If only they were so harmless

Frank and Ernest, September 3, 2011
Fig. 1: Frank and Ernest, September 3, 2011

I guess I am still recovering from the Saybrook Residential Orientation and Conference, for which I got up at 5:00 am every morning, for a week, to drive down to the Westin Hotel by the San Francisco Airport. As I was tossing and turning, I was remembering my experience of, now, a few decades ago living on the edge of the Tenderloin in San Francisco in the Ansonia Hotel.

I wasn’t vegan then, hadn’t returned to college, and in fact was working at San Francisco General Hospital as a computer operator. In terms of title, it was a step down from my previous computer programming jobs, but I was actually better paid, which probably says something about my ability to negotiate capitalism even then. Unfortunately, I was also working a graveyard shift.

But I remember occasionally walking at night to the Carl’s Jr. on United Nations Plaza. Most directly, and because I was young, and male, and therefore could walk this way, I walked down Jones Street, across the Tenderloin at its worst.

I don’t have much to say that is complimentary towards the police. In my research journal, I note tensions between an Oakland neighborhood and the police, and write,[1]

The role of police in developed society is problematic because it invests lawful authority paired with authorization to use even lethal force to compel compliance. That authorization complicated not only Mehserle’s case,[2] but another case which arose from the Danziger Bridge shootings during the Hurricane Katrina disaster.[3] Indeed it so colors any officer’s actions that in effect, the credible threat of lethal force is their only tool for resolving any conflict. Moreover, they act in service of a principle of “preserving law and order,” where law is passed by an elite consisting overwhelmingly of wealthy white males to apply to everyone else; where “order” refers to the status quo, meaning the social hierarchy in its present form; and where “justice” is reduced to the enforcement of law.

I also note how the police seem to be reacting foolishly—and sometimes murderously—to a perceived threat to their authority.[4] It is merely a coincidence that the Frank and Ernest cartoon (figure 1) today lampoons a couple of bumbling cops,[5] but I remember those walks across the Tenderloin when I was living at the Ansonia.

I remember seeing a sobbing woman, with disheveled clothing, hurrying out of an alley, a man putting his belt back on striding behind her. I remember seeing a police car driving down Jones Street, down the middle lane, with a small U.S. flag waving from one of its antennae, with two police officers inside, with their gaze fixed firmly forward, while there was all kinds of activity on the streets around them. I remember seeing an old man, who had come out of an “adult” bookstore, being mugged in an alcove on the side of a building. I remember seeing a lot of people whom mainstream society would judge less than sympathetically.

I have encountered police in a variety of contexts since. They animate my old distinction between government and organized crime as being in whose rules one chooses to follow, in essence, whose sovereignty one chooses to recognize. They constitute a gang, with their own colors, their own rigid hierarchy, their impunity, their demand for absolute control, and their use of weapons—even if only as a means of dominance.

Police didn’t help the people I saw in the Tenderloin. They didn’t help me when my car was broken into repeatedly in San Francisco. They didn’t help a number of people I’ve seen since. But they do shoot people. They do kill people. They do harass homeless people at 3:00 in the morning. Because the homeless are the ultimate defenseless people. Because society is less likely to be alarmed when a black man is shot than a white woman. Because they can.

If only it were so innocent. If only cops were so harmless.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “Cops, gangs, and the conflation of roles,” research journal, August 6, 2011, http://parts-unknown.org/wp/?p=44, accessed September 3, 2011.
  2. [2]Erin Allday, “Rally in Oakland over Johannes Mehserle’s release,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 13, 2011, http://articles.sfgate.com/2011-06-13/bay-area/29651973_1_oscar-grant-mehserle-shot-grant-hundreds-protest
  3. [3]Richard Fausset, “Five police convicted in post-Katrina shootings,” Los Angeles Times, August 5, 2011, http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-katrina-bridge-shooting-20110806,0,4887609.story
  4. [4]David Benfell, “Rigidity and fragility: authority and control,” research journal, August 25, 2011, http://parts-unknown.org/wp/?p=184, accessed September 3, 2011.
  5. [5]Thaves, Frank and Ernest, September 3, 2011, http://www.gocomics.com//frankandernest/2011/09/03, accessed September 3, 2011.

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