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August 21, 1997


 Full Flaps

Cop Land

On that morning nearly 50 years ago Detective Terence Rogers, NYPD, had a feeling that by the end of his shift he would have had to kill a man in the line of duty. He had gotten a tip that a man the cops knew to be mentally deranged and who had twice before held up the midtown ticket office of Air Canada would make another attempt against the airline facility.

On the stakeout he was the sole officer inside the building. When the suspect approached the ticket counter and announced the holdup, Rogers ordered him to drop his weapon. The man whirled, gun in hand, and Rogers fired. It was the first and only time in his career that my uncle applied lethal force, and as far as he was concerned it was one time too many.

There is no little poignancy in the Irish Catholic need for expiation, and police work intensified that need in Terry. Growing up, his son and I endlessly heard the gamut of cop stories, but understandably heard them filtered through Terry's distinctive focus: how he would size up a situation on the street, the discussions about tactics he had with his partners, the homilies he playfully extracted from various incidents for Tommy's and my benefit (Yez better listen, yez smart-aleck kids...), the replays of the solace and counsel of the confessional booth (Bless me father for I have sinned, I killed a man today...). The prudence of by-the-book policing and the quest for salvation were thoroughly enmeshed.

Fair, honest cops are among the finest things in nature is the sort of pronouncement I might have made during my first adult epiphanies. The basis for that belief endures, and any puerility in my earlier characterization is absolved by the latest behavior of New York's Finest. The details of the Abner Louima case seem all the more sordid set against my recollection of another newspaper account, probably one of the first things I read as a child: My uncle, declining to reach for his firearm during a five-minute death struggle in which he overcame a fugitive a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier who had grabbed Terry's necktie and was strangling him in a darkened downtown stairwell.

Our extended clan furnished another example: Tom Harrington, my godfather, a motorcycle cop who had been light-heavyweight champ of the U.S.Navy during World War I and who had held his own in an exhibition against then-heavyweight champ Jess Willard.

I threw my first jabs under Tom's tutelage, though I might have better learned from his ability to disarm people with his smile and comportment. None of us ever heard him raise his voice. Soon after the first street fisticuffs of my life, he stopped by to visit. I was all of five years old and had recently quit a gang of kids who had been breaking into apartments in our Queens veterans' housing project. I had heard the gang wanted to talk to me, and one afternoon they approached me in a vacant lot. Something told me that if I went for the leader, a boy twice my age, the others would freeze, and I was on him quickly and had him down before he could say anything, his blood splaying all over me as I smashed at his nose and clawed at his skin. My father, passing nearby on his return from work, heard the other boys crying as they watched, and ran over to pull me off. Later we learned the boy was lucky to have not had an eye permanently damaged. As my father recounted it for my uncle, there was neither pride nor disappointment in Tom's gaze toward me, only a level measuring seeking to distinguish genuine strength from its counterfeit.

* * *

The Louima case broke because one cop breached the code of silence, and unless Mayor Giuliani's task  force understands the portent of that officer's actions its police-community discussions will be more of the same folderol. It's about time to recognize the premise that police officers haven't forgotten their working-class origins and are inclined to regard the people on their beats as other workers. For starters, we owe them at least that respect. Which means we can let the race issue dissolve into the bogus puddle it is. How many more years do we have to listen to African Americans and Hispanics tell us about the particular viciousness that cops of their own ethnicity have exhibited?

The bad cops, of course, place things in a class context as well, viewing themselves as a front-line vanguard against the rabble. For them, over the next few years, the million or so poor kids loosed on the streets by Clinton's welfare reforms should provide a plenitude of easy targets. It will be interesting to see if Giuliani's task force echoes Clinton's fulsome "dialogue on race" in its approach; such a reiteration will continue to obfuscate the class issue, reenforcing the workfare policies of Clinton clones like Giuliani. Pitting workers against workers and increasing the tensions in that divisive climate assures the reoccurrence of the worst of police excesses.

My guess is that all of this goes nowhere without input from within the department --- that is, from the rank and file up through the middle echelons. Let it play out definitively, innovation versus status quo, police as ambassadors or police as power's pawns. Most cops would welcome expanded training to make their presence on the street easier, rookies and new recruits especially so. Since Giuliani has requested public suggestions about improving police procedure, I'll offer some of my own: No one graduates from the academy without a purple belt in the martial arts; everyone achieves brown belt status within two years; no one gets promoted without advancing at least one rung toward a black belt. Get your instructors from a dojo, not the police academy. In the morning lineup, everyone meditates for 15 minutes before hitting the streets. You say you'd like to be rid of the cowboys? Send the would-be tough guys back permanently to their 24-Hour Nautilus haunts in the suburbs? Okay, then, begin shaming them out: Put them alongside a new breed of officers who walk their beats with authority because they're badasses and they have nothing to prove; who command respect because they embody an ethos where peer pressure is moot because unnecessary force is an admission of failure.

* * *
It's a wonder conscientious cops have remained quiescent this long about having to clean up the messes politicians have left. To see the country in microcosm every day on a city's streets is to patently possess insights denied other citizens. And exercising that comprehension as organized political power makes the nation's Giulianis tremble. Give me two dozen cops in every city who tell people on their beats that they're going to enforce the law but on Saturday they'll join them for the rally and on Tuesday they'll attend the school board meeting, and I'll guarantee you that local elected representatives will wish they had retired. I come at this fortunate to have known the best --- the best of the best, New York City cops --- and refuse to concede cops can't be the best friends we have. Consider that a reliable tip-off, Rudy: You and your pals keep loitering, and someone's bound to take the bunch of yez down.
                                                        --- Copyright John Hutchison 1997



Time on My Hands

The month of August, when legislators and therapists leave town and everything else slows down, is a good time to stop and take stock of the world as we know it. The latest U.S.Timeweek & World News, a special composite issue entitled "We Are All Sufferers / We Are All Celebrities," provides an ideal opportunity for examining the way Americans view themselves in the late 1990s.

