An Equivocation

I have a complicated relationship with authority. Growing up with the unforgiving boot of the British school system on my neck, I learned to respect and fear those in power. Coming to the U.S., aged ten, the sudden absence of dictatorial cruelty from adults was confusing. I became uncontrollable, convinced that the freedoms of adulthood were my due, contemptuous towards anyone who tried to tell me otherwise. Still, for many years, even the gentlest reprimand from someone in a position of authority would reduce me to tears.

A shameful admission: at times I’ve thought about working for the federal government. I’ve contemplated joining the Foreign Service, the FBI. I’ve even flirted with notions of joining the military. Why?

It was my desire, as I put it then, not just to work for the Man, but to be the Man. To embody a system of moral rigidity that allows no room for ambiguity, instead upholding supposedly timeless ideals of honor, order, tradition, control. This insidious conservative bent within me is probably also the source of my deep love for country music and Western culture (as well as my ever-so-clichéd boner for military men). But my academic discipline (cultural anthropology), and my politics (liberal), are firmly relativistic. Reality indeed has a liberal bias, because reality is complex and fraught with ambiguity. My attraction to the certainty represented by intuitions of authority is a suffering soul’s desire to return to the blissful ignorance of infancy.

Even as I marched on Sunday night, chanting “no justice, no peace, no racist police!” I felt a little sheepish about speaking against the orderly ranks of men and women who surrounded us. I was impressed by the smooth decisiveness of their movements, their unity and discipline, which stood in stark contrast to the disorganization of our group. I love a uniform. I love the pageantry of restraint and control. But the outward show – the uniforms, the solemn oaths, the fictions of honor and uprightness and discipline, are simply that: fictions, stories, constructions designed to fend off the chaos that is the ultimate condition of our world, to corral the nuance and subtlety that complicate simplistic narratives of right and wrong.

When I went to work yesterday, I mentioned to a coworker (male, black, politically active) that I’d been to a protest, that there were some “punk-ass white kids” in attendance who just wanted to yell at the cops. (What was I thinking? I guess I was trying to shore up my “knowing, hip white person” cred, to reinforce my own legitimacy through ironic self-awareness. Embarrassing!) In a measured, diplomatic tone, he reminded me of the assault of a “little fifteen-year-old white girl” in police custody several years ago, and told me “it’s all coming home to roost.”

I realized, then, that my distinction between my own mature, well-reasoned desire to “fight systemic racism” and the “punk-ass white kids” who just wanted to rage against authority wasn’t as clear as I’d thought. For one thing, I, too was once a punk-ass suburban white kid. My thinly-veiled scorn for the “cute” sixteen-year-old blond girl’s “attention-grabby” actions probably represented, more than anything, a deep ambivalence about my own identity as a white person with many layers of privilege, and uncertainty about my own role in movements for social justice. I saw in her echoes of myself.

Can a cry of rage against systemic injustice be separated from anger towards those whose job it is to perpetuate an unjust system? There are good cops. Cops who really did get into the profession to “protect and serve.” At the same time, American policing is corrupt to the very bone. Our entire criminal “justice” system is rotten, veined with racism and capitalist greed. Are individual cops guilty by association for joining a force that often does more harm than good?

I’ve been a beneficiary of white privilege for my entire life. I’ve never had to fear the police; our system exists to preserve the privilege of those who look like me. I can’t in good conscience advocate respect for this system, which encompasses the increasing militarization of the police, a War on Drugs and for-profit prison system that gobbles up black lives, leaving in its wake broken families, decimated communities, and the despair of entrenched inequality.

The fact that some of the protesters undoubtedly had motives that were a jumble of genuine social concern and teenage angst and rebellious impulses and a desire for attention doesn’t obviate the validity of their concerns: There is something inherently sick in the impetus to exert homogenizing control over thinking, feeling, irreducibly complex individuals. There is something inherently anti-humanistic, corrupt, and twisted – inherently wrong – in our systems of authority.


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