Wednesday, June 29, 2011

June 29, 2011: Fits the Profile

In both the Preface to my just-released book and my March 10th post here I argued that Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots)” responds to the Amadou Diallo case by creating a sympathetic portrayal of both the undercover police officers and the unarmed victim (before moving on to even broader and more sweeping questions of race, nation, community, and identity). I think Springsteen’s song most definitely does work to extend its sympathies in both directions, and think moreover (as I wrote in both those spots) that the stakes of finding connections between such seemingly and violently divided Americans are incredibly high. But as with any complex and dark historical event, the Diallo shooting can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be boiled down to a single narrative, and it’s important to add that those who would read the shooting as an example of racial profiling and/or police brutality have a case: the undercover cops were looking for the suspect in a violent rape and identified Diallo as that suspect because he lived in the same building and, yes, was the same race; and even if they did believe him to have a weapon, they shot at him 41 times at close range, a level of response for which the word “brutality” does not feel inappropriate.
So as with most of the events and questions about which I’ve written here, the answer would have to be that there is no one answer: that the cops in the Diallo case were likely similar to their victim in being afraid for their lives (the communal connection to which Springsteen’s title phrase initially refers), and that humanizing their perspective and emotions as well as Diallo’s is a fair and important response; but that they were also likely acting out of some of the worst perspectives and emotions that those in power can embody, the kinds of oppressive and brutal attitudes that not only reflect but can also further communal divisions along racial, cultural, social, and other lines. If this mixed narrative of the event seems unsatisfying, I would argue that one of the main reasons is precisely that meta-narratives tend to depend on more simplifying and unified concepts: so on the one hand policies or practices of racial profiling link all members of a certain racial or ethnic community to one another and to certain negative traits or actions, while excluding any other, and especially all individual, attributes or characteristics of those people; while on the other, similar hand narratives of police brutality define police officers solely through their collective power and abuses of same, while generally excluding any sense of the officers as individuals with their own complex emotions, perspectives, and identities.
I obviously think that it’s important to get beyond such narratives, and that virtually all historical events cannot be fully understood, much less analyzed and engaged with, until and unless we do. But I’ll also be the first to admit that at times it’s very difficult not to give in to the simpler narratives, particularly when it comes to oppressive and violent events. What led me to think about the Diallo case again is another, ongoing controversy, this time over police shootings of unarmed, black New Orleans residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And what makes this case significantly more troubling is the place where it diverges from the Diallo shooting: here again, as the news story at the first link indicates, police officers believed themselves to be threatened and shot first; but apparently in this case, when the officers discovered that their victims were unarmed, they immediately concocted a cover up, a false story about being fired upon, and stuck to it for years afterward. The desire to lie in order to escape responsibility, especially for horrifying actions like these (and with the consequences that would follow from admitting that responsibility), is of course another human emotion; but when it leads to a systematic and broad cover up, to efforts by multiple authority figures (including the officer who has now come forward to reveal the truth) to further stigmatize the victims rather than deal with the harsh realities of the case in question, it’s simple but accurate to call this police brutality and corruption at its most profound.
Perhaps the ultimate point here is similarly simple, at least in theory: every incident and event needs to be investigated, examined, and analyzed on its own terms, with larger narratives and contexts acknowledged but not taken for granted or assumed. Sometimes those analyses will lead to more positive perspectives or answers, to ideas about what connects rather than what divides us; sometimes they’ll reveal and indeed reaffirm the worst of what we can be and have been. But at the end of the day, the result will be a fuller and more accurate profile of American history and identity, of what we’ve been and of where we go from there. More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      A story on the post-Katrina cover-up:
2)      A long but very thorough Dept of Justice study on racial profiling practices:
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

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