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.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"Everybody get flat – a dub"

In 2005, THE TRUE BLUE OF ISLANDS, a book dedicated to my brother Richard, murdered in Jamaica in 2004, appeared. Not long ago (on April 28), I posted the title poem, which is an account of his death. Today's post is a dub, another version of that death, to remember him because he recently had a birthday. The book of poems, never mind its subject (violence in its several manifestations) witnesses to his life. It celebrates an ordinary man. It mourns, not him alone, but all those who die brutally, as well as all those who suffer abuse in the course of their lives.

We who are left, pursuing our ambitions, hopping on planes and boats and trains about our business, have failed miserably to guard our kin – our relatives by blood, by six degrees of separation, by simple living on this planet together. I beat my breast and confess that failure. Had I invested more, and earlier, had a larger heart, been more generous with my time, more earnest in my prayers, more ready to share what I have, he might not be dead, and the person who killed him might not have been impelled to murder. The same applies to all of us, with respect to all those who have died arbitrarily and to all those who have done murder.

Mea maxima culpa.

So here is "Everybody Get Flat."

Happy Belated Birthday and Rest in Peace, my brother.

Everybody get flat – a dub

Where is the poem
that explains
what happens
to you when
they shoot your brother
and you hear
that his brains
spilled over the seat
to the back of the car
and you have to tell folks,

“No it wasn’t a war.
No, he wasn’t
caught in crossfire
No it wasn’t a fight.
Yes it happened at night
but no, not in town
out in the country
not a God soul around.

No, he didn’t launder money.
No he wasn’t into dope.
Just a man with a plan
and a fervent hope.

What was the motive?
The police can’t find
not a rhyme not a reason
why they kill the man.
Just a random execution –

So, no, we don’t have a clue
why he might have been killed.
Yes I guess you could say
God must have willed
it. What? God willed it?

No the priest said.
God don’t will
no slaughtered dead.
God allow us our own way.

So we turn into a place
with a theme song that say
“Everybody get flat –
dog coming through!”

And dog mean gun
and is all in fun
don’t mind people
have to run
down in the ghetto
every God-sent day
from the teeth of the dog.

But I guess we have a way
to grit our teeth
and carry on through.

Till a bullet come
and you pray
it’s not for you.

© Copyright Pamela Mordecai, author of THE TRUE BLUE OF ISLANDS and PINK ICING: STORIES.

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No part of this blog may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations.