The Police Playing the Policed

I am a founding officer for the Union Football League, an AYSO-affiliated adult league which plays near downtown Los Angeles. When we heard that the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) would field a team during our first season we were a bit wary.

The field is smack in the middle of Pico-Union, and right down the street from the new police station. This is the home of the infamous 1990s Ramparts Scandal. It is also the neighborhood of the May Day “Melee” in which the LAPD used violence to break up a peaceful march and demonstration calling for reform in immigration policies in the U.S., and for recognition of the rights of the migrant communities that define the region. (This 2007 blog article has good video of that event – including silent footage of demonstrators being pushed at gunpoint across the soccer field). The cops in this neighborhood have long been working under a self-generated cloud of fear, anger, and mistrust.

Team LAPD

Team LAPD

The whole experience was something of a nightmare. The LAPD squad is muscle-bound and incredibly fit. They are a tough team. They can run you into next year, and they don’t shy away from using their size advantage to win the ball. Nothing wrong with that. But they also have a coach who shouts from the sidelines: “Take him out out!” “Take him down!” and “Get him!” – while wearing a dark blue jacket with the letters LAPD across his back. Guys from several teams reported more disturbing remarks made on and off the field by LAPD players – e.g. “This [the game] is all you have, you have nothing to go home to.”

As fit as they are, their ball handling is just OK. When confronted with the better teams in our league – whoplay a fast passing game dependent on great footwork, bursts of speed and an ability to change direction and turn in a blink – the cops were sometimes undone by the very thing they normally rely on: their size, and their physicality.

It’s an old story: the confrontation between a militaristic defensive game and the flash, bob and weave of joga bonito. In general, when things didn’t go their way, they got visibly and audibly frustrated, and played not better but just meaner and harder. They played with a win-at-all-costs attitude, and were convinced every whistle made in their direction was misplaced. They complained endlessly about the referees – so much so that I suspect the refs dreaded working their matches.

As I’m the league treasurer, I may have spoken with the team the most. Every week I’d check in about the league fees, make small talk and try to get to know them.

I had a series conversations with their manager about the problems that were arising around their presence. He was genuinely upset by the tone of the games and remarkably open in sharing his perspective and experience.

It seemed to them that neither their opponents nor the referees could forget that they were the “cop team”. He said that they never had this problem playing in more anglo settings. Although the majority of the guys on the LAPD team are Latino, they seemed only to have problems playing in parts of the city like ours.

It all come to a head towards the end of the season. It was a big game between the LAPD team and Nikys Sports – an unbeatable squad sponsored by the soccer shop across from our field. Nikys has everything – skill, knowledge, experience, strength and speed. IMHO, Nikys are capable of playing some of the best, most entertaining football you’ll see in California.

I didn’t get to see that the night they took on the LAPD. The referee lost control of the match after 30 minutes, and fearing that a player would be seriously hurt, or that the game would descend into a melee, he rightly called it off. I’ve never seen that before.

All of the referees and the spectators I spoke to held the LAPD team responsible for the disintegration of the match. Their game was marked that night by verbal abuse, dangerous and pointless tackles, and just plain rage

The guys from Nikys, normally one of the more ‘emotional’ of the teams in our league, were remarkably calm about it all and went on to finish the season with an almost perfect record.

The day after that disastrous match, the manager withdrew the LAPD from the league. Their departure was inevitable and we were glad they knew this. We talked on the phone, and I learned this wasn’t the first time this had happened. The manager (who’d spent the weekend assisting with the Santa Barbara wildfires) sounded exhausted and depressed. It’d been years since they’d tried playing in a league like ours, because previous attempts had ended exactly this way. He told me, in fact, that Internal Affairs had advised them to withdraw (fearing that if they injured an opposing player, the LAPD might be sued).

In that conversation, I caught a glimpse of the complexity of his position – and the seductive lure of the fantasy we’d all indulged in imagining things could unfold any other way than they did.

People wax romantic about the utopic possibilities generated through football but realities of power, authority and significant histories of abuses of both can’t be wished away.

It is not possible for a cop team to play in one of the most policed neighborhoods in the region, and imagine that we can all forget who they are. The cops don’t forget it. The player stopped and searched as he pulled into his own driveway (“lots of Toyotas in this neighborhood are stolen”) and then issued a citation for making a dangerous turn (!) won’t forget. Nor will the guy with a brother in jail. Nor the guy harassed because of his immigration status. Nor will the guy arrested last week for doing what people do at parties in the Hollywood Hills sans repercussion.

Forgetting is a form of entitlement. Forgetting who and where we are is a luxury. If anglo teams in middle class swaths of beachside communities “forget” they are playing the cops, it’s because they do not experience themselves as “policed.” And if the cops can forget that they are cops when they play those teams, it’s because those guys aren’t the ones they are policing.

I would like to think that football is not a space of forgetting, but of remembering. Remembering who you are, and who is with you — remembering a history not with words, but in movement.

I will stop myself here, before I get romantic.

I was glad to see the cop team leave, and am happier even still to let go of the atavistic scrap of liberalism that overrode my gut feeling about the wisdom of inviting the police into our space of play.

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