Remember James Powell and Lt Thomas Gilligan?

Wednesday 7 January 2015

I’d been away for some time at the University of East Anglia (motto: “Do Different”)  where I spoke at a convention on the Role of the Village Idiot in Society.  It was a good meeting. We all came away with fresh energy and commitment to the practice of idiocy in our own villages. Upon my return to these shores, though, news of violence and turmoil over the deaths of two young men at police hands and of two young policemen assassinated by a vicious loser cast my thoughts back in time …

Boisterous teenaged boys are loitering on a city sidewalk one summer morning. They are of African descent, from other parts of the city. They are in this affluent white neighborhood to attend summer school at the junior high across the street. The superintendent of an apartment building, a man of Irish inclination, is hosing down the walk in front of his building. He tries to shoo the annoying youngsters away from the stoop. They ignore and then mock him. So he sprays them with water from his hose, scattering them into the street. Slurs and imprecations are hurled from either camp, then trashcan lids and bottles by the kids. Other newly-arriving teens now join the affray. At a flash point of temper, one of the latecomers chases the super into his building, where a brief altercation takes place out of view. As the youth exits he is seen by an armed off-duty much-decorated police lieutenant, also of the Irish style, who has just emerged from an electronics repair shop next door. The officer confronts the youth, showing his badge and gun. Three bullets, the second one mortal, boom from his sidearm. He claims that the adolescent had attacked him with a pocket knife (he displayed injuries on his arm as proof and such a knife was found near the curb). A police squadron arrives as several hundred highly distraught teens scream, shout, and assault them. With difficulty the school principal and cops restore order by afternoon.

The next morning, professional activists show up to organize and agitate, holding the death yet another case of epidemic police brutality. Protest and demonstration dissolve into mêlée, mayhem, malice, and every manner of mischief. It recalls a simile from Vergil:

     Ac veluti magno in populo cum saepe coorta est
     seditio, saevitque animis ignobile volgus,
     iamque faces et saxa volant—furor arma ministrat —

And just as when, often in a great multitude, an insurrection has arisen,
and the nameless mob grows wild in its passions,
and now torches and rocks fly — their rage supplies them weapons —

Tactical police troops are called in who bludgeon protestors and who in turn are pelted with brickbats and Molotov cocktails. Firing warning shots, they run out of ammunition; a fresh shipment is delivered by armored truck mounted with machine guns. The battle blazes for a week, leaving one other person dead, hundreds sent to hospitals, and property damage of one million dollars. At trial later, eye-witness accounts are Rashomon-like. It is learned that the young man was familiar to authorities and had brought two knives to school that morning. The lieutenant is acquitted of all charges. In half a dozen other cities similar riots erupt in solidarity. Thus begin almost ten years of summer riots across the United States.

Those events were fifty years ago, beginning Thursday 16 July 1964 in Yorktown on the Upper East Side, flowing north to Harlem, then over the river to Brooklyn. That very same day, as it happened, Barry Goldwater accepted the Republican party’s nomination as its presidential candidate in San Francisco. Out in Flushing Meadows, Queens, the New York World’s Fair was well underway, “Peace Through Understanding” its motto. And it was Freedom Summer. Lyndon Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act only two weeks earlier. Not one month had yet passed since Ku Klux Klan brutes murdered three young voting rights organizers down in Philadelphia, Mississippi. It was a very hot summer.

The human mind cannot take in or make sense of the chaos of real experience; only the divine can do that. The human mind’s efficiency is to sort that chaos into recognizable and memorable patterns of action, scripts for later reference. It makes symbols, analogies, and metaphors to give meaning to these patterns, to teach and to learn lessons from them, to make them portable through place and time. Such action patterns (or “narratives,” to use a current term) we call myths, stories which, while not factually true in each real detail, nonetheless convey knowledge. They are packets of meaning, stored and shared.

From such real cases as the one related above, as from those of Rodney King, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, and far too many others, a structured myth emerges: a young black person, usually male, usually between fifteen and thirty years of age, is engaged in some criminal activity of minor or grievous degree. A policeman, usually male, always white, attempts to check the activity or arrest the malefactor. The young black person resists the policeman’s authority, sometimes violently. The policeman responds, sometimes excessively. Almost always the policeman shoots a pistol at the young black person, who dies. Or it could be a severe beating. An immediate local display of outrage is taken over by persons who see in any one such particular event further proof of a general wrong or injustice and who arouse the passions of the multitude. Protest marches and demonstrations ensue, sometimes exciting more malevolent behavior. As in every good story, some initial harm or loss is suffered, followed by a complex working-out of the damage and a restoration of the normal state of things. But it is sometimes tragic, for undue suffering is often visited upon those who don’t deserve it. There is a brief journalistic apotheosis of the dead. At some point a ceremony is staged, rather like a tragic chorus. Important personages speak and attempt to teach lessons larger than the actual disturbance. People calm down, sadder and wiser. Before long it all happens again.

James Bowman, acute critic of journalism and man of Honor, writing recently in The New Criterion (Jan 2015, 68) about the media representation of the Brown and Garner deaths, expressed this distinction between chaotic reality and organizing mythology as one between content (facts) and context (the story or narrative): “It was enough that the victims were black and the policemen white for the whole matter to default to the classic paradigm on which the racial grievance industry has thrived for years, of white authority figures brutally exercising an illegitimate power over oppressed blacks.”

That “classic paradigm” is of course one version of this particular myth. There is another: the miscreants themselves, by their poor upbringing and consequent antisocial or illegal behavior, attracted due police attention to themselves and then either resisted or acted out against the arresting authority; the brave and dutiful policeman was mortally imperiled and resorted at last to legitimate use of lethal force; this one incident neither proves nor fits into a pattern of general injustice; it does prove the valor of — and the need for — police in protecting society from outlawry.

Neither story is wholly true, neither wholly false. But each is a meaningful distillation of complex and disturbing events. And the meaning intensifies with each iteration of events. With each fresh addition, with every retelling, the Tale acquires greater verisimilitude, greater power. Some people associate around this version, others around that one. We all belong to the species homo mythopoeticus. We cannot escape our own myth-making because that is very much who we are. It should not surprise, therefore, that journalists, no matter their professed standards of objectivity, also associate with one or the other version: it makes sense to them, it represents reality. Yet we are not at the mercy and whim of our inclinations. Nor must we fall victim to falsehood. We can with humility accept our ignorance of all the truth of any one thing. We must therefore recognize the danger of accepting any one story without acknowledging that some of the truth might lie in another telling of it.

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