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on seeing, the monsters, and the weak

update, May 2015:

Finally finished the song that I started at this time. It is here:

 

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December 29th, 2014

Last night I visited the memorial to Officers Liu and Ramos. It’s about 15 blocks north of my house on Tompkins Avenue, which is my route home many nights, and the block has been closed for days (probably since the shooting on the 20th, but I haven’t been in town until a couple days ago).

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I was surprised by the mix of divergent emotions this site brought up for me.

Two nights ago I passed by the memorial and saw a large gathering of hundreds of officers. It was the night before Mr. Ramos’ funeral, and policemen from all over the country had driven through the day and night in their squad cars, lights blazing, to come to Brooklyn and pay their respects. There is something about this practice that is unsettling to me. It somehow seems a ritual more befitting of the Hells Angels than of civil servants. Maybe it was all the uniforms, maybe it was all the guns, maybe it was just the hundreds of barrel-chested white men milling on a street corner in Bed-Stuy exchanging sturdy handshakes in the middle of the night, but the sight of the gathering left me with a queasy uneasy feeling, and I didn’t even consider approaching the memorial.

But when I passed by the last night about 1am, the site was quiet, just a handful of NYPD standing watch. As I dismounted my bike and approached, one other man stood before the mountain of candles and bouquets. He spoke under his breathe with a spanish accent, and I overheard “I miss you,” and a stifled sob. I felt in my gut the human tragedy of these two men cut down with no warning, and for no good reason– taken from their families and friends, all the lives surrounding them hurtled into disarray. Of course it is a tragedy, it is awful what happened to them, and in that quiet moment I was moved to mourn for two men I’ve never met.

In his Eulogy at officer Ramos’ funeral on Sunday, police commissioner Bratton said, “When we see each other, we’ll heal.”

It is a remarkable statement, and one that cuts deep into the heart of what so many of us have been marching and demonstrating for in these past few months. To be seen, to have one’s humanity recognized (or in my case as a white person, to advocate for this recognition in alliance with people of color). And the commissioner’s articulation of this truth at this exact moment is a painful reminder of how vastly our need for empathy often outstrips our capacity to muster it. We feel pain whenever someone who we feel to be one of our own is killed. Not necessarily so if they are Other.

Ismaaiyl Brinsley could not see the humanity of Wenjian Liu or Rafael Ramos. We’ll never know quite what he saw or was thinking, though we know he was deeply disturbed. And we need only read Darren Wilson’s account of his encounter with Michael Brown– whom he saw and described under oath as a demon and a deadly charging animal– to be reminded yet again of the awful consequences when we fail to see each other.

I draw the parallel between these two tragic killings not because I find them equivalent, but because I think they can shed light on each other. And I’m hopeful that commissioner Bratton’s words can be more than poetry in a church. This is after all a police commissioner who admitted after the death of Eric Garner, “we are going to have to do… a top-to-bottom review of all the training that this department provides to all of its personnel,” and a commissioner who was hired by a mayor we elected on a platform that explicitly included healing the wounds inflicted on our city by racial prejudice in law enforcement.

 

Back to the memorial, I’m including two pictures of plaques that were part of the assemblage.

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They read:

“And maybe remind the few; if ill of us they speak; that we are all that stands between the monsters and the weak.”

and

“We sleep softly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those that would do us harm.”

 

The first is from the closing of a 2006 poem by Michael Marks that describes the heroism of an American sniper in Iraq. The second was published by Richard Grenier in the Washington Times in 1993, but is mis-attributed here and elsewhere as a quote from George Orwell, though in spirit it appears to be a fair summation of feelings he expressed towards pacifists in England during and after WWII.

In both cases, the origin of the quotation is a comment on the work of soldiers of war. This seems to be a fraternity within which many of our Police place themselves. So on the one hand we have the self-perception of righteous warriors mounted for battle against evildoers. On the other hand we have the growing perception that the criminal justice system in this country today operates as our primary institution of racialized social control and that our police are its (often-unwitting) first line of offense*.

(*footnote: If it is not obvious, here I am parroting the insights of Michelle Alexander’s invaluable book The New Jim Crow, which should be required reading for every American of conscience in this generation).

 

Reading these two messages brought me back to the previous night’s gathering of “rough men” that left me so uneasy, and in the midst of the welling of feeling for the victims that I felt, it brought home the wide gulf between them and myself. Perhaps those officers would find me as hard to understand as I find them. I have to admit, I have not in my adult life had a conversation with a police officer in a social setting. I don’t know a single one, never even had a beer with one in over a decade of crisscrossing the country on various tours. I would like to to correct this.

It is hard for me to recognize the world inhabited by “monsters and the weak” identified in the poem. It appears to me that it is most often weak men acting monstrously that we must fear. And the strength that we most need is the fortitude of sight that would allow us to truly see each other.

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