Saturday, December 6, 2014

Walking While White

Yes, it happened. Strange as it may seem and completely inexplicable unless one takes the unforgettable SNL sketch of Eddie Murphy's "white experience" as guide.  White people are nice to each other. They give things to each other when they are alone.  Why would a white cop tackle a white male citizen peacefully walking on a sidewalk ?  Freaky or not, it sometimes happens. It happened to me. It did not make any news headlines because cellphone cameras were not yet around then. Everyone knew that some among the Montreal finest were cuckoos, apt to go berserk at whatever could be construed as an excuse for assault causing bodily harm on law-abiding burghers. It was not big news even when some store camera caught a uniformed porky kicking the shit out of a citizen asking him politely (he was white which explains his stereotypical proneness to civility) to remove his cruiser which was double parked and blocking his vehicle. 

My takedown, alas, was not news. I walked home from a friends' house at about midnight.  Saw a police cruiser through a corner of my eye prowling alongside me for about a half of a city block. Then came a holler from the car in French. I had no idea it was meant for me.  Then a door slammed and from the blind side came a vicious tackle that sent me down to the sidewalk, my head banging the pavement.  Through the fog I heard something that ended like ....t'es sourd quoi (are you deaf ?). Realizing the situation I was in I decided I lost speech and comprehension completely (I never talked to Montreal cops in French out of principle). I was handcuffed and dragged to the back of the police cruiser.  My ruse of pretending the head-bang incapacitated me worked. Once loaded in, the cops in front argued whether they should take me to the hospital first, the attacker turning back to me asking from time to time: "you ok ", "what happened to you", and "where do you live", evidently concerned.  Again, this would be how white cops treat white males.  However, the driver decided against just dropping me off because there were two couples, he said, across the street intently watching the scene. If something happened shit would hit the fan. So the charade continued. I was taken to the police station - I appeared to gather my senses -  and charged with "drunken and disorderly" plus "resisting arrest".  I asked for a breathalyzer test. I was not shown the result but the first charge was changed to "loitering".  I was fingerprinted and mug shot was taken.  It showed an ugly-looking contusion on my front temple which was cleaned after we entered.  I seemed to be quiet, without affect and this evidently unnerved the police station. A shift supervisor came in and asked me what happened. I told him what happened. He asked me if I was sure that it happened that way. I told him that in my state I was not sure of anything. He asked me if I was going to complain. I told him I had a headache. With a job and an address and no prior the super decided the best way to handle this would be to take me to the hospital. In a week, I was informed by mail that the charges were dropped. No explanation, no apology.  I was invited to file a complaint against "the arresting officer".  I did not. You understand: I was white. How lucky to have been born white. Facial bruises look uglier.  Everything in life seems so much easier if your skin lacks melatonin. 

 Seriously, though: I note through the incidents in Ferguson and Staten Island the absolute obsession with color in two examples of lethal use of police force. Insofar I can see the two cases are miles apart. Given what is known to be the evidence in the Mike Brown's case, the grand jury was correct not to indict Officer Wilson. Whatever the community policing  in the city and in the US at large, the damning of Officer Wilson was based on evidence that was perjured as the forensics supported the account of the officer and other witnesses, mostly black.  So, despite the sometimes hysterical CNN's coverage of the incident's aftermath and the racial card being played day in day out everywhere, the incident began with a grievous assault on a uniformed police officer by an unruly teenage bully. The fact that Mike Brown was black and unarmed in this case does not change anything on the fact that he acted with determined physical aggression toward the cop. A reasonable person would see this aspect of the incident as way more important than the respective racial profile of the two actors. The race in this case is a red herring, politically exploited. It only matters to people who are stupid, or who are racists projecting their racism onto people of other races. The unsung heroes of the saga were the black witnesses who told the truth to the grand jury and saved Darren Wilson from the cries for lynching the politicos and media were happily feeding into. Do not expect them to be celebrated by the US president, and yet they were not the only ones not thinking white vs. black in Ferguson.  They were the only ones certifiably non-racist and sane, thinking of their community messed up by black crime out of control, not white cops response to it. They did what was right and in the face of an angry mob. They have my respect.

       The Staten Island incident likewise has an unarmed black man killed by a white cop. But this is where any similarity between the tragic deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner end.  There was no similarity in the context of the two incidents. Mike Brown was a bully. Eric Garner was not.  Eric Garner refused to go with the police voluntarily.  Bad mistake. He knew he was dealing with law enforcement officers. But there was not a hint of any physical aggression coming from him. Once on ground, in an illegal head-lock by Officer Daniel Pantaleo, and after his head pressed by him. Eric was clearly pleading, expressing discomfort, not resisting. It seems a classical case of excessive force even though the death was accidental, partially attributable to Eric's health condition.  The excess should have been acknowledged by NYPD, and the grand jury should have ordered a trial of the officer on a charge of involuntary manslaughter. It may have been a freak one-in-a-thousand accident but it was brought about by excessive force.  This is not throwing a cop under a bus. This is doing the right thing. Police officers should be respected but they are not above the law which they are sworn to uphold. I don't see the excess force against Eric Garner as an exhibit of a hostile racial animus. (This was not Rodney King's bashing. There was a black female NYPD sergeant present). I don't know of Officer Pantaleo's disciplinary history. I simply observe that tragic errors in judgment happen and they need to be acknowledged, if  the police use of force is to preserve its legitimacy. The simple truth is that some people are simply unsuited to wear a uniform, whether they be white, black, whatever race or background. They are too quick to draw, too unsure of themselves, too eager to compensate by bravado, and flashing overwhelming force.  Good cops know who they are and they instinctively shun them because they mean trouble as partners and backup support. And this is probably as much as one can say about the two incidents if one does not have a mealy-mouthed political agenda to push.

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