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.