In keeping with previous treatments of major trends such as racism, feminism, and immigration, the cover of this magazine contains a powerful montage of faces --- some bloody, some bandaged, young, old, black, white, male, female --- all looking sorrowfully at something or someone just beyond the edge of the page. They are positioned against a muted background, each face luminous in the glow of its own individual spotlight. Most are anonymous, even generic, but here and there we notice features made familiar by repeated public appearances. A dark blue banner with white lettering spans the right-hand corner, just above their line of vision: "Americans --- The New Victims."

A series of short items drawn from existing newsmagazines dapples both the domestic and the
international scene with a fragile, needy population. In the major news from Washington, Bill Clinton outlines a program for testing medicines used by kids because "children are not rugged individuals." Meanwhile, Arianna Huffington worries that frazzled single mothers will subdue their out-of-control children with Prozac. In Brooklyn police officers allegedly and gratuitously beat and sodomize a Haitian immigrant named Abner Louima. Aquatic botanist JoAnn Burkholder investigates a mysterious environmental attack (an outbreak of ugly skin lesions) on swimmers in Maryland's Pocomoke River. A Hispanic goatherd named Esequiel Hernandez Jr. is inexplicably shot in Texas by U.S. Marines. Recently widowed Mary Ann Downs and thousands of other defenseless seniors are bilked of billions of dollars by telemarketing scams.

The already rich and famous feel anguish as well, each in his own way. A new film depicts the spiritual transformation through physical pain of former Alabama governor George Wallace. Former body-beautiful Sylvester Stallone survives the teasing ("Hey, fat man walking!") of fellow actors after he gains 40 pounds for a movie role. Even the still seemingly invincible Alan Greenspan is brought down to earth with the admonition, "Remember, you are only human."

Victims at home feel a bond of suffering with the world overseas. The news from Russia is that, according to a former bodyguard, Boris Yeltsin is an unstable suicidal lush, at the mercy of his affliction. CNN International president Eason Jordan attests that North Korea is filled with starving children. In South Africa the courts and the public recall, in living color, the 1993 assassination of ANC hero Chris Hani.

Short items like these whet readers' appetites for more substantial fare, and the longer pieces oblige, as they take up larger issues of the day. Celebrity suffering is raised to new heights in an examination of a papal plan to change the Trinity to a Foursome by elevating the Virgin Mary to the position of "Co-Redemptrix, Mediatrix of All Graces and Advocate for the People of God." The rapidly changing world of science stands as the source of more mundane grief. Rather than provide answers, it builds questions upon questions, propounding countless enigmas (about life on other planets, the reason for aging, the purpose of the male sex, the function of sleep) to keep certainty-loving people awake at night. Most unsettling is the newest arrival on the doorstep of our consciousness: the Internet. News director Joshua Quittner makes real the dangers inherent in the electronic era by detailing the threats to privacy that he himself has experienced.

The coordinated actions of groups fade to insignificance in this age of victim-heroes. Thus, the Teamsters' strike becomes an opportunity for individual musing. Calvin Trillin notes, somewhat wistfully, that he has trouble getting excited about it because he wasn't expecting any packages. The strike itself is portrayed as an outburst of blue-collar frustration over the present economic climate, in which corporate profits multiply as workers' income stagnates. It becomes a dramatic battle between the union (led by "boss" Ron Carey) and UPS, in which owners of small businesses like John Boyajian are caught in the crossfire and Labor Secretary Alexis Herman has the opportunity to vindicate African American women everywhere (and the specter of Anita Hill breathes a noticeable sigh of relief). Like the hypothetical cover to this magazine, the dominant visual image of the story denotes individual heroism: a single striker (without a name --- he could be you) stands before the dimly lit background of his placard-carrying comrades, his face bathed in light from below. (In this case he is staring, with appropriate symbolism, at an unidentified object high off the page to the left).

The message could be scriptural: By their pain shall ye know them. Reducing personal identity to one element --- you are your pain --- creates a lowest common denominator, so that Chris Russell, a young employee in a Mississippi McDonald's, can claim the same moment of stardom as the long-dead Elvis. It  reduces all situations to a matter of luck, or timing. It makes all struggles personal, without context and ultimately without meaning. It is nothing new. Herbert Kohl (Herbert Kohl) noticed the same tendency several years ago in children's books about the Birmingham bus boycott, where the scenario was changed from a carefully planned and executed NAACP strategy to the fortuitous outpouring of public sympathy for a woman whose feet just happened to get tired.

Like most simplifications, the suffering/stardom syndrome is essentially soporific. By focusing on the emotion of the moment, it diverts our attention from underlying causes. By ignoring the system that created and fosters it, it perpetuates victimhood as a way of life. How much more exciting would be a world inhabited by people filled with complex, contradictory desires, who realize that the only path to satisfaction is through careful cooperation with others seeking similar goals. That's called politics.

* * *

Fortunately the media, like many other areas of American life, exist on two separate tiers. Far below the monolithic, officially certified life-form that we see on television and in the mainstream press, another society is busily at work. As an obsessive saver of string, I have collected evidence of its activities. Here are a few examples:

                                                          --- Copyright Betsey Culp 1997

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