Forget Me Not

Memorials to dead cops try to bury injustice in a display of ersatz collective grief

Bryan and I didn’t know what we would encounter. As we meandered on one of our regular walks through San Francisco, we happened upon the brand-new, LEED-certified police fortress in Mission Bay. I recalled reading in the San Francisco Chronicle that the building would house the SFPD’s abundant digital surveillance operations. Something like a cross between an armory and an embassy, the bottom story of the building is a hefty mass of concrete with the slit windows that one typically associates with medieval castles. On top of the foreboding base sit five more stories of gridded steel and glass, wrapped around with a metal pergola over the top and two sides of the glass box. The structure is priced at $243 million, funded by San Francisco taxpayers, of course.

The fortress also serves as the headquarters for the police chief, a post currently filled by Greg Suhr—the highest paid police chief in the U.S., making more than $320,000 per year. We didn’t make it very far into the building. But we did find another version of the SFPD’s vessels for virtual memory: an enormous memorial installation dedicated to dead cops.

The two officers patrolling the metal detector in the lobby seemed uneasy about our presence there. One of them stepped up and immediately offered his help, but his tone meant you have no business here. Their palpable tension made it clear that it was odd for visitors to walk in off the street uninvited, even though we arrived during normal operating hours. We were there to look at (why not?) this spectacular fortress. And isn’t this the whole point of memorials like the one in the lobby, that uninitiated visitors receive a dose of a painful past in order to become devoted members of a present-day heritage? Didn’t the police want the public to observe the memory of their dead?

After a minute or so, everyone seemed to relax a bit. The officer answered Bryan’s questions. He wanted to assure us (and himself, I suppose) of the seismic soundness of the memorial first and foremost. He explained in great detail that it was designed to “rotate” on its center of gravity in the event of an earthquake, which would make liquid mulch of the filled-in bay the building rested on. Maybe this fact was important to him because we had a 17-foot-tall, 10-foot-wide glass cylinder (which he repeatedly called a “sphere”) hanging directly above us. It was seemingly attached to nothing but the delicate sunlight spilling down from the ceiling. The nameplate on the wall told us that the piece is titled Spiral of Gratitude. Ostensibly, it is dedicated to cops who died, as commissioned artist Shimon Attie’s web page says, “in the line of duty”—the popular creed that suggests the police are selfless actors thrown into violence or danger that they (or the state more generally) had no role in setting into motion and for which there were no peaceful alternatives.

In addition to the massive, hanging glass tube, Spiral of Gratitude also encompasses a monumental bas relief inscription set into the concrete. The inscription faces the front doors (further defended by a bombproof row of reinforced bollards on the sidewalk). It commands: “Look Up, Their Courage Shines.” Within the cylinder, a composite poem from collected remembrances shared by fallen officers’ family members and colleagues is etched into the glass, the words circulating upward in a helix shape—the “spiral” in the memorial’s official name.

Despite being a public art commission, Spiral of Gratitude is designed for the wider public to experience only as a facade from outside the doors to the station. The average pedestrian faces it from below, as one would revere at an altar, without even setting foot on the front steps. I went through photos online after leaving the building, and I realized that it is only from a distance that one can truly see the harmonious composite of all the assembled pieces together: the soft light, radiating from seemingly nowhere, illuminating each cascading word from within, while the wall inscription bluntly orders the viewer to “look up.”

Only from this lower, exterior frontal angle (or from the unbroachable distance of the web) can a viewer more or less comprehend the glass inscription as an actual spiral, as the name promises. From directly below the cylinder, with neck arched backwards, the spiral becomes an illegible vortex of words, not knowing where to begin to read (from top to bottom? from bottom to top?). The poem itself is never entirely readable any which way, except when encountered in official documents or on the internet. From underneath the piece, it is a dizzying jumble. Depending on the sun’s angle, the shadows sometimes duplicate the words onto the inside of the glass itself and the back wall (the front doors face west). Thus, those who are not police—the “good,” dutiful citizen who does not belong inside police stations—should only take in the visual image of Spiral of Gratitude as an outsider.

It is odd but still predictable that Attie’s work was commissioned through funds earmarked for art in the city of San Francisco’s bond for the police station’s construction. The San Francisco police enjoy a rare privilege to remember; many more San Franciscans affected by myriad forms of violence—from the slow environmental violence of San Francisco Superfund sites (overwhelmingly found in communities of color) to the sudden police execution of someone like Alex Nieto—have no such luxury. The words inscribed float up “toward the light,” as the poem plainly states. The memorial’s form and words together allude to a bland quasi-religious belief (which the First Amendment would seem to explicitly outlaw) in souls, afterlives, and ascensions. These words made visible and seemingly permanent—protected by the ecological, earthquake-proof fort—are those of insiders (family and colleagues). These are the words of those in the police “community” that quiet outside calls for justice.

