Part 1: How do we begin?
Special to DigBoston
Originally published in The Somerville Times
Ten years ago I wrote a column in which I argued that we are incapable of complete objectivity. The most honest things we can do are to be humble before all relevant evidence, and to disclose our underlying assumptions so that others can evaluate how they have influenced what we are saying.
I believe that those underlying assumptions are most powerfully shaped by our lived experience. So before discussing how we might begin to move our city and nation toward the ideal of equal justice before the law, we might reflect on the personal experiences that have shaped our perceptions, and respectfully listen to others.’ I will tell you mine.
Franz Kafka remarked somewhere that Justice wears a blindfold to conceal the fact that where eyes should be are two festering sores. I developed an intuitive sense of that in the Compton, California streets of my youth. Enduring beatings in the Chicago streets of 1968 hardened that sense into a hatred of police.
Late that fall, and self-medicating undiagnosed PTSD, I took a freeway offramp way too fast for any motorcycle or rider. I became airborne and had a brief but intense physical relationship with a guardrail. Two young Los Angeles Police Department officers found me.
They refused to call an ambulance, telling me that it was the Highway Patrol’s jurisdiction, not theirs. They joked about whether I would survive my injuries. This treatment was consistent with past experience. It’s probably hard to understand now how much hatred was directed at men with long hair in 1968. As an LAPD cop told me during a previous shakedown, “You’re white. You have a choice.”
But an older Highway Patrol officer showed up, called an ambulance, and comforted me with reassurance that I would be OK. He subsequently stopped by L.A. County Hospital to check on how I was doing.
The CHP officer and the LAPD thugs became icons in my personal mythology, representing what I would like law enforcement to be, and what it too often is. I have since known officers who selflessly give of themselves for others’ wellbeing, and sadists who use their position for personal gain while acting out petty hatreds under the color of law. While the former are more common, vanishingly few of either description breach the blue wall of silence.
That autumn was a dark period for me. After a series of small personal catastrophes, I ended up in the same Skid-Row flophouse that I had stayed in when I first left home, working day-labor jobs, loading and unloading freight cars. Life in Skid Row affords another vantage on certain officers’ disregard for the humanity of the powerless.
I spent the days that I did not get work reading at the nearby LA Public Library and then—while performing mindless physical labor—thinking about what I had read and what I had experienced. That summer I went to work in Harry Hay’s and John Burnside’s kaleidoscope factory and came under their mentorship.
Before Harry founded the gay-rights movement, he had been a member of the Communist Party. And while he came to reject much of its dogma, he retained a keen analysis of how a class system maintains dominance throughout its economic, political, and social institutions.
By the next year I was sharing a home with Black Panthers and working with them to conduct a free-breakfast-for-children program. Police officers would enter our home unannounced and laugh when we pointed out that they had no warrant.
Over the ensuing years I have been blessed by a few genuine friendships with cops who have let me see their lives through their eyes. It is a cliché to say that most are doing the best they can in a challenging job, only because it is true.
As lived experience shapes our perceptions and the credence we invest in ideas, I invest credence in these ideas: We live in a brutal class society with obscene levels of wealth and poverty where more and more working people of all colors are sliding into the underclass.
Racism has served as an effective means of dividing working people, as well documented elsewhere. This is the existing order.
Humans resist injustice in individual and collective ways, from “petty crime,” to civil disobedience, to mass uprisings. Such resistance threatens the existing order.
Law is a means of allocating power. Those with the most economic power have the means to buy laws that define an order that maintains and increases their power.
Law enforcement has always protected property rights, and for 246 years some Americans were property, and then they endured another century of legally sanctioned racism. Racist attitudes and practices persist throughout many institutional cultures, and in many law enforcement agencies more so than in other organizations, such as the military, our most integrated institution.
Our institutional arrangements create an inherently precarious situation for law enforcement officers. They are members of the working class who often sincerely want to “protect and serve” their fellow citizens, but who are also required to defend an unjust order.
The more the people in the neighborhoods where they are tasked to serve suffer from this order, the more likely the officers will regularly encounter mistrust, resentment, and abuse. And the institutional culture in which officers operate has more power to sanction them than do those whom they police.
To maintain the clarity of mind and self-discipline necessary to pursue justice in such circumstances would require exceptional character, intensive training, and probably ongoing counseling. In most European countries, recruits are carefully selected and receive several years of training. They go through a kind of apprenticeship before they become sworn officers.
In the U.S., numerous studies show that, embedded in a “police subculture [that] conflicts with the official norms and values of policing,” too many officers share personality characteristics with felons. There is evidence that in recent years this situation has been improving. But officers still receive but a few months training in the Academy before they are invested with the awesome responsibility of deciding whether to take away a person’s freedom.
Recent events have inescapably forced into the consciousness of most Americans the violence that is disproportionately and regularly visited upon people of color by officers acting under the color of law. Outraged, many Americans of all colors are demanding action.
In a moment of sharply reduced city revenues in Somerville, a petition has gathered 3,000 signatures. It demands “that our city allocate much less money to policing and much more to nonviolent public services.” While I have considerable respect and affection for those who launched this effort, I could not sign the petition.
Although the impetus for the petition was the police murders of people of color, local people of color were not consulted in the drafting of the petition, and organizations representing them have passed on endorsing it. It’s worth noting the paradox that those communities that most suffer police abuse are also those most in need of police protection. Well-meaning white allies can best support people of color by finding the humility to follow their leadership.
Then, I would be more comfortable with a fact-based analysis of what to cut, where to reallocate, and the expected outcomes. The city publishes a detailed line-item budget proposal every year that readers can review.
Last year, Councilor Niedergang moved to cut the police budget by $600,000, citing a precipitous decline in local crime. Although that seemed reasonable, only Councilor Scott supported the motion. The city’s disastrous loss of revenue, along with new needs created by the pandemic, will now obligate a much greater cut. But such decisions should be based on a comprehensive analysis of available resources, desired outcomes, and means of achieving them.
I by no means wish to dismiss the petition’s intention or potency. It is a heartfelt outpouring from thousands of Somervillians, and it will force an essential and overdue conversation.
If we want to effect long-term change, we need to move from a tactic to a strategy. And to formulate an effective strategy, I believe that we need to begin with a comprehensive understanding of how racial violence exists within a police-prosecutor-judicial-prison complex that locks up a third of all prisoners on the planet, while we are only 4% of the world’s population. I hope to begin that discussion in my next column.