James Baldwin On A White Policeman’s Eyes

In James Baldwin‘s If Beale Street Could Talk (Bantam, New York, 1974) Fonny, a young black man, is in jail for rape–his supposed victim’s eyewitness identification is probably mistaken; ‘outside,’ his pregnant girlfriend, Tish, wonders about the policeman, Bell, who arrested Fonny. Bell had wanted to arrest Fonny for assault ever since he had violently defended Tish from a young Italian man’s unwelcome advances, and had only been thwarted by a white bystander, an Italian woman who owned the store Tish was shopping in.

Now, as the Tish’s family fights to prove Fonny’s innocence, Tish is haunted by Bell; she knows his name; she ‘sees’ him everywhere; she has memorized his badge number. Since that day Tish first met Bell, he has come to reside in her self as an abiding memory, an unforgettable and disturbing impression:

I had certainly seen him before that particular afternoon, but he had been just another cop. After that afternoon, he had read hair and blue eyes. He walked the way John Wayne walks, striding out to clean up the universe, and he believed all that shit: a wicked, stupid, infantile motherfucker. Like his heroes, he was kind of pigheaded, heavy gutted, big assed, and his eyes were as blank as George Washington’s eyes. But I was beginning to learn something about the blankness of those eyes. What I was learning was beginning to frighten me to death. If you look steadily into that unblinking blue, into that pinpoint at the center of the eye, you discover a bottomless cruelty, a viciousness cold and icy. In that eye, you do not exist: if you are lucky. If that eye, from its height, has been forced to notice you, if you do exist in the unbelievably frozen winter which lives behind that eye, you are marked, marked, marked, like a man in a black overcoat, crawling, fleeing, across the snow. The eye resents your presence in the landscape, cluttering up the view. Presently, the black overcoat will be still, turning red with blood, and the snow will be red, and the eye resents this, too, blinks once, and causes more snow to fall, covering it all. Sometimes I was with Fonny when I crossed Bell’s path, sometimes I was alone. When I was with Fonny, the eyes looked straight ahead, into a freezing sun. When I was alone, the eyes clawed me like a cat’s claws, raked me like a rake. These eyes look only into the eyes of the conquered victim. They cannot look into any other eyes. When Fonny was alone, the same thing happened. Bell’s eyes swept over Fonny’s black body with the unanswerable cruelty of lust, as though he had lit the blowtorch and had it aimed at Fonny’s sex. When their paths crossed, and I was there, Fonny looked straight at Bell, Bell looked straight ahead. I’m going to fuck you, boy, Bell’s eyes said. [pp. 185-186.]

Only Baldwin, I think, could have captured–in quite this way–the aura the black man feels radiating out at him from a policeman: the resentment, the sense of being marked as a target, the implicit and explicit violence, the desire to destroy whatever it is that makes him into a man who can hold his head high. The policed see and experience the police very differently; they know they are looked at through a different lens.

NYPD: In New York, Protests Are A Terror Threat

There truly can be no police department more tone-deaf, more insensitive, more colossally, thickly stupid and offensive than the New York Police Department. Consider, for instance, its latest announcement, that of the formation of a special anti-terror unit:

A brand new unit of 350 NYPD officers will roam the city with riot gear and machine guns, trained specifically to respond to terrorist threats and public demonstrations, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton announced….

“[The unit] is designed to deal with events like our recent protests or incidents like Mumbai, or what just happened in Paris,” Bratton said Thursday. “It will be equipped and trained in ways that our normal patrol officers are not.”

He added that the unit would be suited up with, “extra heavy protective gear, with the long rifles and the machine guns that are unfortunately sometimes necessary in these instances.”

You got that? The ‘recent protests’ –i.e., those protesting the choking to death of an asthmatic man by a NYPD officer, the shooting of a teenager in Ferguson or a twelve-year old in Cleveland, are just like the killings of innocent people in Mumbai and Paris. That is, citizens exercising their First Amendment rights by marching on the streets, raising slogans, and blocking traffic, are a terror threat just like those who throw hand grenades and gun down men, women, and children.

The announcement of this special anti-terror unit has, I’m sure, has sent the more trigger-happy members of Bratton’s corps into quivers of firearm-induced  tumescence. But before those lads get a little too giddy in anticipation of watching and listening to things that go ‘boom’, and enjoying the spectacle of their targets flopping to the ground in convulsions of pain and agony, I have some questions to ask.

What does Bratton imagine his ‘special terror unit’ doing when a protest gets a little loud, when the slogans of protesters hit a little too close too home, when their die-ins go on a little too long, when their chants of ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ or ‘I Can’t Breathe’ get a little too aggravating? Will the officers in charge set up special machine-gun nests, arrange their ammunition belts in neat little stacks, and then open fire, making sure they distribute their payloads evenly and accurately so that the thousands of bullets they emit find their targets unerringly? Will they wait till they see the ‘whites of their eyes’? Will they keep firing till the barrels of their machine-guns overheat, or will they stop occasionally to let them cool off? Will they rely on snipers–like the kind glorified recently by Hollywood–to blow out the brains of those who have somehow survived the initial barrage of fire? Will we have to rename Union Square ‘the killing field’?

If Bratton could put down his video game controller and his armament requisition forms for a bit and address these questions, I, and many other citizens of this city, would be most grateful.