Freewriting About Power

Below is a Free-Write that I have been avoiding with my vain doggerel. I would appreciate anyone who reads this to comment and tell me if this is interesting to you and whether you’d like more of it. (Needless to say, I remember how Kiko was kicked to the curb & needs to be finished.) The long and 20121221-075414.jpgthe short of this essay is that I see police abuse as focused through the “Black Lives Matter” paradigm as an institutionalization of power in the “enslavement model” of Jim Crow crystallizing throughout our society. What was once reserved for Blacks in a segregated society is not liberally employed in keeping the citizens from access to the power of the polity.

1/10/16 Longhand Intro

We live in a world where the institutions themselves have become the power. The leaders are no longer in charge of them and those who implement the institutions’ work are unable to make any meaningful improvements in the functions of the system. To ossify this system any challenges to the workings of the organization are immediately read as a challenge to the authority of the petty bureaucrat implementing the will of the oligarchical system’s dictates rather than a complaint by anyone who has any valid standing to protest. We are caught up in the momentum of a system that was designed by a committee who work for a status quo which has benefitted them. By inflexibly enforcing extant rules these people effectively deny the vast majority of citizens entry into the polity they claim to be serving.  Sheesh, this is vague and obtuse; I am trying to state simply that people’s loyalty to institutions, expressed by meticulously following and enforcing rigid rules, often burnished with the attitude of a bruised ego, denies all but the most bureaucratically adept most of their privileges and rights.

Here’s an example. an easy one; in 1984 I was trying to vote for Jesse Jackson in the democratic primary. I had registered to vote and was super excited to cast my ballot at the local catholic school, at 127th and Morningside. I walked in and waited on line to get my signature verified or whatever the institution demanded. The women behind the table, each dressed like someone’s stereotype of a Black church lady didn’t cotton to my messenger attire (cycling cap, sack, jacket,protest T-shirt, etc). She looked at her copy of the 3 part NCR roster  did not find my name (I’m not sure if she checked my 1st name [a last name] or my last name [a French version of a common 1st name is my “family curse”). When I showed the slightest at her glacial search for my names she closed the book, looked up at me from under her purple hat and over her reading glasses and told me “You are not registered to vote!” I was dismissed.

  1. Frederick Douglass in his Narrative writes of his earliest interactions with power: “I was not allowed to make any inquiries of my master concerning it. He deemed all such inquiries on the part of a slave improper and impertinent, and evidence of a restless spirit” (Douglass 1). He was not allowed to ask any questions. Further, the very act of a Black asking questions suggested a social malady of some sort to the person in power. I am pretty sure that I don’t like my students to ask too many questions, I explain that all the rules are written on the syllabus.  In a strange way I am the same as “Captain Anthony.” I try to reinforce the status quo that exists between  professors and their students, teachers and their charges. This hierarchy has existed since Kindergarten and Confucius and Plato. I just want my piece of the power. There is a thin line between the order I need to teach, and the capricious authority I like to feel that I need to feel superior to my charges. I have to look into my soul daily. Am I annoyed because he or she isn’t understanding me and my lessons, or because they are challenging my authority? I have been chastised for being too laxed with my students, but I remember hating the obvious expressions of personal power that Mr. Spillane, my 10th grade science teacher imposed on me and my class. The teachers I loved always explained why things had to be the way they were; they did not simply declare them.
  2. I digress. This is not about me, my job, or how I manage my life. This is about the capricious powers that institutions create and enforce through rote momentum. (thesis?)
  3. Frederick Douglass, on the first page of the first canonical work of African American Literature declares that it was “impertinent” to question authority. This was, presumably, an important lesson, since it was 1. the first lesson in his autobiography & 2. it was one that he writes that his father taught him.  To the whites who would buy his book in droves making Douglass a force in publishing and abolitionism to be reckoned with, he was telling the cruelty of absolute and capricious power. To the few Blacks who might have been literate (reading was a crime for the enslaved) and wealthy enough to purchase or fortunate “get”  this book, he was commiserating about the unwritten rules of Jim Crow where you had to be deferential to people simply because of your skin color, not their merit. Similarly, when my student s file into my class, and take one of the desks, I expect a certain patina of respect. I will be grading them, and they must seek my approval. The “better me” wants them to respect me not because I will grade them, but because I have the skills and tools that will allow them to go further than my classroom.       
  4. I am not a sociologist, historian or criminologist, I come to this through literature. Sadly, I must confess that I have made no real study of the literary analysis or study of policing per say. However as a man who has always been non-white, the issue of policing has always been important. From the time that in 10th grade my name “sounded Black” to the father of a young woman I was sweet on in Boston public schools, to timeS that I was singled out because my friends were darker or lighter than I by the police this power has interested me. Further, as a fairly bourgeois “good subject” I have also participated in the stigmatization of non-traditional, underclass and “poor” ways of being ( I had a poster of MLK that was captioned “I has a dream…” in graduate school). D. A. Miller, one of my professors at UC Berkeley, wrote about this in the introduction to The Novel and The Police

[Control] centers not on the police, in the modern institutional shape they acquire in Western liberal culture during the 19th century, but on the ramification within the same culture of less visible, less visibly violent modes of ‘social control.’ A power that, like the police, theoretically displays its repressiveness becomes of interest here only in relation to an extralegal series of ‘micro-powers’ disseminating and dissembling their effects in the wings of that spectacle. (Miller viii)

Miller writes about how power’s real work takes place in the peripheral vision of order’s spectacle. The hat, the badge, the pistol outside of their clothes are all reminders of the fact that these women and men represent state power or the power of the state. This is, by extension, a representation of the order and harmony (or repression) that we expect of a well run society. I, the socially compliant and obedient subject, see the police as a necessarily enforcing the appropriate behavior of the society that I am most comfortable in. Additionally, I, and we, are willing to accept some curtailing of our “lesser rights” to have a comfortable environment (which favors me) to operate and thrive in.

  1. That said, I bristle at the deference that our society demands for certain of the institutions and institutors that we rely on. Perhaps this is the bitter ravings of a member of PSC-CUNY, a weak and toothless union to whom the state chooses not to even make a contract offer. The police, fire and sanitation all have reasonable offers made by repeated administrations (I digress because I’m a bit bitter). I started this analysis of power with my job because, interestingly, I feel like I have less authority than many of the clerks who administer the college I teach at. Students can negotiate with me, whereas they cannot with the registrar. bursar, the testing office, the tutors, the cafeteria and, of course, security.  I know that there are professors who do not negotiate with their charges, but I think that the trust and student teacher rapport is one of the things that allowed me to graduate from CUNY as a working adult in 1992. Did I make every deadline? No, but I did complete every assignment and I had an open relationship with the instructors and professors that meant the most to my undergraduate education.
  2. Institutional loyalty
    (Man this is an awkward place to leave off)

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