Josna Rege

386. When the Law Breaks the Law

In 1970s, 2010s, history, places, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on July 16, 2016 at 10:47 am
(from layoverguide.com)

(from layoverguide.com)

I remember vividly the first time I witnessed law enforcement breaking the law, and it was terrifying. It was one evening in the fall of 1970 on the way to an anti-Vietnam War rally on the Boston Common. Two of my Brookline-High classmates and I had taken the trolley in together, and our English teacher, Mrs. Metzger, had said that she would give us credit if we wrote an essay on the experience. (She was that kind of teacher—we adored her.) I was sixteen.

Boston Common (worldeasyguides.com)

The Boston Common (worldeasyguides.com)

The Boston Common, dating all the way back to 1634, is the oldest city park in the United States, a 50-acre haven of green smack-dab in the middle of downtown Boston, with the State House directly to the north of it, the shopping district to the east and south, and the Public Garden to the west. The Common and the Public Garden are criss-crossed by a well-kept network of internal walking paths, flanked by flower-beds, benches, and bronze sculptures depicting George Washington and Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings.

Make Way for Ducklings sculpture in Boston Public Garden; photo by Lorianne DiSabato (statesymbolsusa.org)

Make Way for Ducklings sculpture in Boston Public Garden; photo by Lorianne DiSabato (statesymbolsusa.org)

Gail, Caren, and I were strolling down one of the paths without a care in the world, happy to be out together, and chatting away nineteen to the dozen (or at least, I was). We must have been heading toward the square within view of the golden dome of the State House, where many of the events, including public demonstrations, are centered. But suddenly, on a dime, things turned nasty. While we were talking, an army of police vehicles had encircled us, crashed onto the Common, and were not only driving down the walking paths, but across the lawns. They were shouting something through bullhorns, but we couldn’t make out any words. It was terrifying to see them coming at us from all directions, and to see the public order we had always observed obediently and taken for granted being overturned by the very forces of law and order.

Although I was the one whose idea it had been to come, I was also the one who panicked, while Gail, heretofore the apolitical one, now took charge, keeping perfectly calm. She steered us to the side of the path and we waited, keeping as much out of the way as was possible, while cop cars cut across the Common in all directions and people scattered chaotically, screaming and scrambling to get out of their way.

Mary Ann Vecchio screams as she kneels over the body of fellow student Jeffrey Miller during an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University, Ohio, May 4, 1970. Four students were killed when Ohio National Guard troops fired at some 600 anti-war demonstrators. A cropped version of this image won the Pulitzer Prize. (Photo by John Filo/Getty Images)

Mary Ann Vecchio screams as she kneels over the body of fellow student Jeffrey Miller during an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University, Ohio, May 4, 1970. Four students were killed when Ohio National Guard troops fired at some 600 anti-war demonstrators. A cropped version of this image won the Pulitzer Prize. (Photo by John Filo/Getty Images)

That was 1970, and looking back, it sometimes seems like an age of innocence. But in fact it had only been a few short months since May, when college students at Kent State and Jackson State had been shot and killed by police and the entire country had erupted in protest. The war was raging at home as well as in Southeast Asia, and we were well aware of it. Nevertheless, this first-hand evidence of police over-reaction came as a shock to us, sheltered teens from the suburbs and especially for me, as an immigrant who had been in the country for less than a year.

Still, protests and all, 1970 was an age of innocence in comparison to the state of affairs today. Since then, it seems, police forces across the United States have become increasingly militarized (see this clip and another from The Colbert Report), and police killings of civilians are a daily occurrence. (See the U.K. Guardian’s site, The Counted, for a continuously updated record of all the people killed by the U.S. police: the year-to-date count is 587,  in mid-July 2016.) 

Paramilitary police forces face off against peaceful protesters, Baltimore , 1 May, 2015. (Bryan MacCormack/Left in Focus)

Paramilitary police forces face off against peaceful protesters, Baltimore , 1 May, 2015. (Bryan MacCormack/Left in Focus)

The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that “no person shall. . .be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Since when has the practice of law enforcement forces, both at home and abroad, been Shoot to Kill? Are we living in the Wild West, with a practice of Shoot first, ask questions later? What happened to the hallowed democratic principles of the rule of law, due process of law, and habeas corpus (more like habeas corpse these days), let alone the presumption of innocence, the concept that a person charged with a crime is innocent until proven guilty?

