Literary/Litigious disclaimer: The following essay, entitled “Essay,” is a poem and is not meant to endorse any policy or action, nor is it meant to describe or criticize any real-world event or person.
Whether you like police officers or not, it’s hard to argue that they are particularly brave. We know this because we have a control group in the form of the primary opponents of police: criminals. Criminals run the same physical risks as police but in addition carry a huge load of punitive risks that enforcement personnel do not. Criminals seldom have backup networks, and the ones they do have are seldom extensive unless—and here’s the kicker—their backup network is the police themselves in the form of alliances of enforcement personnel that are variously rogue, quasi-rogue, or (more likely) indifferent.
When was the last time you read about a bank robber who was brave? But do you have any doubts about the tremendous amount of courage it takes to rob a bank? My friend’s dad, a small, courteous man, tried to rob a bank once, unarmed and using a scrupulously polite note passed to the teller. Unfortunately, there’s a reason they’re called teller.
Those other opponents of police officers—demonstrators and activists—seldom constitute a serious threat. Activists generally live to prostrate themselves in acts of public martyrdom. To the extent that their only real power is a certain vulnerability adroitly entered into the media spectacle, demonstrators live to be trod upon for visual consumption in media outlets. A best-case scenario for an activist group is to experience a moderate uptick in public sympathy based upon the group’s ability to suffer in public. From a police point of view, then, beating and arresting demonstrators is under most circumstances quite literally a walk in the park with pay, benefits and, typically, time-and-a-half compensation schemes. Sadists love masochists. The fact that criminals get time and police get time-and-a-half is crucial to understanding police psychology, but the pure pleasure of beating people, a pleasure which is apparently akin to sexual gratification, should not be discounted.
If it were true that cops were brave even though they are morally suspect, I would concede the point. For example, I think working in a nuclear power plant is a morally suspect job, but I am in awe of the bravery of the Fuk-yu-shima 50, who apparently stayed at their posts. I bet it wasn’t the president of GE or anybody making the big money from the Fuk-yu plants who stuck around. These workers must know that they will die because of their courage. They are tragic heroes, like Samson in the Bible, who screwed up as a warrior but then, in his death, accomplished more than in life. Foot soldiers in Iraq and other places who endanger us all by killing children and enraging people in the lands they invade are probably brave. And it would be churlish not to give high marks for bravery to Sergeant Ryan Russell, the only officer killed on duty in Canada so far this year. He emerged from his vehicle to stand up to an enraged snowplow driver that he knew had been on a rampage for two hours. You can admire someone’s bravery without respecting his intelligence.
Twelve thousand police officers in full dress regalia recently assembled in our fair city to march in honor of Sergeant Russell in front of an adoring media crowd. The sentimental scene was one part of a diptych, a double portrait. The parade was the complimentary scene, but the complementary scene, the other half of the diptych, had taken place a half-year earlier, when many of these officers had besported themselves during the course of an early-summer weekend pulling the prosthetic legs off old men in wheelchairs, salaciously patting down such foolish virgins as had mistaken their nation for a free one, and attacking ten-year-old boys such as mine. Time and a half. Over a billion security dollars had to be dissipated in a single big-man potlatch, so law enforcement personnel had to get cracking.
There are almost two million people doing time in the United States, none of them risk averse types like the CEO’s of the too-big-to-fails or other complacent cowards. These folks are for the most part incarcerated for victimless crimes like taking drugs, and most of them are clearly up for taking far more risks than any cop.
Woops, my bad—checked that googley function on my computation machine and it was up to two-and-a-half million. Who can keep up? The US has nearly seven times the incarceration rate that China has. Talk about a failed state. One out of eighteen men in the general population is being monitored or kept behind bars, and I don’t think they’re even counting people like me, with my particular lifetime monitoring relation to the state of Illinois for my work protecting children near school buses. Actually, I was never charged with anything, though every state agency with a taste for heavy meddle got to paw through my private life and harass our children with 1984-style “talks.” I wasn’t charged, but I was told by the state’s attorney, as the condition for being dumped into the snow on the north side (outside!) of the prison in Urbana, that I would be watched for the rest of my life. Since that was about the time that I broke off the last little bit of my by-then token relationship with my old Semitic storm god, Yahweh was replaced seamlessly by the FBI working on behalf of the state of Illinois as the entity most likely to be watching me when I’m taking a shit. So I hardly noticed the difference.
