Those endless wars on crime and drugs–a staple of 90 percent of America’s politicians these last thirty years–have engendered not merely our 2 million prisoners but a vindictive hysteria that pulses on the threshold of homicide in the bosoms of many of our uniformed law enforcers. Time and again one hears stories attesting to the fact that they are ready, at a moment’s notice or a slender pretext, to blow someone away, beat him to a pulp, throw him in the slammer, sew him up with police perjuries and snitch-driven charges, and try to toss him in a dungeon for a quarter-century or more.
I’m in regular touch these days with a Haitian in New Jersey called Max Antoine. In 1996 Max had the misfortune to question the right of three Irvington cops to “act like the Ton Ton Macoutes.” Max, a paralegal, remarked this to his sister Marie while the three cops were in the midst of a 2 am warrantless rampage through their house, yelling at partygoers to leave and shoving them around. Max, believing that he had come to the land of constitutional protections, told Marie to write down the cops’ badge numbers so he could file an official complaint.
This was poor judgment on Max’s part. On the account of many witnesses the cops smashed Max with a nightstick, kicked and beat him, shoved his head through a glass door, sprayed him with burning chemicals, tossed him in a cell for two days and denied him medical attention. Max was left with a fractured eye socket, a broken jaw, bowel and bladder damage, and spinal injuries. He went through seventeen surgeries, is now paralyzed below the waist, depressed, suicidal and saddled with huge medical bills. Having thus effectively destroyed his life, the Irvington police charged him with resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer. A few weeks ago, on the verge of a trial, the prosecutors dropped the charges. Max’s civil suit against the police is pending. The Justice Department has declined to take an interest.
Stuck in his wheelchair, Max takes an understandable interest in other episodes of cop mayhem. Just the other day he faxed me a news clip with the headline Black Youth Dies in Police Custody. On the account of witnesses, 20-year-old John Franklin Brown was repeatedly bashed on the head with a thirteen-inch flashlight by Atlanta police officer J.K. Crenshaw. Brown was face down in the dirt, and Crenshaw hit him so hard the flashlight broke. He also kicked Brown repeatedly and left him bleeding on the ground, in which position Brown seems to have remained for some time before being taken to the hospital, where he died. Crenshaw claims he was answering a call about a trespass, chased Brown across several backyards and then beat him with his fists. He’s been placed on administrative leave. Crenshaw has a career record of eight complaints of excessive force, though no known disciplinary measures have been taken against him.
A lot of cops are walking time bombs. Even soothing words spoken to them in a calm voice can spark a red gleam in their eyes. God help you if you’re black. The other day a black man in LA described the time he spent each day figuring out routes across the city to reduce his chances of getting pulled over, maybe beaten, maybe framed, maybe imprisoned.
Police work is far from being one of America’s more dangerous occupations, but cops assiduously cultivate that impression. Police funerals are getting to be on a par with the obsequies of European royalty fifty years ago. Recently two San Francisco policemen crashed in their helicopter during a routine maintenance flight. Their funeral was attended by a huge throng of police from across California, state officials and the Mayor of San Francisco. Would a city engineer or maintenance woman get this kind of send-off, even if their jobs demonstrated a higher statistical risk?
The press feeds obsessively on these “fallen hero” rituals. On January 12 in Unity, Maine, 6-year-old triplets died in a house fire. County Sheriff Robert Jones, also a part-time fireman, was filling a tanker with water a couple of blocks from the blaze when he collapsed and died. It was his 48th birthday. He got a hero’s send-off, with massed ranks of state cops in attendance. True, Sheriff Jones might have been on the brink of bold deeds, possibly even entailing the supreme sacrifice, but that seems a frail peg on which to hang a state funeral. These ceremonies have always been demonstration rituals designed to protect the cops’ budgetary appropriations and boost their overall image.
I suppose at least some of this often lethal cop edginess comes from a fractured sense of class status and function. After all, most police come from the working class and the vast majority shift class loyalty in the course of duty. Historically, this switch was recognized and fostered, especially during the time of police union organizing. In the early industrial period police wages began to run at about double those of similarly unskilled workers, and this doesn’t even take into account bonuses for strikebreaking. Better working conditions meant greater allegiance to semimilitary organization. Yet despite such job perks for cops, morale often lagged. One of the grander ideas for the necessary morale boosting came from big-city mayors, elevating cop death to the status of near sainthood by flying the flag at half-mast and cajoling entire city staffs to turn out for a blue funeral.
* * *
Long Distance Runners. I wrote a few lines here a couple of weeks ago about Sender Garlin, remarking that at the time of his death at 98 he was probably America’s senior radical. Thank God I put in a qualifier about the frequent longevity of many radicals perhaps throwing into doubt Sender’s senior status. Hardly had I written those words before news came of the death in Port Angeles, Washington, of Hazel Wolf at the age of 101. Aside from being a former member of the Communist Party, Wolf founded many Northwest chapters of the Audubon Society. Then there was the death, as my Sender item was going to press, of CP founder Bertram Wolfe’s widow, Ella Goldberg. She was 103, and at least in her youth, before becoming a Lovestoneite and, ultimately, a Reagan admirer, a member of the “lyrical left.” Let’s restring the instrument. We could do with some lyricism these days.