The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Beaten New Orleans Man...

The above link will take you to one of the articles, dealing with an allegedly drunken 64-year old black man beaten by several cops, apparently without resisting. The cops went on to abuse a news crew producer.  All are under suspension.  I think that boths apologists and activists can ave a field day, talking about exhausted police pushed past ordinary human limits, etc.  And activists talking about a pervasive climate of racial oppression.  I sympathize with both points of view, but...
Is it just me, or is it odd that I've NEVER seen comparable video footage of, say, several black cops beating the hell out of a white perp?  How in the hell, statistically, could that be avoided? I can't believe that news crews wouldn't want to tape it.  Are they just smart enough not to beat a white person with the camera rolling?  Are we to believe that white people simply don't act in amanner that would make a reasonable cop beat his head in?  Or that only white cops are racially corrupt, or what?
The Lifewriting position on all of this is that, from the beginning of our country, white police officers have not only had permission to do this, but have been subtly encouraged by a lack of criminal penalties.  During slavery and the following Jim Crow days, it was simply business as usual--a way of keeping the serving class in its place.  Following slavery, there was a need to keep the social order as tightly controlled as possible--both to protect the economic and social order, and to prevent any thought of retaliation for 300 years of oppression. The mythology that blacks were less intelligent and moral was necessary to justify the economic institution, and outlived slavery remains woven tightly into the popular culture (I remember an Encyclopedia Britannica article from about 1945 stating this explicitly.  Man, what a bummer THAT was to read!).  Look at popular culture--remember that sexuality in film conversation we've been having?  That only white men get to engage in reproductive activity, and that if you cross that line you risk your box office?  That's a direct relation to the same phenomenon.  Used to be that you could be certain that the black guy would die--an extraordinarily honest expression of this same urge.
What do I think goes on here?  I think that whites are subtly and not-so-subtly taught, from the cradle, that they are the lords of the universe, and that all other groups are less than them.  Now, there's nothing particularly startling or evil about this.  EVERYBODY tells their children a natural situation.  But black Americans have been programmed for 400 years to think they are less-than, and to be very, very careful about their interactions with white people.  No black cop would think he could beat the hell out of a white man without risk of prosecution.  Not ever in American history could a black cop have been naive enough to believe this.  But white cops have been told this, and shown this, forever.  Black Americans have screamed that cops bust their heads ever since emancipation, and America didn't want to believe it--or didn't care.  When video began to show it as a reality, there was a real disconnect.  I remember after Rodney King, there was a persistent rumor that there was additional video footage, repressed by the Liberal Media, showing King behaving like Conan the Barbarian, such that the cops wre acting out of mortal terror of this insane, gigantic, invulnerable black man.  Boy oh boy, do I remember certain white folks of my acquaintence clinging to THAT image, desperately trying to believe that the "Thin Blue Line" would never abuse its power, despite evidence from all over the world, probably going back to the first Roman Centurian who busted a Pict's head and received a pat on the back.  This is human nature, a natural expression of power in an unequal situation, and bless those news crews for forcing the world to watch.
And so those cops, who would have been winked at a generation ago, are going on trial, and probably wondering what they did wrong, why everyone doesn't understand that that old man had no value, that that's the way you HAVE to treat "his kind" or you can't keep  "those people" in line. There is no place for attitudes like that, but I hope you can all understand exactly why this happens, and what it means for our own individual responsiblity to be vigilent.  Where in your life do you abuse your power?  Where do you allow yourself to put large numbers of people into groups and simply label them?   Where do you allow yourself to justify the immoral simply because you don't believe you'll be caught and punished? 
And to relate all of this to writing, who can't see the material for a good book or story in this?  As cultural mores change, the high-testostrone Alpha-males who patrol our streets and fight for us tend to make snap decisions under high stress and with little sleep.  In essence, they become what we really are, not what we want to believe ourselves to be.  They treat those Iraquis like the sand niggers so many people whisper of under their breaths.  They beat the heads out of old porch monkeys, and brag on the radios about "big time use of force tonight."  They are us.  Don't turn away.  Unless you heal the holes in your own hearts, unless you take responsibility for your own guilt and pain, you too will be part of the mindless, marching, hateful hordes who have perpetuated racism and war throughout human history...all the while wondering why you get a trial instead of a parade.  We are  the guards at Abu Gharib.  We are the cops in New Orleans. 
I hope they get the book thrown at them.  I hope just as hard that we can see ourselves in their faces.  If not, we'll simply spawn a newer, subtler generation of hate-mongers.  They are us.  Hope to God they're not our children, as well. 

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