrics. AZLyrics.com, n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2015.

[2] “The Strokes: New York City Cops – Banned Songs.” Virgin Media – Music. Virgin Media, n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2015.

[3] Fares, Heather. “Is This It – The Strokes.” AllMusic. All Media Network, LLC, n.d. Web. 08 Apr. 2015.

[4] Schmidt, Michael S., and Matt Apuzzo. “South Carolina Officer Is Charged With Murder in Black Man’s Death.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 07 Apr. 2015. Web. 08 Apr. 2015.

[5] Ortega, Tony. “Black Americans Killed by Police in 2014 Outnumbered Those Who Died on 9/11.” Raw Story. RawStory.com, 8 Apr. 2015. Web. 08 Apr. 2015.

Newyorkland by Temporary Distortion was performed and recorded at On The Boards in Seattle, Washington on November 19, 2011. It was uploaded to OnTheBoards.tv on March 9, 2012. For the video, as well as full cast and credit information: http://www.ontheboards.tv/performance/theater/newyorkland#about

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