Nine months after that Tuesday, my father and I prayed with a room of New York Police officers. In their dress uniforms, they filled the room with their navy blue, medallions and tassels. The force’s annual prayer breakfast came in late May after a winter filled with missing posters and brittle cold. My father had printed the commemoration journal at his shop the night before when a captain pressed him to attend the ceremony in the morning. Our city was opening up to Spring while our country considered waging yet another war.
As the men in navy blue thanked the one above for peace in the city, I fiddled with the gold foil top of a disposable butter packet. Buttering my roll, I thought that it was strange to pray with police officers. For years I’d been taught to whisper a prayer should I even come in contact with them.
Somewhere after kindergarten career day, my perception of police as protectors faded away. In its place was the supported belief of many people of color that at worse police were abusers, at worse men who could themselves take a life or take moments of yours our your loved ones away. When the time for me to get a car came, my father told me should I ever be pulled over to press his number into the keys of my cell phone quickly so he could hear. When I told this to my classmates at my private school drivers ed class, they scoffed. But then again, they hadn’t had their cousins held in holding for “talking back.” They hadn’t wept for four days while the police sent us on a three-borough precinct chase.
So while peace seemed a new blessing following the September 11th attacks, for many black New Yorkers, it was an unsettling quiet. Two years before had been the hail of 41 bullets that killed Amadou Diallo and the angry shouts of protests of the months that followed. But on the day a plane came crashing into the North Tower, that noise silenced us all.
Watching the local news that day, I felt pride to be raised in this city. I understood fully why they called our firefighters the bravest. And for the first time seeing the pure heroism of the men in blue, I understood why they called our police officers “New York’s Finest.” Watching those men pulling bodies out of rubble, passing buckets of debris down a chain of first responders, it felt as if you were watching this thing we called patriotism- a pride in our country and its ideals and a willingness to sacrifice for it.
Five years later, the sound that shook reality back into our streets were the bullets that pierced through a Nissan Altima to take the life of Sean Bell. The humility and community that had cloaked our city was gone. The brief forgiving light that reflected off the badge was gone. Here again were the menacing faces under the brimmed uniform caps. Here were the men you had been warned about. The ones who protected some but left the ones who looked us slumped over steering wheels and trapped in bloody hallways.
The NYPD’s relationship with people of color remains a tainted one. Their violation of women worsens with every month that passes. And yet as a young woman of color, September 11th reminds me of the short time they were our protectors. While we couldn’t repair the years of ruined trust, we saw a glimpse of what they could be. We felt for a moment a piece of what our counterparts felt. They were our heroes. And in a moment it was gone.
At that breakfast though, there was a glimpse of what the NYPD could be, what it was at its best. Men who took seriously their duties to not only protect but serve. Looking back at that dark Tuesday, I can’t help but think that if we all held on to their better spirits, what a city this could be.