What is the relation of cop memorials to policing itself? In spite of increasing numbers of them, there is little discussion about cop memorials, either within academia or among the public. Except for those somewhat infrequent occasions when they are “redecorated” with blood-colored paint, as in Denver earlier in 2015, these public artifacts stay safely hidden from public consciousness.

The power of all memorials is that they satisfy our desire for the dead to speak. Of course, the dead can’t speak for themselves, and even less so when bundled together as a unified list of victim names—the classic Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial gesture made standard by Maya Lin in the 1980s (and copied by several 9/11 memorials, among countless more). By focusing attention equally on the death of each person chiseled onto a list, rather than on the complexity, nuance, and uniqueness of each person’s story, the living can redeploy the mute presence of the dead without a challenge.

Only partially accessible and visible, the San Francisco police memorial offers a model of remembrance that conveys police grief as part and parcel of a carceral logic: dangerously paranoid, bunkered off from public access, and perpetuating policing itself. The power of the police is here separated, territorialized, defensive, and defended. The architectural formation presents a forbidden shrine—a separation Bryan and I seemed to have pierced without invitation. Police grief here is falsely rendered as something socio-communal—as if the dead were one of us—and yet that space for remembering is not “ours” at all.

Maurice Halbwachs, the sociologist who coined the term “collective memory,” long ago claimed that it “requires the support of a group delimited in space and time.” But though they solicit sympathy for acting on behalf of the entire social order, police memorials are not about any “collective” group other than the police themselves. Even the question of whether any true collective memory is fairly represented inside these controlled environments remains dubious. “Friendly fire” incidents are packed away from view, for example, as is police violence against their own spouses or families.

In Massachusetts, before even a year had passed, there was a rush to commission a memorial for Sean Collier, the police officer who had been killed on the MIT campus in the multi-day chase following the Boston Marathon bombing. But myriad questions emerged that year about the role of the FBI in arming, training, and encouraging the Boston Marathon bombers. Moreover, the martial law (described as a “shelter-in-place” order) imposed on Boston was never legally justified or explained, nor enforceable, except by sheer police intimidation. The entire operation put communities in danger with conflicting instructions about the transit of hospital workers. The haphazard entry of police and SWAT teams into neighborhoods, including some that “self-deployed” without orders and failed at “weapons discipline,” was lackadaisically investigated.

Yet this haste to memorialize forecloses on suspicion or inquiry as to why the MIT officer, or anyone for that matter, really had to die in that dramatic series of events. The memorialization helped to shut down questioning why police could get the state governor to summarily declare urban martial law. For anyone who was watching, it was a visible and real-time demonstration of the way that police memorials are used to counter political memories of how the violently securitized world we live in is forged, and unite and solidify territory for the safety of unverified and sterilized police-only accounts of the past.

The attacks police make to suppress vernacular memorials to persons killed by cops also show the police forces’ enmity toward efforts that seek to preserve counternarratives to the police version of justice. In Ferguson, for example, police reportedly went so far as to allow their dogs to urinate on the spontaneous mementos left where Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown, later trampling the makeshift memorial with a police car. In Troy, New York, police self-appointed themselves to remove offerings of flowers and balloons placed for a man, Thaddeus Faison, who the police killed when he allegedly shot at the police. Any memorial that fails to uphold police glory is not allowed to stand.

While police memorials have escaped scholarly attention, the academic study of public memorials (as a general phenomenon) has grown exponentially over the past three decades, once again with a renewed intensity due to protests against Confederate monuments. Why are police memorials omitted? One answer is that cop memorials are not typically understood as part of a permanent state of war. They’re not taken to be a part of the much longer story of war and war’s memorials, as well as the ever-growing commerce in memory through media and museums.

The connection between war and police power is not merely superficial or pragmatic. Police themselves make that connection explicit. Their language draws on an array of allusions that suggest they understand themselves to be engaged in warfare (e.g. law “enforcement”; the overwhelming security features of new police stations like the SFPD Mission Bay location; the references to the “fallen” in tributes to soldiers and police alike; the militaristic salutes at cops’ funerals). When William Bratton speaks of a “peacetime dividend” that reflects fewer police stops, he denotes the manipulative and divisive language of a good “us” versus a bad “them,” of a peace that cannot exist without its flip side of war. More broadly, police control of aerial space—the “ghetto bird,” in the immortal words of the Ice Cube song, flying over Los Angeles without pause—is indistinguishable from military ­approaches, now including drones, to total colonial domination. As people have become more aware of since Ferguson, the weapons and vehicles are also the same on the “war” and “home” fronts.