Here in the northlands, in the occupied territory of the dirtiest environmental nation in the world because of its tar sands and world-wide neo-colonial mining adventures and where the police are famous for street executions with tasers, I keep a weak house. Doors can be kicked in easily. I keep no guns on the premises, though I’m a pretty good shot. Craziest of all, I announce all this in a mag with over a quarter of a million readers. I have only nuisance booby traps in the house instead of real ones, even though I’m from the part of Boston where we know how to make real ones. My wife and my children are endangered by my having a weak house. Any criminal with a good kicking leg can kick my door in. But the tradeoff is worth it, because the real danger in any neighborhood is the police. You don’t want to antagonize the police by making doors difficult to kick in, or by offering any resistance.
I am afraid of police not because they are brave, but because they are legion. Their numbers are like the sands of the seashore or the stars visible to the naked eye, like the plenitude of Israeli soldiers that Abra[ha]m (“ha” added later after Abram became a successful military leader—I told you this was a poem) and Yahweh used to get together and imagine, and every cop comes with a host of highly paid bureaucrats with briefcases ready to make your life miserable.
I stand up to big men two or three times a week, men who drive their vehicles to endanger our children here in the neighborhood (I stay away from the women. Too dangerous. Way too dangerous—trust me.) I’ve given up asking for help from the police to whom we give our tax tribute, because they just give me the runaround—which I’ve documented on this site before (see “Cop Shocks,” for example). So I stand up to these men alone. It’s just me and my bad knee, unarmed except for a fast tongue. Imagine if, like every cop in the world, I did this with a gun and a flack jacket, and if I could call in a backup car, or as many heavily armed backup heavies as I felt like, every time I confronted one of these big men. Would you think me brave?
Would you think me brave if I could beg every Tom, Dick and Hurry who swerves at my neighbors’ kids to make my day because I know I have backup? Please, I’d beg them, just make my day. Look at me, I’m a cop, I’m so brave. Go ahead, get out of your car and take a swing, take a couple of swings, pal. If I could threaten these drivers with a month of gang rape in a North American prison or (take another swing, pal) twenty years in a supermax facility or (you missed a spot) a half-life in as-good-as-torture solitary with a hundred-grand’s worth of other American citizens, would you think me brave? I’d have a neat little uniform and a Napoleon blown-apart complex. Would you think me brave? Oh please tell me I’m brave.
Or would you think I was yet another effing wussmonkey in a dufus uniform who got off on intimidating anyone I felt like? We all know that when you put on that uniform, you can’t lose. You’re untouchable, unless you do your shenanigans in a city with a lot of international scrutiny at that rare and particular moment when that scrutiny is sympathetic to victims, as happened for a few days six years ago in New Orleans. The lesson of New Orleans cop David Warren, finally brought to an approximation of justice six years after his crime, is that when cops can’t count on backup, they start freaking out and murdering people. This is not a contingent fact of cop makeup. It’s constitutive. Cops aren’t cops unless they have backup. Cops have to be cowards. It’s the necessary corollary of infinite backup.
When you read these police sickos talking to each other on the internet (or listen to them as I did when I was a gravedigger in Bedford, Massachusetts and worked alongside these creeps), you hear them telling each other that they’re protecting citizens’ rights. Jesus. When are we going to wake up? You think there are no risks in writing an article like this one? You think I have “rights” and that I’m going to tell some cop and his justice squad to respect my “rights”? If you think that it’s either because you’re an idiot or because you’ve never been arrested or because you’re bourgeois and have never lived on the street, or not for as many years as I have. Go back and cry to your daddy that I’m criticizing the nice policemans. Even if a single lone cop were to kick my door in tonight to discuss this article with me, he wouldn’t be alone. Both of us would be entirely in his world, the world of infinite cop backup. As Yahweh-the-infinite-backup said to Abram, I’m just going to stick this “ha” in your name to celebrate who’s got your back.
