Friday, July 24, 2009

Henry Louis Gates Jr and Nightmare America

You’ve got to be grateful for the young Americans in Grant Park. You’ve got to believe in their upturned, eager faces. You’ve got to engage with their hope. Why? Because they are hitching their wagon to a faltering star – and I’m not talking about Barack Obama. It’s a star of longing that an America will emerge at some time in the not too distant future in which presidents, police, politicians, monarchs of the marketplace, all those who wield power will behave with basic human decency. I don’t say ‘common’ for it ain’t common no more, as the matter I am about to raise will amply demonstrate.

Michael Mechanic, a senior editor at MOTHER JONES magazine, offers this comment on the arrest of black American intellectual, Henry Louis Gates Jr, in an opinion piece carried in today’s GLOBE AND MAIL entitled “Why you never, ever get righteous on a street cop.”

You don't talk back to the police. You don't question them. And you certainly don't call them racist, even if you think they're profiling you. (And they most likely are.)

Because you will lose. It doesn't matter whether you're a prominent black Harvard prof, a white kid on his way to attend graduate school or a Hispanic high-school dropout.

True it is that Mr Mechanic bases his opinion on his own encounters with police, white though he is. What alarms me is that he should feel free to offer such an opinion, and that the GLOBE AND MAIL should elect to retail it. That, in many respects, is more shocking than the incident of Professor Gates’s arrest itself.

Let’s face it. We live – have been living for quite a while – in an age in which people with guns and knives and other lethal instruments can wreak havoc on anyone at any time they choose. We are very equal in that respect – or lack of it. John Kennedy and Emmett Till, equally dead: one was a filthy rich white President of the most powerful country on earth, the other a poor black teenager, a citizen of the same country. They were both mortal and somebody decided to let them know it.

But when anything of this kind happens we are normally outraged. We mourn the deaths, not only of the murdered but of the values, courtesies and right behaviours that would have secured the lives of the victims, had they been observed. We affirm the most basic value: that human life is precious, that each human person is unique and irreplaceable and that every one of us deserves to be treated by every other one of us in a way that demonstrates that understanding.

The police in a country that purports to be democratic aren’t supposed to be arbitrary wielders of power. They aren’t a militia. They aren’t armed thugs. They aren’t guerillas waging war in support of any cause they privately support. They are, like the Pope, servants of the servants of God, in other words, us common folks. Paid with our tax dollars, they are meant to work for us and protect us. We are not supposed to be deadly afraid of tangling with them on account of what they might choose to do to us.

That is what is chilling about Mr Mechanic’s opinion piece. It tells me – I’d be very happy to be reading him wrong – that I need to adopt just such a cowering attitude when I encounter a cop, because otherwise I “am going to lose”. I infer that what I will lose is my intactness of person or my freedom or my life, or in the worst case, all of the above. This is the wisdom, gleaned from his own experience, that he offers his readers. This is the wisdom that he chastens Professor Gates for not having. (Poor soul: the Professor thought he was a free man in a free state.)

Mr Mechanic doesn’t say this is a terrible state of affairs. He doesn’t rant and rave about things gone awry. He does not complain that it’s a sign that the country is going to hell in a hand-basket when ostensible keepers of the peace can’t find a smooth way through an incident like this one and arrive at a win-win conclusion. I put it this way because, never mind how Professor Gates may or may not have behaved, I agree with Mr Mechanic in one regard: in a situation like this one, it is the police who have the upper hand. I conclude from this that the greater onus is therefore on them.

It does not seem to upset Mr Mechanic that, as he offers us counsel, he characterizes citizen and police as combatants, fighting on opposing sides.

All of which suggests to me that he might as well have been describing any old totalitarian country, any old banana republic, any old Cold War Communist state.

Let Mr Mechanic not therefore, in future, speak of the United States of America in the same breath as he speaks of democracy, or rights, or freedoms, or the pursuit of any kind of happiness. Let him always keep his feet firmly on the ground, and tell it like it is. This is an America in which the citizen who has his wits about him had better be scared of the very people who are supposed to protect him. This is bizarre, ghoulish, monstrous, Nightmare America.


FSJL said...

