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.
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.
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.
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.)
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?
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.
Police Take Notice: Make way for ducklings!