In the Bay Area, as elsewhere, black veterans of the World War II home front who stood up against military segregation and deadly violence also faced court-martials, silencing, and slander. Their accounts are, indeed, successfully erased from World War II memorials and veterans’ glorification. But they also had to keep their accounts a secret, even from their own families, in order to carry on with their lives. When memory is represented and solidified into finalized architectural forms, it is important to become alert. Official memorials try to control social memory so as to place a punctuation mark on an unfinished past, precisely because lived memory could offer complicated narratives that memorials shutter.

Police nationwide are on the march to build new museums and memorials while hardly anyone notices. One group is collecting funds for a new National Law Enforcement Museum in Washington D.C., in addition to an existing National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial that was completed in 1984. In Merriville, Illinois, the city council plans to begin construction of a $40,000 structure dedicated to an officer killed by someone evicted from their home; the relatively low price reflects material donations from contractors for the project. And Clint Eastwood, who famously portrayed the embattled vigilante SFPD officer “Dirty Harry,” is the honorary chairman of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial and the National Law Enforcement Museum. (In fact, the opening credits of Dirty Harry feature an on-location shot at the old Hall of Justice of the engraved list of police killed “in the line of duty.”)

The establishment of a national cop museum, alongside the increasing development of cop memorials and the celebration of police commemorations in settings like sporting events, suggests a more cemented national scale of cop memory. This should be understood as pure police propaganda working in opposition to an array of group movements—black, Latino, homeless, youth, sex workers, indigenous, trans, queer—to remember lives of relatives and loved ones killed by cops. This nationalistic and hegemonic role of cop memory starts to appear more frequently on news and media. It broadens the work of war commemorations in sustaining American jingoism, national heritage, and patriotic affect, while enforcing amnesia about police violence. But cop memorials also enable the ongoing criminalization of targeted groups under a deceptive guise of victimization, voiced through the reactionary slogan “Blue Lives Matter,” intended to silence calls for elusive police accountability.

Surely, police have long been deeply entwined through news media and fictional characters in television and film with images of national strength and social order. They are walking symbols of flag-waving loyalty. Police patriotism, sometimes made graspable through commemoration, is not so new. But now, in a moment of contest against the permanent war that cops conduct, this patriotism takes on a new bombast. It begins to be more regimented through dedicated architectural features in the landscape. Cop memorials, in all their attempts at narrative purity, are playing an unrecognized role in cementing nationalist feelings of unity in ways that larger-scale wars have been less effective in accomplishing throughout recent years. The new memorial at MIT dedicated earlier in 2015 is described in a statement as reflecting “strength through community”—a chilling phrase that unwittingly echoes the Nazi slogan “strength through joy.”

Cop memorials, like war memorials, pacify—or more accurately, conquer—memory. Memory is an embodied act. And yet memory needs to also involve collective actions for its social circulation: public ­performances, sounds (such as the voicing of testimonies, singing, and protest), and walks through sites of tragedy. However, most often, memory and its sibling, grief, are forced to exist in private, and in secret. For the next of kin of those killed by the state and its police ­forces, memory often takes place within bodies alone, or at most, in intimate, private spaces where it can be somewhat protected from slander, racism, or persecution. Meanwhile, for survivors of police violence, speaking about encounters with the police is loaded with risks of social stigmatization, lost wages, and death threats, including further police targeting.

The Spiral of Gratitude—with its literal name and simplistic gestures—is in the end nothing more than an obvious and amateur attempt at such control (and funded with a lot of public assets forfeited by taxpayers). Yet no one involved in its commissioning or construction apparently stopped to ponder how it is that courage can shine, as its inscription claims, while hiding within an ecologically and seismically secured bunker. This telling contradiction is nevertheless emblematic of the way police represent themselves as afflicted by violence and filled with dread. These spatial and rhetorical maneuvers reveal a different dimension of what “security” means: the protection of police within a generalized environment of increasing insecurity for anyone resisting oppression. Spiral of Gratitude mends power. When true memory comes to be a dangerously rebellious and risky act, it is fought with a vengeance. Cop memorials are a weapon in a war against memory itself.