We seem to have moved from a paradigm of police as agents of society dedicated to maintaining order and detaining those who breach it to police as occupying army. Certainly, that was -- occupying army, that is -- the role of police in colonial polities (as much in Ireland as in Jamaica, which is why the Jamaica Constabulary's Handbook was long based on that of the Royal Irish Constabulary). But the job of the police was supposed to be, in the model initiated by Sir Robert Peel, keeping the peace.

Instead, in the city where I live, you get things like this:

Jdid said...

Seems like a police state to me. Be afraid of the cops even if you havent done any wrong. The thing is I already have that attitude. I know I shouldnt but yes this is the reality of life these days.

Closer to home did you see Toronto police chief's response to that human rights tribunal which ruled that that black postman had been racially profiled? unbelievable

clarabella said...

Hi FSJL: Hope you are bearing up. That story of Kathryn Johnston, which I have not previously heard, is beyond belief. I've referred to it in the current post, but maybe I should have included the url. There are of course some places where people maintain that the police and the criminal classes come from the same group. That may mean socially, socio-economically, temperamentally or all of the above, I suppose. I prefer not to believe that. And there are places in the world where there's good reason to hate the police. But one wants very much to believe that the forces of law and order are there to help us and take care of us. Perhaps citizens need to ask some hard questions – about, for example, how much training recruits are given, about the educational standards required of those aspiring to the job, about whether they receive psychological tests to determine their suitability for the vocation, etc., etc. But we do need to do something because at present it's not working as it ought to be.

clarabella said...

Hi jdid: Howdy! Long time. I agree with you. I think many, many people share your attitude towards the police. I think that may in part be because they are armed, and everyone knows that, if the wanted to, they could shoot you, dump you in the trunk of their vehicle and dispose of your body, and that would be the end of that. That may sound awful but it's true and it's very frightening. It would seem that, in the course of training recruits, someone would have pointed this out to them, and would have urged them to behave in a way that says, "I have authority and I carry a weapon, but please (yup!) know that I'm here to serve you, keep you safe, and defend your interests." It shouldn't be too much to expect. And here in Canada, we pay our police officers quite well, so it's no low status job!

FSJL said...

The police are a necessity given the need to protect human life and property (especially property) from other humans. There are better ways to behave, if you're in uniform, than as a thug, though.

Jdid said...

always makes me remember the lyrics from BDP's who protects us

You were put here to protect us
But who protects us from you?
Every time you say thats illegal
Doesnt mean that thats true (uh-huh)
Your authority's never questioned
No-one questions you
If I hit you I'll be killed
But you hit me? I can sue (order! order!)
Lookin through my history book
I've watched you as you grew
Killin blacks and callin it the law
and worshipping jesus too
There was a time when a black man
Couldnt be down wit your crew (can I have a job please? )
Now you want all the help you can get
Scared? well aint that true

You were put here to protect us
But who protects us from you?
Or should I say, who are you protecting?
The rich? the poor? who?
It seems that when you walk the ghetto
You walk wit your own point of view
You judge a man by the car he drives
Or if his hat match his shoe (yo, you lookin kinda fresh)
Well, back in the days of sherlock holmes
A man was judged by a clue
Now hes judged by if he's spanish,
Black, italian or jew
So do not kick my door down and tie me up
While my wife cooks the stew (you're under arrest!)
Cause you were put here to protect us
But who protects us from you?

clarabella said...

Hi FSJL: Don't you think we need to ask (see the BDP lyrics jdid has kindly given us) who the police are? Sort of like the Christians in the post I just hung up. Who is a Christian? Who is a policeman? Do Christians promote race hate? Does a policeman use a slur like "Banana-Eating Jungle Monkey" to describe a citizen?

clarabella said...

Hi jdid. Thanks for the Boogie Down lyrics. Very pertinent. And prescient. The day will come when some melaninated person will be needed to extend a hand to the good officers. As a family member recently told a policeman (she was irate, and with good reason): "When you are hurt on the street and they bring you in to the hospital, I'm the one who sews you up!"

FSJL said...

In some places, Pam, the police do not routinely carry guns. Yet they manage to keep order. Funny thing that.