Some three decades ago, I went to buy tickets for a major sports event. I was a teenager, eager to see top-class athletes in action; I woke early, caught a bus to the ticket box-office and joined the long queues that had already formed by the time I arrived. The lines grew and grew; tickets were sold slowly and inefficiently; the pushing and shoving began. There were policemen in charge of this mass of disorderly humanity; they decided to restore order by a series of pushes and shoves of their own.
I complied with orders: I moved, keeping my position in the queue. But clearly, I had not moved quickly enough. Suddenly, I received a hard blow to the back of my head. Stunned, my head spinning, I looked around to see what had happened. A policeman stood there, glaring at me, “What are you looking at! Move!” (This translated version sounds considerably milder than the original.) He was bigger than me; he carried a hefty baton that I knew could easily crack my skull open.
I hadn’t done anything wrong as far as I could tell; I had complied with instructions; I had been in the wrong time and in the wrong place, in the firing line for an officer of the law, one easily inclined to descend to violence when things didn’t go right, when his easily exhausted patience ran out. In the space of a few seconds, I had been physically chastised and humiliated; I had been put in my place; I had been reminded I had very little power when it came to confronting these guardians of the peace.
So I smarted and glowered and fumed. For days and weeks and afterwards, every policeman I saw reminded me of that day when I had been abruptly slapped upside the head and told to get my ass in gear. Later, in my university days, I heard a story of how a policeman had made the mistake of harassing two young men–out for a late night smoke and a stroll–who had decided to fight back. He didn’t have backup, and he had thought he could simply bully them the way he usually bullied his usual victims: the homeless, the initerant poor, the cabdrivers on a night-shift. They had grabbed his baton, thrown it away, and then delivered a series of quick blows to his head before running away into the night. When I heard this tale, I grinned and snickered. “Fuck that motherfucker. Serves him right. That’ll teach him a fucking lesson. He’ll think twice before he messes with some kids again.”
I was not a juvenile delinquent. I was not someone was repeatedly accosted by the police (though I had several more edgy encounters with them in my university days, all of them reminders of their ability to swiftly, crudely, bring blunt power to bear.) So I often wonder: if I could, thanks to one violent and disempowering encounter with the police, a humiliating and reductive one, develop such a chip on my shoulder, just how angry and resentful would someone get if such interactions were a daily or weekly occurrence?
I know, I know. I should have moved on. I should have brushed off that chip. I should have matured. But I wasn’t old enough to know better. And again, I know, that the cop who got beaten by those youngsters probably cracked down a little harder the next time he saw a couple of ‘punks’, and made sure he took some buddies with him to crack heads.
But pushing folks around, rendering them weak and vulnerable, reminding their of their helplessness in the face of those who enjoy a monopoly on coercion and the exercise of state power remains a deadly recipe for the generation of resentment and anger.