Black Lives Matter Protest, Chicago, 2015 (from Christian Science Monitor, photo: Paul Beaty/AP)

Black Lives Matter Protest, Chicago, 2015 (from Christian Science Monitor, photo: Paul Beaty/AP)

The ubiquity of guns, in the hands of people and the police alike, surely has something to do with the frightening escalation, as does the ideology of perpetual war that has militarized our culture and society, with warspeak pervading the news media and our vocabulary so as to cover up the naked truth and numb our natural responses with euphemisms for killing such as “neutralizing” and “taking out”.

With the general public belatedly becoming aware—thanks to the courageous Black Lives Matter movement—of the reality of police violence in the U.S. that people of color have been experiencing first-hand all along, people are finally saying, Enough!, and in numbers too large to ignore. The charge of the police is To Protect and to Serve: it’s time to remind them who it is they are supposed to be serving. Even conjuring up the specter of global terrorism is no longer enough to scare people into submission. The mask has come off, and the face underneath is ugly. We must demand that law enforcement upholds the law. 

make-way-for-ducklings-1950

Police Take Notice: Make way for ducklings!

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  1. […] 386. When the Law Breaks the Law (G) […]

  2. I’ve ‘liked’ this post, Josna, poignantly and eloquently written, but I do not like the message, not one little bit. I recently listened to the US Ambassador in London on the radio recounting that when British students are asked what the US means to them their response to him is ‘Guns’ — they want to know why, why, why is this obscene unchecked blemish blighting America. And of course he was unable to give them a sensible reason because no-one can.

    The US is most militarised nation in the world, we’re told, has been responsible for initiating or abetting most of the major conflicts since the Second World War. Violence is now endemic in its culture, including the forces that are supposedly there to maintain the peace. I feel sorry for Obama — a diplomatic and peace-loving president who has somehow been made a bogeyman for trying to curb the proliferation of death-dealing instruments. How has it come to this.

    In the meantime you must have been terrified, Josna, by that experience all those decades ago — and it’s clearly still strong and disturbing in your memory all this time later. “To protect and to serve” must ring very hollow; it’s reminiscent of “Truth, Justice and the American Way” that that archetypal extraterrestrial alien Superman believed in (or at least hoped for) which it’s hard for us outsiders to ever take without a snort of cynicism.

    • Thank you for your eloquent reply. and yes, it is difficult to ‘Like’ the subject matter. It is hard to look the facts about rampant violence–at home and abroad–in the face and say in all sincerity that this is a great nation, even though there is a lot to admire and appreciate about its people, its basic founding principles, and some of its public institutions. It certainly does have by far the most powerful military in the world, and such a powerful arms industry that no one in government, even the President, the Commander-in-Chief of the military, can seem to stand up to it. Violence and lawlessness seem to be endemic, going all the way back to the Wild West. When presidential candidates can openly threaten their critics with violence, can there be said to be any respect for the rule of law. It’s a very sad state of affairs.

  3. A very disturbing situation that seems, as you say, to be getting worse. The world sees America as the opposite of what it is supposed to be. It is not the home of the brave; the land of the free, but the home of the scared; the land of guns & violence.
    You show us clearly that this is no longer acceptable to many of your people, and I hope they can do something about it.
    I also like the response of calmgrove above. Obama, a good man & a lover of peace, has faced so much unjustified criticism and condemnation just because he is black. The main problem for him is that he has been for so long a voice crying in the wilderness.

    • Thank you for your comment, Linda. Yes, things do seem to be getting worse. The U.S. is a country of contradictions, and we are rapidly surpassing the British during colonialism in our reputation of being hypocrites, and doing just the opposite of what we profess.
      The country is in turmoil and either the forces of peace and progress will seize the day, or it will be seized by the forces of something closely resembling fascism, a word I don’t like to use lightly.
      Yes, President Obama has faced a lot of opposition simply because he is black. I agree that he is a good man, a real statesman, and he and Michelle Obama will be sorely missed. He is a self-proclaimed centrist, though, and although he has been much more measured and restrained in his policies regarding foreign intervention and militarism than many of the candidates who were running for office in this election, and has been prevented from acting throughout his presidency by resistance from his political opponents, I personally wouldn’t go so far as to say that he has been a force for peace. But in the United States a President can only do so much; the country is really run by the ultra-rich and powerful.
      Forgive me for sounding pessimistic; but this past couple of weeks, with the conventions of both the powerful political parties have been gruelling.

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