In our part of the world there’s a particular kind of group assigned to the public relations side of police murders called the Special In’stigations Unit [name slightly poeticized to slow keyword search]. If a cop has been having a good day tasering and murdering local boys, and some irritating citizen films it, or some parent objects to having to pick up their child after work at the morgue, the SIU does a thing called “investigating,” or in the English the rest of us use, “waiting a few months.” So for example in January the SIU found after a bit of a wait that it was okay for police to have continued shooting the unarmed body of R’yal J’rdine Dougl’ss even after it was lying on the ground (damn those pesky witnesses who thought otherwise). Ha! This week the SIU found that it was okay for seven officers to have kicked to death Junior M’non [names of victims slightly contracted in my document to slow a keyword search] because he wasn’t really kicked to death but died from “positional asphyxiation” (left lying face down till he suffocated to death). Ha!
The real crime here is not that a few cops get a hard-on by murdering people—what’s new, right?—it’s the whitewashing by murder papers like the Star, one of the two big papers in these parts and the one that is supposed to be “the people’s paper.” The Star dutifully describes the SIU as an “arm’s length agency,” as if it were objective in some way, or as if the length of its arm extended to giving the communities preyed upon by the police a definitive vote in whether they’d like their sons murdered. That lie is what is meant when people talk about the long arm of the law. The law will fondle your daughters, murder your sons, reach deep into your unprotected homes, and the Star will rejoice at how judicious the procedure is.
After thirty-six months on the job here in our neck of the woods, a provincial constable (first class) can expect to receive $83,483 annual salary. If you add duration incentives and factor in small-town prices such as that of housing in the northern part of the province, at about the career ten-year mark (from the beginning of professional training) an OPP officer based in a mid-sized northern Ontario town makes nearly three times the salary of an arts-and-humanities professor at the University of Toronto, which was Canada’s best university until they inadvisedly let me take a crack at their grad students a few years back. It is not until well after the twenty-year mark that a professor’s salary passes that of a constable, at which point the constable is likely to have retired. Of course I make a point of telling my children that when selecting a vocation they shouldn’t think primarily of the money. “Do what you love,” I tell them, “and love what you do.” I can’t stress that enough. “And if it’s killing and torturing you enjoy,” I tell them, “join the police force.” The money’s just extra.
Sebastian (14) and his posse of three got mugged, a few hours after I wrote those last lines, by a group of eight older boys trying to steal their skateboards right here at our corner. Black eye and minor injuries for the smallest of the boys, but no big deal. Sebastian has a good comic story about his suspicion that his friend Frank, who stayed “chill” at the heart of the melee, is some kind of undercover ninja. Apparently Frank was surrounded by flying fists but appeared to be hardly moving himself. The police got a couple of the aggressors, but do you think I can do any of those things they do in movies, like “press charges” or get a photo of the two boys they caught so we can keep an eye out in our neighborhood and protect ourselves in the future? Imagine this instead of a world of police with guns: at a single call from any kid in our neighborhood, every door on the block opens and adults saunter out and ask what’s up. From then on: everyone in the neighborhood keeps a weather eye out for the sort of kids who steal skateboards. By ceding our power to the police, we’ve lost our communities.
Alright, fellow inmates, I should give it a rest. That Fuk-yu-shima rain falls on the just and the unjust, as Jesus might say.
Don’t touch that dial. Stay here for all your Bible knowledge, wisdom of babes, and street aphorisms. At some point I’m going to offer you a piece that includes going year-by-year through the “heroes” on the website of “The Of’cer Down M’morial Page, Inc.” If you’re like me, you see a word like “Inc” after a group like that and it’s hard not to think “Murder Inc.” Those of you who are annually shaken down for your sticker for the Fr’ternal Order so you can paste it on the glass mostly likely to be seen by an officer coming up to your car will be interested to know that the most common cause of death on police duty is automobile accident. Are we surprised? Have you ever seen a cop use a turn signal?
Here’s the kicker: I couldn’t find any mention on the site of officers being positionally asphyxiated in leisurely fashion by seven criminals.
End of essay.
End of poem.
* * *
Joe Bageant once wondered if me, him, and my pal Arthur Gilroy were long-lost brothers separated at birth. Oh gentle great-heart, you’re missed. A chalice of the finest working-class brew raised in your honor! We’ll do what we can to keep up both sides of your tradition: gentleness, and kick-assedness.
Joe Bageant is dead—long live Joe Bageant!
DAVID Ker THOMSON is a graduate of the Moody Bible Institute, 820 N. LaSalle, Chicago (1980), and of the Ontario Bible College (1981). He has held a position as a missionary in New Guinea. dave dot thomson at utoronto dot ca