Saturday, November 29, 2014

Michael Brown and Civility

It was my wedding day, and I made a polite request for people to leave if they were not in the wedding party so we could conduct the rehearsal. Believe it or not, some friends and relatives decided that they didn’t need to comply with my request, and made that known. Also, believe it or not, I lost my temper…much to the consternation of several people present.

Several weeks later, my best man’s wife asked me about the event. I told her that I was upset that I couldn’t make a simple request and have it respected and honored. She suggested that perhaps my expectations were too high, that I didn’t have a right to expect people to act the way I would like.

It’s been several years, and I still remember that conversation…and it still bothers me. The foundations of civil society begin with people making simple requests (that neither pick my pocket nor break my leg, as one of our founding fathers said (was it Franklin or Jefferson?)), and having those requests honored. Imagine asking that someone pass the salt, and you are either ignored or denied. Or move a little to the left. Or any one of countless requests that exist on a continuum from ‘can you wait just a moment’ to ‘can you spare a kidney’.

Our reactions depend on several factors: what is the relationship between the parties? Parent to child, friends, child to parent? How was the request made? Politely, as a demand, or as an order. Is the request timely? Is there urgency? Am I in fact able to complete the request? Is my response fair to other people (a child asking for an increase in allowance, without consideration of other siblings, for instance)? And many more, including some that are purely selfish.

But we provide responses, one way or the other. We pass the salt, don’t increase the allowance, donate the kidney.

Michael Brown was asked to move out of the center of the street. The exact form of the request is muddled, but could be among the following:

Could you please move to the sidewalk?

Get out of the street and onto the sidewalk.

Get the F*** out of the center of the street.

In this case, the request came from a police officer, and Michael Brown and his friend chose not to comply. In fact, the evidence shows that Michael Brown responded with violence, and with tragic consequences.

The tales from Ferguson are that there is great mistrust between the black population and the police department, factors including disproportionate minority hiring, a history of abuse, a disproportionate crime rate, and again, many more.

So I return to my opening story for a comparison. Officer Wilson made a seemingly simple request, although the tone is unknown. The authority relationship is clear. The response is burning history. Civility is drowned.

Instead, we have an unclear vision of the relationship between the police department and the civilian population. Are the police respected? Are they wanted? To what degree? In addition to discriminating between right and wrong, officers are now supposed to account for attitude, and along a non-linear scale. If someone refuses to comply with a request, is the officer supposed to just shrug his shoulders and say ‘oh well’? Or are they expected to react in accordance with their oath and training? Is the presence of a set of rules for police to follow inherently racist because the nature of the logic is based on white man’s culture and history? Are the rules supposed to be different because of the color of the person’s skin?

I can’t remember if it was Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton who said that any interaction between a white police officer and a black person is racist. Or was that any police officer? Or any white person? I’ll say that it doesn’t matter. If any interaction between a person in one category and a black person is inherently racist, then I have no idea how to interact. I have my basic rules of civility. It starts with what I say above. If there is a different set that I need to understand, then I need them clarified.

Instead, I see a society moving in a direction that says right and wrong are what individuals decide they are at this time in these circumstances, based on what they feel (note: feel, not think). Authority and government are expected to identify, recognize, account for, and accommodate those feelings each time, or ‘civil rights may be violated’. Cost, equal protection, uniformity, and for that matter, sanity, are no longer considerations.

Ferguson, and all of us, will lose more than we realize if we don’t have to respect authority, if we can make the rules up as we go along. I’ll go out on a limb and say that a lack of equal protection, perceived or otherwise, also involves thinking that there are two sets of rules.

Several years ago we drove to visit my parents on a holiday weekend. The drive took five hours, twice as long as usual, and my mother was very angry. After dinner we drove to the hotel. It was about 10:30, and I waited behind this other woman to check in. After the basics of checking in, she and the clerk engaged in idle conversation for at least 10 minutes. They both knew I was there, but I waited patiently until she left. For some reason the hotel did not have my reservation and they were booked solid for the night. Also, we had the dog, so our choices were very limited.

As the clerk was trying to locate accommodations nearby, the woman comes back to the front desk. She asked if she could interrupt the clerk to ask him for a cup for coffee. I told her ‘no’.